We’ve all probably been in that “light-hearted” situation where we caught someone doing something unpleasant, and they try to convince us that it’s all in our heads. As a kid, you may have caught your older sibling sneaking in at night, and they vehemently tell you that it was the wind moving the window, that you’re overthinking things. You find your best friend walking with another girl and she’d deny it so much you’d wave it off as a trick of the mind, although your eyes clearly caught her signature pink sweater. Your dad promises you a trip to the mall when he gets back from work, but later in the day, tired, groggy, and looking for a way to bail himself out, he would deny it so much that you’d believe you only imagined him saying it. It’s a tough thing, and it’s not always easy to know how to survive gaslighting.
Despite being “minor” and on a small-scale, these manipulative acts can still cause considerable harm to a person’s emotions. Now think of it happening on a more serious scale, on a regular or even daily basis. A life where manipulation is something you endure so often that you begin to question your thoughts and sanity. A reality where you’re so mentally abused into believing you’re crazy that you would truly begin to lose your mind. This is gaslighting.
Gaslighting is one of the worst forms of emotional abuse in relationships. The term was coined from the 1944 thriller “Gaslight” where a devious husband, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) manipulates his wife, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), to hide his evil intentions, to the point where she begins to doubt her own sanity.
To gaslight a person is to use a specific type of manipulation to get them to question their own reality, memory, or perceptions, to the point where they begin to fully doubt their sanity. Gaslighting is a serious problem because the victim embraces a reality that is ironically unreal. Gaslighting should never be written off as a minor problem. The worst kind of emotional abuse occurs when a person is not aware that they are being abused. They feel the pain, the confusion, and the overwhelming uncertainty, but still believe whatever reality they’ve been twisted into believing.
“It is always dangerous,” said Dr. Robin Stern, Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect. “The danger of letting go of your reality is pretty extreme.”
Gaslighting doesn’t only occur in romantic relationships between couples, although this is the most common scenario. You can equally be gaslit by your friends, parents, siblings, bosses, and superiors, and even mere acquaintances.
How do gaslighters do it?
Most people being gaslit are not often aware of the problem. They know that something is wrong, but they are repeatedly being told otherwise. Usually, the manipulator doesn’t always start out with malice towards the other person but it can easily turn into a gut-wrenching cycle of abuse. It can stem from minor issues and simple things until it becomes an efficient habit, a well-mastered character of destructive denial and manipulation.
A few of the most common instances are:
Insisting they didn’t do the things you clearly saw them doing: “I was home at 8.00 pm. That door didn’t open at midnight. Maybe you were dreaming about it.”
Trivializing your feelings and acting as though you’re exaggerating: “That’s nothing to worry about. Why are you making this such a big deal?”
Withholding attention: “I’m too tired to listen to all this nonsense now.”
Denying relentlessly even in the face of the truth, and then guilt-tripping: “I can’t believe you would accuse me of doing something like that. I don’t deserve this from you.”
Hiding your items and helping you search for them: “You mean you can’t find your credit cards? Let me help you find them.”
Isolating you from your friends and family: “I saw the way Angela stared at you the other night, almost as though she wanted to stab you in the gut. Be careful around those girls.”
Telling lies and framed stories to your family and friends: “Luke tells me stories of how you maltreated him as a kid and acted as though he was worthless. He bears grudges against all of you.”
Gaslighters are often narcissists, and they aim to place a person in a position that suits their own wants and selfish needs. They want you to be completely dependent on them, so much that you would hang onto their every word and endure all their evil antics.
How to know you are being gaslighted
When you begin to notice these signs in your life, you might want to take the time and reflect deeply because you are mostly like being manipulated.
You have a feeling that something is wrong, but you can’t quite place your finger on it.
You’re feeling isolated from the people who support you the most.
Your family and friends accuse you of things you never said (the manipulator penetrates your social circle).
You are apologizing too often.
You try too hard to be reasonable when speaking to your manipulator. You second-guess your responses, subtly trying not to elicit an angry reaction from them.
You are doubting yourself at every turn, unsure of even the simplest things you used to do confidently.
Your self-esteem is dropping at an alarming rate.
You are anxious whenever it’s time to have a conversation with your manipulator. Your mind is absently preparing itself for the torture that would definitely follow.
Every problem is suddenly your fault and you begin to make excuses for your manipulator.
How To Survive Gaslighting
Getting out of a manipulative relationship is never easy, especially when you’re still battling to understand what is happening to you. Outright abuse, while equally terrible, is relatively easier to get over because you are fully aware of the problem and where it’s coming from. Gaslighting, on the other hand, leaves you in doubt, erases the abuse, stirs it up again, and makes you doubt everything you know to be true.
“We are living in a time where a lot of people are having a tough time deciding what’s real and feeling like they are being manipulated,” Stern says. “If they know something is true and somebody tells you it’s not true, holding on to your reality is essential. You can’t be gaslighted if you stay inside your own reality and recognize the manipulation when you see it.”
If you observe any or most of the signs listed above in your life, below are a few strategies that would help you maintain your sanity and set yourself free.
Acknowledge the situation and resolve to take the necessary steps
You must first understand the severity of your problem and convince yourself that it’s not your mind doing weird numbers on your thoughts. Someone is really trying to drive you crazy and you’ve had enough. You can’t do it anymore. The manipulation is real, and it’s time to get over the horror and move on with your life.
Sometimes, if you have a hard time accepting the situation, you may have to talk to someone who would set things in perspective for you, preferably a professional psychologist. A lot of things would instantly make more sense when you hear yourself talk about them to a neutral party.
The moment you succumb to their pressures and stop fighting back, they have you exactly where they want you. The only thing standing in the way of your manipulator and your mind is the defiance you put up to their tricks. Your boss at work is lying about the things you never did, and they are doing it so well you can almost believe you came in at 10.00 am when the wall clock and your wristwatch clearly read 8.00 am. Your greatest weapon is to keep your mind open to the truth and never tilt towards acceptance of their lies.
Do not allow anyone to alter the reality you know and have experienced. Hold onto it and resist the struggle to pull it away from you. No matter how much a person tells you they didn’t walk through that door at midnight, if you are certain you heard them do it, then hold onto that reality. Even if you want to “let sleeping dogs lie”, hold onto the reality you have experienced.
Stop making excuses for your abuser’s actions
Don’t allow yourself to say things like, “It’s just one of those things. Maybe I’m overreacting,” or “I’m sure you didn’t mean for that to happen. I think too much.” The moment you start giving them easy escapes from their transgressions, they will never stop coming up with flimsy lies to make you blame your own thoughts and memory, dub yourself an overthinker, and eventually make excuses for their wicked acts.
If they do something wrong, call them out and let them know how displeased you are. Of course, they will try to guilt-trip you and make you feel bad for accusing them, but you can see above their meaningless displays now. Shut them down before they even start.
Stop wishing for things to be different
Gaslighters are often somewhere on the narcissism spectrum and you can’t get them to change who they are unless they make an innate effort to be better. You will never get the accountability you seek, so it’s time to give yourself a rude awakening. Wishing for things to be different is a very powerful inoculation that would block your senses and leave you with the belief that everything will be fine someday. You have to get away from the situation before this person saps every bit of joy and self-worth left in you.
Prioritize your safety and detach yourself
Extracting yourself from this situation can occur in many ways. Sometimes, all you have to do is train your mind to laugh at the manipulator’s foolish antics. Refusal to succumb will eventually become a habit and you won’t even have to make efforts anymore.
Other times, you need to stand up for yourself and leave. It doesn’t matter what your relationship with this person is, if they are trying to pull a stunt on your mental wellbeing, you need to save yourself and get out quickly. Put a distance between you and this person, although it mustn’t necessarily be physical. You can live or work in the same place with them, but you’re still mentally far away. Prioritize your emotional safety over sentiments and move on with your life.
If this escalates to the person attempting to blackmail, threaten, or physically abuse you in any way, report them to the appropriate authorities without looking back. You’ve had enough.
Remember that you are not alone. There’s nothing wrong with you because there are countless other people who have faced the same problem and came out on the other side, stronger and better. We share a world with evil people who would go to any lengths to bend others to their will. If you have a hard time getting past the mental trauma, it’s important to speak to a therapist or join a psychical or online support group because your feelings are valid.
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