Who can you trust when you can’t even trust yourself?
The term “gaslighting” has been in the news more frequently recently with people voicing their experiences of this horrible form of psychological bullying. The problem with gaslighting in relationships is the signs are often obvious from the outside, but appear very differently to the person experiencing it. In a gaslighting relationship, the gaslighter has manipulated the reality of the other person to the point where they no longer trust themselves.
The term derives from a “Victorian Thriller” written by English playwright and author Patrick Hamilton, published in the 1930’s and made into two successful films. The play focuses on husband and wife, Jack and Bella Manningham, the latter seemingly terribly on edge, and as the play progresses we begin to understand why. Bella is being systematically abused. Jack has not (yet) left a mark on her skin, but through his behaviours he has drained her self-esteem, isolated her, made her question her own mind, and she is almost totally dependent on him. All this is exacerbated in the time Hamilton referred to as “The era of tea and gaslights” by Jack inadvertently making the gas-lights go down in Bella’s living quarters each night and Bella believing she is imagining the whole thing. However, not only did “Gaslight” give its name to this whole area of emotional abuse – it codified the behaviours.
THE WARNING SIGNS YOU ARE BEING GASLIGHTED:
- Systematic manipulation of your memory eg. you are sure something happened in a certain way and your partner flatly denies it.
- Shows of kindness (words, actions) while also making comments such as "you're crazy!", "are you mad?"
- Projecting behaviours onto you if you dare to question anything eg. "Are you accusing me?"
- Making you believe they are always in the wrong eg. "It's you who thinks that, sweetheart".
- Blatant lying eg. clearly flirting with someone in front of you and then saying "I was just talking" or “You told me to be friendlier with him/her – I was just doing as you suggested.”
- Isolating you from others who might bring some reality to your perspective (sometimes with extra lies that help elevate the gaslighter’s position, eg. "They don't like me, and all I'm doing is looking after you - you don't need people like that around you."
- “Breadcrumbing” – offering little shows of affection every now and then to keep you hoping for more.
- “Lovebombing” – if they feel she/he is losing you, they may start being everything you ever wanted (only to withdraw when you have agreed not to leave).
It is worth noting that “lovebombing” is also what tends to happen at the start of the relationship as they appear to be “everything you have ever wished for”. Furthermore, there is a tendency for them to target intelligent and compassionate people – intelligent people are discerning with what they look for in a partner and it is therefore easy for them to read and perform to that ‘specification’; compassionate people believe they can help and solve the problem – they are accepting that they may have done wrong and are keen to fix it.
However, if you are being gaslighted it will often take more than being told this is happening to convince you to leave. Gaslighting can consume you and you won't even realise. Gaslighting is the long game, played by a very devious and often narcissistic person – sometimes for no other reason than because they can!
Unfortunately gaslighting is so subtle and long-term that while the above eight signs may be clear to others observing the relationship, within it, you may think you are at fault. However, while relationships have their ups and downs, be wary of the following:
WHAT GASLIGHTING FEELS LIKE, ARE YOU BEING GASLIGHTED?
- Are you always on edge? Do you know whether your actions will provoke kindness or reproach...or nothing at all.
- Are you desperate for approval? Is every crumb of affection something you seize upon often to the point where something tiny can make you euphoric?
- Are you isolated? Do you have the chance to see your friends and family on a regular basis?
- Are you often left alone after arguments - often being told to think about what you did to provoke it?
- Do you feel you want to do things for your partner’s approval?
- Have you started to mistrust your judgment and memory - thinking "…perhaps I am mad"?
- Are you afraid of letting anyone see what is going on - because you believe a lot of it is your fault, or because your partner is so outwardly charming you fear you will not be believed?
- Is your self-esteem lacking – do you still feel attractive? Confident Capable? (Or are you beginning to feel dependent on your partner as the “…only person who understands”?).
If you are experiencing the above behaviours you may be being gaslighted, and if not you are still likely to be in a toxic relationship.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU THINK YOU'RE BEING GASLIGHTED
- Try and keep a diary of what is happening so that you can look at your account and compare it with what you may be told later.
- Try and see people who are not part of the direct situation - and try to have the confidence to ask someone you trust (or a helpline such as MIND) "This happened...is this right?".
- If you are able to leave them, do so completely, your self-esteem is likely to be in a position where it is too easy to be seduced back.
- Find a therapist who understands the issue and who is able to help build your self-esteem and empowerment rather than a focus on taking responsibility for your actions. If you have been gaslighted – it is NOT YOUR FAULT.
- Remember they may not want (nor require) help. They are often manipulative and narcissistic rather than “hurting”, and it is important to focus solely on restoring your own sense of well-being and self-esteem.
Unfortunately confronting the gaslighter may result in lovebombing or further manipulation to make you think you are in the wrong; sometimes, if you have an outlet, it is best to just leave. There are helplines which will be able to offer practical support and advice at the end of this article.
Relationships are extremely complex and sometimes they can be difficult. However, in the long term, love does not hurt.
Dr Audrey Tang (CPsychol) is a trainer and development coach as well as the resident psychologist on The Chrissy B Show. She recently revived Patrick Hamilton’s “Gaslight” at the Etcetera Theatre through her community theatre group, CLICK Arts to raise awareness of this form of toxic relationship.
Her book "Be A Great Manager - Now" interpersonal strength and pro-active leadership is available on Amazon.
www.draudreyt.com @draudreyt (Twitter/Insta)
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