Has someone been gaslighting you? Gaslighting is a dangerous form of manipulation where someone acts in such a way that you start doubting your perceptions, your memory or your own judgment. You often walk away from the conversation feeling like the crazy one. Today, I’m not only going to teach you the signs of gaslighting so you can get clearer about whether this is happening in your life but then I’ll walk you through my process to feel happier and more confident in that relationship.
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What is Gaslighting Exactly?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and manipulation. At its base, it’s an imbalanced power dynamic where the gaslighter somehow has enough power that the person being manipulated is scared to lose the relationship so allows the abuse to continue. This creates its own cycle where, over time, you start to question your perceptions and start thinking they’re always right. So then you really don’t want to leave for fear of being a pathetic screw up who won’t be able to make it on your own and who definitely won’t be able to find anyone else to love you, for example, or get another job.
The gaslighter’s power could be financial, positional (like a boss) or they could be more educated than you or claim to have more street smarts. Today I’m going to be using lots of examples of gaslighting in romantic relationships, but it can happen in any relationship where one person is so important to you that you don’t want to lose the relationship. It could be a coworker, your boss, a friend or your dad.
Are the People Gaslighting You Evil?
Believe it or not, the person gaslighting you often doesn’t know what they’re doing and often act without any kind of malicious intent.
If someone is gaslighting you, it’s a reflection of their own mental health. It likely traces back to how they were parented. For example, they might have had a dad who was very black and white about everything. It’s wrong or it’s right, with no room for discussion. If you disagreed, there was something wrong with you. If someone challenged him, he might have become enraged and withheld love or even physical support.
Maybe you had a mom who was critical and judgmental. It’s not because she was evil but because she was scared for you and wanted you to make all the right decisions to keep you safe. Over time, you might question your decisions or feel like you can’t make them at all without her approval or you might only choose things you know she would approve of. It doesn’t mean your mom was consciously trying to control your every decision, but the result is the same.
Or think back to your high school days. Maybe you were friends with someone who was a little more popular than you. But one day at lunch, she doesn’t save you a seat and you end up sitting at another table feeling rejected. When you ask your friend about it later, she dismisses you, “You’re being too sensitive! It’s no big deal. I didn’t know you were even coming to lunch – you said you were going to the library.” (Which you never said).
I worked with a couple once where the husband was the breadwinner but was spending money at an alarming rate. When my client (his wife) questioned him, he always told her not to worry about it and that she was overreacting: “You don’t understand money and our finances are very complex.”
Over time, she pushed him to make a budget with her and show her the accounts but he kept avoiding these conversations and even said, “I have a budget, we can sit down any time to review it” but, whenever she tried to pin down a time or asked for the file to be sent, he made excuses that revolved around her just not understanding how money on this level worked.
When Someone is Gaslighting You, It Can Show Up in a Bunch of Ways:
- Criticizing or putting you down, often in subtle ways: “Late again. You’re so disorganized, I guess I should be happy you showed up at all.”
- Complete denial of the “facts”: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. That never happened.” “You weren’t at the restaurant with me when I said that.”
- Telling you what you’re feeling or invalidating your feelings: “You’re just being paranoid.”
- Telling actual lies and making you question reality
- Projecting onto you what they’re doing: “You keep asking me if I’m lying. I think you’re the one that’s lying and you’ve got a guilty conscience!”
- Accusing you of being “too” something: “You’re too emotional. I don’t know why you’re overly sensitive.”
- Thinking they do more than they do. “I’m always driving the kids to practice. I’m the only one who cares about what they’re doing!”
- Attacking or denigrating people or activities that are important to you. “No wonder you like that pathetic reality show, your mother was flaky too.”
- Trying to turn other people against you or hurt your credibility with them. “I’m worried about Rachel’s drinking. I wouldn’t trust what she’s saying right now if I was you.”
Things Someone Might Say When Gaslighting You:
- Oh, come on. I never said that.
- You’re just being overly sensitive or You’re being so sensitive
- I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this…
- You know that’s just because you’re so insecure or so paranoid; it’s not all about you, you know!
- You know you don’t have a great memory for things.
- You just love trying to throw me off track.
- Why can’t you take a joke? I was just joking, I wasn’t serious!
- You’re imagining things. That never happened.
- You’re always so dramatic.
- Don’t get so worked up.
- That’s not how I remember it at all.
- That never happened.
- There you go again, you are so ungrateful.
- You know you sound crazy, right?
Here’s a quick video on signs someone is gaslighting you:
Signs Someone Might Be Gaslighting You
According to Robin Stern, PhD, Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect, these are the warning signs of gaslighting:
- You’re constantly second guessing yourself or having trouble making decisions;
- You can’t stop focusing on some perceived character flaw (like being too sensitive, not being smart, being selfish or bad with money);
- You feel confused about your relationship
- When you do get into any kind of disagreement with the gaslighter, you don’t feel heard and feel like you’re just saying the same things over and over again. Things might escalate very quickly when you thought you were having an innocent conversation and you just don’t feel like you’re ever making progress with this person.
- You question your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs and just don’t feel like you have clarity about knowing yourself.
- You’re always apologizing!
- You find yourself making frequent excuses for your partner’s or friend’s behavior or you end up covering for or lying for them.
- You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what. There’s an unhappiness in you and you’re not sure why.
What to Do If Someone is Gaslighting You:
1. Identify the problem
If you don’t identify what’s happening, you can’t change it so your first step is to realize that gaslighting is going on. Now that you’ve identified it, you can take steps to create change. If you have felt this whole time like I’ve been talking directly to you or that I somehow have hidden cameras at your house or office, then you can feel pretty confident that gaslighting is an issue. However, if you’re still unsure, you can do one of the following:
- Start writing down specifics of a difficult conversation with this person. Later, once you’re feeling calm and centered (and not triggered) you can make an honest appraisal. Take an objective look at it or bring the conversational points to a therapist or trusted friend and get another point of view.
- If you’re having the same arguments or conversations over and over and they’re going nowhere, think about how you feel in these conversations and go back to the symptoms I listed above and see what resonates. Is there a power struggle going on? Do you ever feel heard?
2. Give yourself permission to feel all the feelz
If gaslighting is happening, you’ve been questioning your own thoughts, perceptions and feelings for quite some time. Acknowledge exactly what you feel. Keep a journal of feelings if needed.
3. Make a commitment to feel better.
Now that you’ve acknowledged your feelings, it’s time to make a commitment to yourself to work on feeling better and here’s how you do that:
- Start focusing on people, places or things where you feel happiness, ease, contentment, satisfaction or joy. Focusing on the person who’s gaslighting you gets you nowhere except frustrated, demoralized and helpless.
- Understand that you cannot control or change this person. Focus on changing yourself. Focus on what you can do, day-to-day to feel better so you can be a better problem-solver and thinker for yourself.
- What you’re doing here is getting your amygdala to turn off and your prefrontal cortex to turn on. If someone is gaslighting you, you’re often left feeling demoralized, hopeless, helpless, frustrated, resentful, anxious or depressed. Here’s the deal: you can’t change anything from this feeling place because your amygdala is in full effect and so fear is heightened. When you start to feel better and relax more, your prefrontal cortex can turn back on, which means you can problem solve and think better. It also gives you better emotional regulation so you’re not so triggered.
- In episodes 111, 112, 113, and 114 of the podcast, I outline how to get out of negative thinking and stop being triggered by other people
- Get my newsletter each week to get some inspiration and to keep your head pointed in a positive direction
4. Build your self-esteem with small steps.
This is really about you and taking responsibility. It’s not about changing this other person. What can you do to feel better in their presence right now? Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we’re forced to change ourselves.” I understand that right now you don’t feel like you can leave your partner, quit your job or never speak to your mom again. And I’m not advocating any of those things anyway. Making changes right where you are will be incredibly empowering. Stop engaging in the power struggle arguments. Come up with a mantra to calm yourself when you feel yourself getting pulled in. Building your self-esteem and self-confidence is key.
Ready to build your confidence and self-esteem? Here’s a quick video to help!
6. Be effective, not correct.
You might be right all day that this person is wrong and should change, but is that effective? In other words, are you happy thinking that? Is your life improving? You can’t put the power of your happiness in anyone else’s hands.
7. Have compassion for both of you.
Be kind to yourself through this but also try to have compassion for the gaslighter (I know, I sound crazy right now). But, this person is messed up. They’re scared and have serious issues if this is how they’re acting. Dig deep and try to find compassion and kindness for you and them. This does NOT mean being a doormat or allowing the relationship to continue as it’s been. It means finding that empathy for their pain as well as your own, if you can.
Did you find this article helpful? You might also like this video on what to do if your partner blames and gaslights you when things go wrong: