Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group makes others question their sanity, memory, or perception of events. This subtle and insidious tactic can cause the affected to doubt themselves and their own experiences.
Sachitha Reddy (name changed), a 25-year-old engineer from Bengaluru, recalls how her former boyfriend manipulated her into doubting her own reality. “He would tell me that I was imagining things or that I had misunderstood what had occurred.” This continued till she was pushed to challenge him at a dinner party when she overheard him lie about how they met. “I decided to confront him because our first meeting was unforgettable and a very special moment for me,” recalls Reddy. “But when I tried talking about it, he said what he always says when I disagree with him, ‘You’re imagining things, like you always do.’”
She started questioning her own memory and began avoiding topics that would spark an argument. “Once a favourite showpiece of mine was moved from its original location to another corner of our living room. When I asked him why he did that, he answered, “I didn’t move any vase, you’re just forgetful.”’ Her self-confidence and self-esteem began to deteriorate.
Luckily for her, her friend’s recognition of the pattern helped her realise that she was being gaslighted. She then connected the dots and mustered the courage to move on with her life. “I am far more confident and at peace with myself now.” Her story can be a chilling reminder of the insidious nature of gaslighting.
What is gaslighting?
According to Mahima Sahi, chief psychologist at a mental health care app Heyy, gaslighting is a form of psychological control exerted by an individual (gaslighter) over another. This manipulation leads people to doubt their perception of events and accept the gaslighter’s version of reality.
Individuals targeted by gaslighting are constantly made to doubt their actions, memories, thoughts, and perceptions.
“People who are manipulative will gaslight to gain control over the other person. They may do this out of a twisted enjoyment or because they want to dominate their target emotionally, physically, or financially,” says Dr Shilpi Saraswat, clinical psychologist, Sakra World Hospital, Bengaluru.
Why does it happen?
“Gaslighting is most observed in individuals who have significant problems in confronting their own reality or sharing power in a relationship,” says Sahi. Such individuals use gaslighting as a tactic to exert power over the target and psychologically abuse them.
According to Sahi, gaslighting is a colloquialism with no mention in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) of mental conditions. It has been sourced from pop culture, media, and literature references. Nonetheless, there are a few clinical mentions of the term relating to psychopathic/antisocial personality types.
A 2019 study published by Taylor and Francis, showed that:
- Characteristics such as –detachment, disinhibition (the inability to restrain an improper or unpleasant behaviour) and psychoticism (a personality trait marked by anger, impulsivity, aloofness, and antisocial behaviours) were found in abusers with gaslighting behaviours.
What goes in the minds of people who like to gaslight others?
People who gaslight most likely struggle with their own reality and feel compelled to exert control over others’ realities. Gaslighters typically derive pleasure from denying their target autonomy and authority.
This is because some individuals may be born predisposed to psychopathic/antisocial personality tendencies or may have unwittingly been subjected to gaslighting in childhood, according to Sahi.
Consequently, the gaslighter is unaware of their manipulation of another’s reality, and take pleasure in this manipulation without remorse.
According to Dr Saraswat, gaslighting can sound like the following:
- “You are overreacting and being dramatic.”
- “Learn to take jokes.”
- “You are misremembering and twisting the situation.”
- “Why do you always play the victim?”
- “You always make a big deal out of nothing.”
Identification and impact
“Gaslighting can happen in both personal and professional relationships, and victims are attacked at the very heart of their being, their sense of identity and self-worth,” says Dr Saraswat.
Most cases of gaslighting involve lying, denying or challenging someone’s reality, withholding crucial information, or providing different versions of the same story at various stages. Targeted individuals are intentionally made to feel inferior, their issues trivialised, and kept away from those who can challenge the gaslighter’s version of reality.
Both Sahi and Dr Saraswat list out questions and situations like the following that indicate gaslighting:
- “Was not something off about this interaction?”
- “I get what they said, but isn’t something still very wrong?”
- “Despite what they said, isn’t my version of reality still seeming to be true?”
- Compulsively worrying that the gaslighted individual interprets things wrongly or is oversensitive.
- Minimising the gaslighted individual’s feelings.
- Pointing out that everything is the gaslighted individual’s fault.
- Decision-making is difficult for the person being gaslighted.
- The gaslighter alternates between praising and putting down the gaslighted person.
- Constant confusion or uncertainty about one’s own memory.
Gaslighting can have long-lasting emotional and psychological, sometimes even physical, effects on a survivor. These effects can be particularly damaging when coupled with another form of abuse.
Dr Saraswat lists out the effects of gaslighting on those affected:
- Lack of self-trust
- People pleasers who are constantly apologising
- Second-guessing one’s reality and expressions
- Low confidence and high self-doubt
- Constantly questioning oneself and one’s identity
- Highly self-critical
- Anxiety over decision-making
Dealing with it
According to Sahi, listening to one’s internal voice is essential to protect against manipulation. The key to taking back control of one’s reality is heeding the voice in one’s head when it initially says, “something’s off in this interaction/relationship”.
“By instinct, one has a gut feeling towards a person/situation that helps to decide if the person or situation is right/wrong for one,” says Sahi. Our mind and body are often alert to wrong signals; however, when someone is given the power to confuse those signals in our head, genuine signals diminish, and the gaslighter’s reality eventually supplants our own, she adds.
“Not giving in to gaslighting behaviours is the most difficult part, but if achieved, can actually pull one out from the vicious circle of events gaslighting leads into,” says Sahi. Recognising there is a “problem” is always the first step. The easiest way to confirm this hunch is by discussing one’s beliefs with a family member/friend they trust”. This could serve as a reassurance that one is right. It is important to remain confident in one’s version of reality once it has been established.
Dos and Don’ts
- By Mahima Sahi for individuals experiencing gaslighting
- Listen to the voice in one’s head when deciding one’s own reality.
- Be compassionate towards oneself and one’s feelings.
- Remain confident with one’s own version of reality.
- Have enough evidence to support one’s version of reality.
- Confront and speak up when one thinks things are not heading in the right direction.
- Do not give in to the gaslighter’s actions or behaviours.
- Do not suppress the voice in one’s head when deciding about a situation.
- Do not isolate oneself from one’s loved ones or significant others when in proximity with a gaslighter.
- Do not ignore red flags while interacting with a gaslighter.
- Do not let the gaslighter’s version of one become the reality; remember and remind oneself of what one stands for.