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Understanding Gaslighting: What Is It Really?

Understanding Gaslighting: What Is It Really?

The term “Gaslighting” came from a 1938 play named "Gas Light" where the main character manipulates his wife into believing she has a mental illness.  Gaslighting refers to a form of psychological abuse where an individual is led to doubt their perception of reality, memories, and sanity. Gaslighting is often subtle, causing serious harm in an unnoticeable way. It can occur in various relationships and settings, including romantic, familial, professional, and social contexts. 

The common tactics 

The core of gaslighting involves undermining the victim’s reality using several tactics such as denial, distortion, trivialization, and blame-shifting. These tactics erode the victim's confidence in themselves and their own perceptions causing them to become more and more dependent on the gaslighter. 

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Countering: this tactic involves questioning the person’s memory of events or conversations. Ex: “I don’t think that’s what really happened that day,” “your memory is pretty bad, are you sure about that?”

Projection: this is characterised by deflecting attention away from the manipulative behaviour and shifting blame onto the victim. In essence, the gaslighter pushes their mistakes and flaws onto the victim. 

Withholding: the gaslighter refuses to listen to the victim’s account of an event / conversation or they pretend that they do not understand the conversation. Ex: you are confusing me, I don’t know when this happened. 

Trivializing: This occurs when a person belittles or disregards how someone else feels. They may accuse them of being “too sensitive”, irrational, or say they are overreacting in response to valid and reasonable concerns.

Denial: Denial involves a person refusing to take responsibility for their actions even when presented with evidence. They may do this by pretending to forget what happened, or dismissing the accusations as false.

Diverting: With this technique, a person changes the focus of a discussion by questioning the other person’s credibility. For example, they might say, “That is just nonsense you read on the internet. It is not real.”

Isolation: gaslighters often isolate the victim from their family and friends to ensure that they have complete control over the victim’s perception of reality and to make them dependent.

Trivializing: this refers to minimizing the person’s feelings and opinions. It includes overreacting to their valid concerns, or accusing them of being too sensitive. 

Stereotyping: the gaslighter may use negative or harmful stereotypes about the person’s race, age, nationality, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity for the purpose of belittling the individual or justifying their behaviour of them.

In addition to these, gaslighting may also escalate to other, more obvious forms of abuse such as threats, intimidation, and verbal bullying. 

Are you a victim?

The first step is recognizing the signs that you are being abused and this includes taking note of the power dynamics in that relationship. This can be difficult due to the subtle, gradual nature of the abuse. Once a pattern has been observed, try to confide in good friends / family and seek validation about your feelings from them. You can also speak to a mental health professional to gain clarity and support. Therapy can help you with setting boundaries, learning to process emotions, rebuilding your self-esteem, and developing coping strategies.  

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Gaslighting is a pervasive form of psychological manipulation that can have serious consequences for its victims. By recognizing the signs of gaslighting, survivors can seek help and free themselves from the abuser. Therapy as well as support from family and friends can be very helpful.