Gaslighting: the signs you are being emotionally abused

Have you recently started to question yourself due to someone else’s actions? Gaslighting is a form of domestic emotional abuse and manipulation that often causes a victim to question their own feelings, judgements and even their sanity. If this sounds familiar, rest assured you are not going crazy and help is at hand.

We speak to psychologist Sam Owen, author of Anxiety Free and founder of Relationships Coach, about how to spot gaslighting and overcome emotional abuse:

What is gaslighting?

The term actually comes from the 1944 film Gaslight – starring Ingrid Begman and Charles Boyer – where a husband deliberately tries to manipulate his wife by dimming the lights in their house – and denying it when she asks him about it.

Boyer’s character Gregory also hides his wife Paula’s jewellery and then accuses her of losing it, and even takes pictures off the wall and insists she removed them. Gregory manages to convince Paula that he loves her and will look after her, while she becomes increasingly dependent on him and unable to see that he is in fact the cause of her misery.

Today there is no single definition of gaslighting and the experience can differ from person-to-person, but the term has generally been adopted to refer to a relationship in which the victim is made to doubt his or her own sanity, because of the control someone has over them.

Why do people gaslight?

Like many forms of abuse, the perpetrator often does it to maintain control. Distorting a person’s reality is part of a pattern of control for many abusers. This type of mental torment is used successfully by torturers and terrorists who know that they can keep their prisoners compliant by frightening them and disorientating them with rapidly changing moods and situations. In a domestic situation, the more a person doubts their own judgment, the easier it is for their abuser to control them.

Unlike physical domestic violence but similar to other forms of emotional abuse, gaslighting is often difficult to spot because there are no obvious physical signs. Worryingly, to an outsider, the perpetrator may appear to be the perfect, caring partner.

The more a person doubts their own judgment, the easier it is for their abuser to control them.

Gaslighting isn’t just restricted to romantic relationships; the manipulator can be anyone from your boss, to a friend, a relative and even a parent. But however you experience it, gaslighting is a serious form of emotional abuse.

‘Gaslighting is a form of ongoing psychological abuse and control whereby the manipulator makes the victim question and doubt him or herself, their perception, memories, self-image, self-worth and sanity,’ explains Owen. ‘The danger is that you lose your self-esteem and identity, become despondent, and eventually you and your life can become under someone else’s control,’ he adds.

Gaslighting examples

Anger and intimidation are common techniques for an abuser to use to maintain control over their partner, to make them comply with their demands. However, gaslighting techniques are often much more subtle. Extreme jealousy and possessiveness, for example, can be dressed up to look like care or concern.

According to Owen, the warning signs that you might be the victim of gaslighting include the following:

• Self-doubt

If you find yourself questioning things you wouldn’t normally question, such as your personality or your actions, and without good reason, you may be the subject of gaslighting.

• Continuous conflict

If you find you are constantly up against a battle with the perpetrator that doesn’t ever seem to resolve itself, you may well be in a gaslighting situation.

• Frequent accusations

If you find accusations frequently levelled at you, with the person giving little thought to other possible explanations or solutions for the matter being discussed, this is a common gaslighting technique. Accusations are usually unfounded or exaggerated and when you try to question them, they escalate the conflict so as to subdue you into submission and acceptance of something that isn’t even factual, eg something that you ‘keep doing wrong’ or something that is ‘wrong with you’.

The effects of gaslighting

Gaslighting and any form of emotional or physical abuse can lead a person to develop mental health concerns. Constant self-doubt can contribute to anxiety, hopelessness, low self-esteem and depression.

If any of the following sound familiar, we recommend you seek help:

  • You alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react.
  • Your personality feels attacked.
  • Is your partner charming one minute and abusive the next?
  • You keep doubting yourself.
  • You regularly feel confused and feel like you’re going ‘crazy’.
  • You feel increasingly insecure.
  • Your partner trivialises your emotions.
  • Your partner refuses to listen to you.
  • Your partner questions your memory, even though you remember correctly.
  • Your partner denies or ‘forgets’ promises, plans or things you have said.

How to deal with gaslighting

If you think you might be a victim of gaslighting and your physical safety is at risk, then it is important that you seek help.

If you feel your physical safety is not threatened, Owen recommends the following ways in which you can respond to the situation:

✔️ You have to be frank with the perpetrator no matter how much they escalate things every time you try to be. By staying quiet out of fear of escalation, you are playing right into their manipulative hands.

✔️ Always stand by your own decisions or things that you have said in order to maintain your independence. You might find it useful to keep a record of events in a diary so that you can go back to it if you start to doubt yourself.

✔️ Talk to someone you know and trust, or speak to a therapist or coach to get an independent view to help you regain your self-belief, identity and sanity. This is a very serious situation and you must be proactive for your own sake.

✔️ If the gaslighting occurs in a relationship that you are able to walk away from, then do.

Gaslighting help and support

If you experience domestic violence or abuse, remember that you are not alone. Confide in a close friend or family member if you are able to, or visit one of the following websites dedicated to tackling domestic violence and mental health concerns:

  • Relate: a charity which provides relationship support to couples and families.
  • Refuge: supports women against domestic violence and psychological abuse.
  • ManKind: supports men experiencing domestic, psychological or physical abuse.
  • Women’s Aid: a charity which aims to end domestic abuse against women.
  • The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
  • Mind: a mental health charity, Mind make sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.