Whether by denial, lying or being covertly abusive – phrasing what they say very carefully to intentionally hurt you – an abuser will use gaslighting as just one weapon in an arsenal of many. The tactic is used to alienate and isolate you from others, most especially your loved ones or co-workers.
An abuser will use gaslighting to make you doubt your own memories and experiences. “Gaslighting typically happens very gradually in a relationship; in fact, the abusive partner’s actions may seem harmless at first. Over time, however, these abusive patterns continue and a victim can become confused, anxious, isolated, and depressed, and they can lose all sense of what is actually happening” (from The National Domestic Violence Hotline). When you no longer trust your own observations and memories, when you instead trust the version of reality that is painted by the abuser, they have complete control over your reality. That allows them to construct a whole new world around their victim, usually one where the victim cannot possibly survive without the toxic person.
“My mother always used to gaslight me. She would tell others that I had lied. I remember when we had just moved into a new house, she said “Next door have got our dustbin”. When I saw the people next door I repeated what she had said. Then – after they had confronted her – I really got it in the neck for having lied, as she convincingly rewrote history by explaining she had said “We had next door’s dustbin”. I was very young at the time but I knew I had told the truth, and I felt so hurt for being called a liar. Maybe especially as it really wasn’t a sin I had committed, even if I had been wrong. What I also learned from this and similar experiences was that I had to watch what I said, and so I became a very quiet and shy child.”
When things like this happen, you start to believe your abuser. No matter your age, you will start to think you are going crazy. Whether a toxic person flatly denies ever having said something, convinces you of conversations you never had… When an abuser starts creating their own version of history, they can be so convincing that you will indeed start to doubt your own faculties. Some abuser take it further than others
“My boss took denying his own actions to the extreme. He would tell you to do something, and then give you a massive shouting at for actually doing what he had asked you. It was so bad that, even if he had written you a note with the request, he would still deny the assignment. You would be standing there getting yelled at for doing what exactly what it said in his handwriting. He would be screaming: I would never have asked you to do that! How do you deal with that?”
Using Double Meaning
A toxic person often uses grammar against you. By making comments that have a double meaning, they can easily deny they were meant in a harmful way. Using this tactic also means that they can publicly put you down or humiliate you, and have complete deniability should anyone confront them.
“The one comment that always comes to mind was when I told her I was expecting my first child. Her vicious retort was “I can’t imagine you bringing a child into the world”. My pain must have shown on my face, and what should have been a really happy moment in my life turned to an overwhelming sadness. My own mother did not want me to have kids, or thought I would be an awful mother! (I think there was an awful lot of projection in that remark too, her realization that she was an awful mother, but couldn’t face the reality so put it on me instead!) When I recovered enough to contradict her she said “I didn’t mean it like that, what I meant was this is such an evil world for a baby to come into”. This memory shows just how covertly-aggressive she was.”
Most targets of abuse suffer a bombardment of ‘innocent comments’ that really aren’t innocent at all. They have the power to undermine our mental health, to make us believe we are either having memory problems or that we are horrible people for not believing the truth, their truth that is!
A Grain Of Truth
The other way an abuser gaslights is by using a tiny iota of truth, and embellishing a story around it. By basing the lies on a truth, however small and insignificant, it makes it harder for their victim to resist or disprove the lie.
“She would use things that happened and put them together to convince me of patterns that were not there. Like when one day my boyfriend (who she did not like one bit) did not want to throw his whole day around, just to accommodate my mother changing every plan that had been made and agreed for the day. She then used that to say she was very worried because she thought my partner was autistic.”
This method of gaslighting can also be used to keep reminding you of something you did once, and making you believe that you always do this. The abuser often focuses on a mistake that you made, and by focusing consistently on that mistake, will convince you that you are incompetent.
“A few years ago I mistakenly took the subway in the wrong direction. From then on, every time we needed the subway or even if it came up in conversation, my partner would make a joke about ‘that time when I went the wrong way’. Eventually it made me really nervous about using the public transport system because I felt that I might be taking the wrong direction”
How To Deal With Gaslighting
Gaslighting is just one of the many weapons in the arsenal of personalities hell-bent on having their way, even if it means doing so by subtle and covert means of conning others (from Counselling Resource). All toxic people and those with aggressive personality disorders will take advantage of you at every opportunity they can. It allows them to manipulate you and others and maintain their control over you.
There is good news though! In the words of Robin Stern on Psychology Today: “The good news is that knowledge is power. Once you can name this all too insidious dynamic, you can work towards changing the dynamic, or getting out — take back your reality, and, get more enjoyment from your life and your relationship!”
Some Pointers About What Not To Do:
- Don’t take the responsibility or blame for what they are feeling.
- Don’t automatically make snap judgments of others just because you have heard bad things about them.
- Don’t engage in arguments with a Trouble Person or try to convince them you are right.
- If you feel unsafe either physically, emotionally or verbally then get help or leave!
- Don’t keep secrets, find someone to share your experience with.
Some Pointers About What To Do:
- Realize that you are not responsible for someone else’s behavior.
- Talk about the episode to those you trust.
- Journaling can help to keep track of what actually happened and help you not to get lost is the abuser’s version of reality. Make sure the journal is kept private. If you don’t feel you can keep a journal private, do you have a computer where you can keep files private?
- Remember you will never win a debate with this person as they are so convincing and persistently right, they will run rings around you.
- Keep a record, especially in the workplace where the abuse may lead to legal action. Send emails to the abuser that summarize your meetings factually, for example by saying: I am correct to understand that…
- If any events escalate to violence find safety and then report it to the police immediately.