Gaslighting is a conscious or an unconscious form of psychological manipulation, which happens when another person confuses a victim and makes them believe they are the one at fault (1).
Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting, especially if they are in an abusive relationship. Gaslighting is a common technique of abusers, authoritarians, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done gradually, and in precise stages, so the victim does not find out that they are being gaslighted. The abuse is subtle at first, where the abuser can challenge a small story. For example, the abuser will make the person believe that they were wrong and force them to move on from their trauma.
However, in later stages, the abuser may challenge the person’s memory and make them believe that they are distorting the event itself. There are some representations in the media, such as the movie Gaslight (1944), where a man influences his wife to the point where she thinks she is psychotic.
Stages of Gaslighting
According to Dr. Gary Bell (2), there are seven stages of gaslighting which are apparent in an abusive relationship. Please keep in mind that the order and the number of steps may differ, depending on the situation.
Stage 1: Lie and Exaggerate
In this stage, the person who is gaslighting generates an undesirable description of the person who is being gaslighted. For example, the gaslighter may say “There is something wrong and incompetent about you”. This generalized false accusation is based on a biased view, rather than an objective one. Thus, this may make the gaslightee believe that there is something wrong about their perspective of things.
Stage 2: Repetition
Here, the gaslighter repeats the false accusations over and over again to keep the gaslightee under control. The gaslighter also dominates the relationship using this tactic because the other person is unable to have a productive conversation without being criticized.
Stage 3: Escalate when Challenged
When the gaslighter is caught, they make the situation worse for the other person by increasing their attacks, using denial, blame and more false accusations. This causes more harm to the person who is being gaslighted, as they dwell into more confusion and a state of shock.
Stage 4: Wear out the Victim
The gaslighter keeps getting more offensive every day, which in turn wears down their victim emotionally, mentally and even physically. The victim becomes disheartened, submissive, cynical, dreadful, weakened and self-doubting at this stage. In some severe case, the victims start to question their sanity as everything around them starts to overwhelm them.
Stage 5: Form Co-dependent Relationships
Co-dependency is categorized by a person belonging to a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person over relies on the other person. This over-relying is used to fulfil emotional, mental and self-esteem needs. The gaslighter always creates anxiety and insecurity in the other person, which makes them very vulnerable. The gaslighter is so dominant in this relationship that they have the power to grant recognition, endorsement, respect, security, and wellbeing. However, the gaslighter can take all these things away when they want. Hence, a co-dependent relationship is based on fear, marginalization and extreme defencelessness.
Stage 6: Give False Hope
A gaslighter may use a manipulative tactic to treat the victim with kindness and some love, to give them false hope that things will get better. Due to the co-dependency aspect, this step will be more natural for the gaslighter, because the victim is usually over-relying on the gaslighter. In this context, the victim may think: ‘Maybe they’re really not that bad, and they love me after all.”
But, please do not fall for this. This is a well-planned scheme to inspire satisfaction. This happiness is short-term before the gaslighting begins again.
Stage 7: Dominate and Control
The long-term goal of a person who is gaslighting is to dominate and take control of the relationship. They like to be in power and have people do what they say. This allows them to take advantage of the other person and also harm them drastically.
How to Spot If You Are Being Gaslighted
At first, this might be very challenging to spot if you are being gaslighted, because you might be in a state of utter confusion. Dr Robin Stern wrote a book The Gaslight Effect: how to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life (3). She talked about how gaslighting can occur in different relationships such as in the office, in our friendships, between parents and children, and even intimate relationships. She states that this is a form of psychological abuse, due to which we must spot it as soon as possible. She called this, a Gaslight Tango.
You can take care of yourself by taking a look at yourself through another trusted friend, a professional counsellor or just by questioning yourself honestly. Here are the signs:
• You are often feeling disorganized and unwise
• You are regularly second-guessing yourself
• You ask yourself “if you are too sensitive”, several times a day
• You are always apologizing to your significant other
• You are still making excuses for your partner’s behaviour at work and with friends
• You have trouble making naive decisions
• You know something is wrong, but you cannot put the finger on what it is
• You are not happy, and you don’t know why
• You feel hopeless and sadly most of the time
• You question your ability
• You question your worth several times a day
• You avoid explaining yourself to your partner because you seem to do it very often
Examples of Gaslighting
Here are some common phrases that you might hear if you are being gaslighted:
• Why are you so sensitive all the time?
• You are just making things up in your head.
• You are overreacting!
• You talk like that because you are just so insecure!
• Stop acting crazy; otherwise, I will leave you!
• There you go again, you’re always so ungrateful.
• Nobody believes you, why should I?
• You’re nothing special, just a compulsive liar.
Hearing all these things can cause significant harm to your mental health, but you can get out of it. Remember, all this may seem challenging, but you have the power to take back your reality. If you feel like this is too much for you to handle on your own, reach out for help. There are many people around you, such as your friends, family, and even strangers, who will try to assist you when you reach out. You have to identify a support network that can help you get through this difficult time.