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How to spot gaslighting

Robin Stern & Marc Brackett  

THE WASHINGTON POST – Gaslighting is an insidious, manipulative and reality-bending form of emotional abuse. Yet, when gaslighting is in our own relationships, many of us struggle to identify it, let alone escape it.

What are the red flags? How do you know if it’s happening? What does a gaslighting relationship look like? We hear these questions often. After working with countless couples across 30 years of clinical practice, one of us wrote a book and a recovery guide to offer answers and to help people navigate the gaslight effect in modern relationships.

Here are three examples of gaslighting:

– One patient had a boyfriend who told her that she was responsible for their fights. She often responded with a hello to people who greeted her on the street, including men. This bothered her boyfriend, who asked her to look at the sidewalk when they took a walk, so she wouldn’t have to think about looking or not looking when men passed by. She sought therapy help because she said she “knew he was right” about this helping to reduce their fighting, but she wasn’t happy looking at the sidewalk.

– Another patient felt like he couldn’t think clearly anymore. He loved her relationship with her girlfriend, but felt he had no personal space. His girlfriend said if my patient really loved her, he would not need space for anything, or anyone other than her. My patient felt confused and wondered if this was love or something else.

– A colleague said his wife had been criticising him for wanting to visit his family in Europe. For the last few years, she has been saying, “They don’t take covid seriously. If they loved you, they would be more considerate. They don’t care about our health. They don’t really love you.” He was feeling helpless and belittled.  At first, he thought she was being mean with her comment that they don’t love him. But, over time, listening to her certainty, he began to think that maybe she’s right that his family did not love him and that he was being selfish for wanting to visit them.

PHOTO: ENVATO

SIGNS OF GASLIGHTING

These scenarios have one thing in common – one partner knew how they felt but was made to believe differently. One partner knew something was wrong but was told they were in the wrong. In each of these scenarios, there was a gaslightee – the victim – and the gaslighter – the perpetrator.

When it comes to gaslighting, perpetrators use jabs of shame, criticism and conversation pivots to belittle the victim and reinstate their own sense of power and quest for control. By engaging with the perpetrator, the victim steps into a “gaslight tango”, giving over their reality to the perpetrator’s distortion.

This tango can be characterised by any combination of gaslighting tactics used by perpetrators, such as persistent denial, reality-spinning, shaming, contradiction and outright lying.

These techniques destabilise and undermine the reality of their targets. Consequently, people who are victims of gaslighting display any number of the following thoughts or behaviours:

– They second-guess themselves

– They feel confused or crazy

– They know something is wrong but can’t put a name to it

– They feel like they cannot do anything right

– They lie to avoid put-downs or reality twists

– They apologise even when they are not sure they have done anything wrong

 

If you see red flags, can name the gaslighting and want to stop being subjected to it, consider these strategies:

OPT OUT OF THE POWER STRUGGLE

When conversations become a tug of war, opt out. Write down or record conversations verbatim to parse truth from distortion. Identify when the conversation is no longer really about you and your partner and instead veers into controlling territory so that you can avoid those triggers.

CHECK IN WITH YOUR FEELINGS OFTEN

Emotions are vital pieces of data that guide the decisions we make or don’t make. Recognise your emotions and their patterns, and be nuanced in the words you use to describe them.

Guided by the research we have conducted at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we recommend using the How We Feel app, which will help you build skills to work with your emotions.

HONOUR YOUR EMOTIONS

Welcome all your emotions as a guide. When you’re experiencing gaslighting, take a deep breath and remember that “I like the way I feel” or “I don’t like the way I feel” is reason enough to stop a conversation. Pause, then act in a way that honors your emotions and reconnects you with your and not the perpetrator’s reality.

TURN ON YOUR DECISION-MAKING

Trust your voice in rebuilding confidence in your choices. Be mindful of everyday decisions – for instance, who you spend time with and what you do with your time. For each decision, notice if it boosts your sense of agency; if not, think about what you may do differently next time. And use that information to build your self-confidence.

FIND YOUR SUPPORT SYSTEM

A solid support system with an outside perspective on your relationship can help you cut through the fog of gaslighting. Get in touch with those who care about you and knew you before this relationship left you second-guessing yourself. Don’t judge your need for others. Lean into the comfort of a trusted social network that can help bring the truth to light.

BE WILLING TO LEAVE, EVEN IF YOU ULTIMATELY DON’T HAVE TO

Remind yourself that you do not have to live like this. If you have tried to make the relationship work and still find yourself on the end of emotionally harmful or abusive behaviours, you are worthy of walking away.

TAKE STEPS TOWARD SELF-AGENCY

You have a future beyond this relationship. Walk in the direction of people and opportunities that revitalise your sense of self, peace and joy, and continue investing in them. On your journey – practise self-compassion and patience. Once freed from the constraints of an emotionally abusive relationship, you can make better choices for yourself, choices that will foster a better you.

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