Evening approaches, and you switch on the lights. You notice they are dimmer than usual. Perturbed, you ask your partner, “I wonder why the lights are so dark?”
They reply, “No. They’re very bright. You must be imagining things. Are you feeling ok?”
You might stand your ground and insist that the lights are dimmer. However, if this is not the first occasion your judgment has been questioned, their response may start to evoke feelings of confusion and self-doubt. As time goes on, these emotions may even escalate into anxiety or fear. You might ask yourself: am I seeing things? Why does this keep happening? Is something wrong with me?
This is the psychological tactic of gaslighting.
The term originates from the play Gas Light: the wife is certain the gas lights are dimming; the husband assures her they are not and tells her she must be going insane. It transpires that, throughout their relationship, he has been manipulating the lights on purpose in order to undermine and invalidate her perception of reality, and make her think she is going insane.
Gaslighting isn’t always this intentional. It can be performed both consciously or subconsciously; and by an individual or a group – think family, friends or even co-workers. These signs below can help in assessing whether somebody is gaslighting you.
Do they outright deny your version of events, sometimes even in the face of proof?
Phrases like “that’s just not what happened”, or “what are you talking about? I don’t remember that!” are red flags. A classic example is a partner denying an affair when evidence clearly shows otherwise.
Do they make you feel stupid for bringing something up? Do they trivialize the way you feel? Watch out if they’re always telling you to “calm down, you’re overreacting” or to “stop being so serious, I’m just joking.”
Do they take everything you say as a personal attack? Do they make you feel like you’re way out of line for pointing out something that would normally be acceptable?
Do they tend to dramatize their stories? Have you noticed them embellishing events or fabricating details? A common one that crops up in a relationship context is profiling past partners as “psycho” (“my ex was crazy”).
5. Isolation from family and friends
The gaslighter might tell you lies about your relationships with other people in order to warp your perception of reality. Assertions like “your family think you’re psycho… I’m the only one who still believes you”, or “don’t trust your friends, they are all talking behind your back” will sow seeds of doubt and isolate the victim from the people they love and care for.
Read more about relationship counselling and whether it works: https://www.sacap.edu.za/blog/management-leadership/couples-counselling/
6. Your self-esteem is dropping
Gaslighting is often used as a defence mechanism, or as a way to assert control over a situation. Gaslighters will undermine your feelings until you no longer feel like you can accurately assess the facts for yourself. You may start to feel a need to rely on the gaslighter to ascertain the ‘truth’.
7. Comparison to others
Comparisons to other people have the effect of invalidating or trivializing the victim’s feelings. Are you often told that others in the same boat would never act the way that you do? Do they wish you could be as chill as X, or as hard-working as Y?
8. Feeling as if you’re crazy
“Maybe it’s all in your head.”
Do they question your memory or make jokes about your ability to remember things? Careful, you may be in the company of a gaslighter.
9. Feelings of guilt
Do you feel guilty for bringing things up? Do you find yourself constantly apologizing? If the other person is always making you feel like the bad guy, they’re likely manipulating your understanding of the situation.
10. Constant self-victimisation
It is never the gaslighter’s fault. Somehow, reality is distorted so as to allow them to shift the blame onto something else, whether that is a person or a set of circumstances. You might even be at the receiving end of the blame.
11. Nothing you do is ever right
Perhaps they told you they wanted more alone time – yet when you give them the space they ask for, they turn around and accuse you of ignoring them. The point is, you can never gain their approval.
12. Using your words against you
“Oh, but I thought you said/ wanted…”
By phrasing things this way, the gaslighter can avoid responsibility and instead, deflect the cause of the argument onto the victim.
13. You feel like you can’t talk about your feelings
“But we already talked about this. I thought it was all sorted”.
If you are made to feel as if you are nagging about something that you thought was a logical discussion, chances are, they are invalidating your feelings. You might begin to wonder whether you’re being too sensitive, or feel the need to downplay situations to ‘not make a big deal’.
14. Feelings of anxiety
Do you feel anxious or high-strung? Are you always worried about making the wrong move? Gaslighters can attain a huge amount of control over their victims by making them feel like they’re constantly treading on thin ice.
15. Silent treatment
People often scramble to fill the silence. Gaslighters may use the silent treatment to force the other person to minimize or take back what they’ve said in order to ease the palpable tension.
- Sheikh I. H. (1980). The gaslight phenomenon. Community Outlook, 256.
- Breines, J. (2012, April 16). Call me crazy: The subtle power of gaslighting
Need help? Consider reaching out to the FAMSA – https://www.famsawc.org.za/ – an NGO in South Africa.