Have you ever been talking to someone, and their version of events seems totally and completely different to yours?
This happens a lot, largely because the human memory is imperfect. We all remember things a bit differently to each other.
However, in more severe circumstances, people toy with someone else’s memories to make them feel like they are going crazy. It’s called gaslighting.
Gaslighting is not when somebody has a different opinion to you. For example, you can’t accuse someone of it just because they vote for an opposing political party. It’s a severe manipulative tool people with dark triad personality traits use — but not exclusively — and it is seen a lot in abusive relationships.
It’s mainly used as a power tactic, to make the victim question their reality, and become more subservient. According to psychologist and therapist Perpetua Neo, it is when someone “screws with your sense of reality to manipulate you, causing you to distrust yourself and trust them instead.”
The term is coined from the 1944 film “Gaslight” where a man controls and tricks his wife into believing she is losing her mind — her things appear to go missing, she hears footsteps coming from the attic, and she sees the gaslights dim and brighten for seemingly no reason.
These tactics are on the more dramatic end of the scale, and in relationships the signs can be a lot more subtle. However, Neo lists things she and some of her clients went through, such as having emails and numbers deleted from phones, and being made to repeat things over and over while being backed into a corner.
Even so, in many cases, if you’re being gaslighted you probably won’t notice it’s happening to you.
You might think you are too strong of mind to let somebody have this effect on you — and hopefully you are right — but according to psychologist Stephanie Sarkis on a blog post in Psychology Today, gaslighting is often done so slowly, the victim doesn’t realise they’re being brainwashed.
It’s like the “frog in the saucepan” analogy: where the heat is turned up very slowly on the stove, so the frog never realises it’s starting to boil to death.
Everybody is different, and everyone has different experiences, but according to Neo, people who are controlling, abusive, and narcissistic often follow the same pattern. For this reason, there are several techniques that the people who tend to gaslight others follow.
Here are some of the signs to look out for.
Sign #1: Lies
A gaslighter’s main objective is to confuse you. Because of this, they don’t really care whether their lies are blatant and obvious. When they say something that is obviously untrue, they will still say it with a straight face.
Even if you have proof, they will often stick to their guns. This is all a tactic to keep you off-kilter. Eventually, they will attempt to make you believe that everything they say is the reality.
It will start off with something as simple as: “I didn’t say that.” But over time it will turn into something more disturbing, such as threatening to expose you as a liar or a fraud, when really you are neither of those things.
The more sure you are that they are wrong, and the more frustrated you get, the more they will persevere with their lies.
Sign #2: Isolation
Abusive people like to use the people around you as weapons. According to Sarkis, if you have children, a gaslighter will tell you that it was a mistake to have them. They will try and make you believe that you are worthless, and nothing else can compare to how important your relationship is.
They may say tell you your friend actually hates you, or your brother thinks you are useless. These are almost certainly lies, but when they are reinforcing your mind with the same stories over and over again, some of them may start to stick.
“Gaslighters are masters at manipulating and finding the people they know will stand by them no matter what — and they use these people against you,” Sarkis writes. “When the gaslighter uses this tactic it makes you feel like you don’t know who to trust or turn to — and that leads you right back to the gaslighter. And that’s exactly what they want: Isolation gives them more control.”
Sign #3: Positive reinforcement
One of the most confusing — and effective — things a gaslighter can do is be nice to you. If someone was truly nasty and insulting towards you 100% of the time, the relationship probably wouldn’t have gotten very far. However, when someone starts gaslighting you, they have already established a relationship with you that you believe is meaningful.
“Naturally, the abuse persists, and you’re never sure if it happened,” Neo said. “Because the next day, he is so charming or so remorseful — or a mixture of both.”
When a relationship starts with someone abusive — often a narcissist, a sociopath, or a psychopath — they will “love-bomb” you. According to a blog post in Psychology Today by psychiatrist Dale Archer, love-bombing is a tactic when somebody showers you with affection, and makes you feel like the luckiest person in the world.
However, the love-bombing, or idealization, stage is quickly followed by the devaluation and discard stages, where you start to be insulted and wonder where on earth things started to go wrong.
The idea is that when they take this love and affection away, you will do anything within your power to try and get it back. You blame yourself for them changing the way they acted towards you, and you compromise yourself time and time again to get the perfect partner back again. You can’t though, because that person never really existed.
Gaslighters will throw in the odd compliment, or the rare gift, to make you believe that it’s the real them, and whenever they are angry at you, or abusing you, it’s because you did something wrong.
Sign #4: Projection
If the gaslighting partner is a drug addict, that’s what they will accuse you of being. If they cheat on you, they will say you are the one being unfaithful.
It’s a distraction technique, according to Sarkis, because it keeps you on your toes, and makes you feel like you should be defending yourself. You’re so busy doing this, the gaslighter gets away with whatever they want to.
Sign #5: ‘You’re crazy’
Sarkis says this is one of the most important tactics to look out for. If someone ever dismisses your point of view as “crazy,” you need to really consider why they are doing it.
It’s dismissive and patronising, and it doesn’t take your feelings into account. It makes you feel like you are not being heard. Worst of all, the more often the gaslighter calls you crazy, the more likely you are to finally believe it.
“They will use this ‘you’re unstable’ idea to stop you from hanging out with other people, isolating you, or making you give more of your resources over to him,” Neo said. “They will tell you things like ‘Look at you, no one likes you’ to dissuade you from hanging out with your friends and family, or point out how these people are bad for you.”
The desired effect: You’re under their spell
Once they have worn you down, the gaslighter will have you where they want you. You’ll be agreeable to everything they say and you will no longer question them when they blatantly lie to you. You’ll be confused and disoriented, and feel like you have nobody left around you to trust.
“Because you don’t trust yourself, and instead have been conditioned — rewarded or punished accordingly,” Neo said. “You fade away into a shell of who you are.”
In other words, the gaslighter now has complete control.
You might be more susceptible than others
Some people subconsciously seek out abusive people to date, time and time again. Unfortunately, this means that if you’ve been in a relationship with a gaslighter, you may be more likely to end up in another one.
Certain traits make people more susceptible to falling into these types of relationships. According to Neo, people are attracted into abusive relationships because they are familiar, and they are recreating damaging aspects of their past because familiar feelings are comfortable.
Also, there are the people who have a lot of empathy for others, and they get sucked in because gaslighters know they can prey on that.
“Some women show this co-dependency, by over-giving and over-functioning,” Neo said. “That’s a very common trait I see in my clients. They’re over-empathetic and they tend to feel a lot.”
She added: “When that happens you over-empathise with other people, and you stop empathising with yourself, because you explain everything away for other people. And the empathy starts to drag you down. You get very tired, and when you’re very tired it’s very hard to fight.”
Neo also points out that many of her clients who were in these sorts of relationships were very high achieving women. This seems counter-intuitive, but abusive people enjoy controlling those who they feel are worth controlling. For example, narcissists will show you off in front of their friends, but behind closed doors they will belittle and devalue you.
But it doesn’t stop there
If you manage to get out of the relationship, the gaslighting can persist, Neo warns.
“You find it hard to trust yourself — you let the big bad wolf into your life in the first place,” she said. “You feel like someone’s out to get you. Or, as his mask slips, he may have even told you cruelly how he was out to get you.”
However, she also says the good news is you can heal and you can learn to trust and love again, rather than feel fearful that life is out to get you at every turn. It will just take time.
The more aware you are of these kind of traits and signs, the better equipped you are to avoid falling into a gaslighter’s trap. It’s not an exact science — and relationships are complicated — but if you feel like you’re constantly compromising on your own sanity, or defending yourself more than seems normal, it might be time to take a step back and look at what’s really happening.