Meera thought she was going crazy. She was no longer sure she was capable of making rational decisions. Gaurav was right – she was irrational, impulsive and foolish. Meera wondered how it had all come down to this. Where was the confident, capable, smart Meera, who had been the most promising young project manager in her firm when she met Gaurav? She had never known herself to have a moment of self-doubt, and she was proud of all that she had achieved. Seven years after being married to Gaurav, she was a nervous mess of anxiety, self-doubt and insecurity. She was questioned, belittled and ridiculed so often, that she no longer believed herself capable of taking intelligent decisions. Every household decision she took was questioned, every parenting act of hers was ridiculed, and even the slightest of acts were seen as acts of defiance. Meera is a victim of gaslighting.
Over the years, Meera’s husband Gaurav, who claims to love her and worry about her, has slowly, insidiously, chipped away at her self-belief, her confidence, and her faith in herself to a point where she is constantly second-guessing herself. Gaurav’s behaviour, in simple terms, is called gaslighting. When someone close to us subtly and systematically breaks down the walls of our self-esteem, strips us bare of our sense of who we are, we are being gaslighted.
What is gaslighting?
To explain it more comprehensively, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, such that someone close to the victim makes them question their intelligence, their judgement, their decisions, and their sanity! It comes to a point where the victim starts believing that they are really going crazy, or are really incapable of making sensible decisions.
The term ‘gaslighting’ has become popular today; however, it is an age-old phenomenon that has been around since relationships began. Usually, the person who gaslights is someone who is close to the victim – a spouse, a parent, a boss, or a leader. Gaslighting is most commonly seen in couples, where one partner—the one who has more power in the relationship dynamic—gradually starts eroding the power of the partner more and more.
Gaslighting can take many forms and can have a variety of effects on the victims. However, there are some commonly seen indicators that can help you evaluate whether you are indeed being victimised. Let us look at some of these:
7 signs you are a victim of gaslighting
1. Loss of confidence
Very slowly, over a period of time, you start losing all the confidence that you have in yourself, until you reach a point where you don’t feel confident at all.
2. Extreme self-doubt
What begins as little niggles and tiny questions, blooms into a huge cloud of self-doubt that settles firmly onto you. You start doubting yourself in all things big and small.
You end up blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong in the relationship, and in your life. Whenever something goes wrong, you automatically think that it’s your fault.
4. Difficulty making decisions
Because you no longer have confidence in yourself, you find it difficult to make even the most banal of decisions, further perpetuating the downward cycle.
5. Anxiety and/or depression
You experience feelings of sadness, loss of hope, nervousness and extreme panic; these could nudge you into clinical depression or anxiety.
6. Walking on eggshells around the perpetrator
Be it your partner or parent, you start feeling nervous whenever the perpetrator is around and anxious in their absence. You feel the compulsion to be on your guard at all times.
7. Increased feeling of isolation
Eventually, you start withdrawing, not just from the perpetrator, but from other family members and friends as well.
How does gaslighting work?
Siya was a highly successful HR professional doing great on the corporate ladder. Her relationship with her husband Arjun was conflicted and mixed up. Arjun, himself a highly successful IT manager, was soft spoken, gentle and affectionate; Siya had always been the more proactive and outspoken person in the relationship. Over a period of time, Arjun was made to feel responsible for every fight they had, he was made to feel insensitive and uncaring of Siya’s emotions, and over-sensitive of his own feelings. His sensitivity was ridiculed, his softness made out to be weakness of character. In essence, he felt his entire life so far had been a failure, as Siya pointed out to him at every opportunity.
As I mentioned above, gaslighting is a slow and often insidious process, and by the time you realise what is happening, you have been completely sucked into the whirlpool of self-doubt, self-blame, and loss of confidence.
How does this happen? How is it that an otherwise confident, positive, and successful person falls into this trap of being gaslighted? Well, this is how! Since the person gaslighting is someone with whom the victim is in a close, trusted relationship, by default one tends to believe that if a person is saying something, it must be true. You try to look at yourself, introspect, wonder and question your own thoughts and actions. Over time, you find yourself in a vicious cycle of being questioned and blamed, getting into a self-questioning mode, and accepting the feedback the perpetrator is giving!
Common gaslighting techniques employed by perpetrators
Gaslighters have many tools in their tool-kit, the most common among which are:
1. Ridiculing your thoughts
If Meera planned a particular menu for guests at home, Gaurav would pan it and rant about how inappropriate it had been.
They make fun of your valid ideas and opinions and make you think that you know nothing. Everything you say is laughed at, dismissed, or simply ignored.
2. Trivialising your feelings
If Arjun felt upset by Siya’s aggressive behaviour, she would completely invalidate his feelings and tell him he was just being over-sensitive as usual.
Gaslighters trivialise and invalidate your feelings and emotions, often telling you that you are too sensitive, too emotional, too crazy, too stupid. Your genuine reactions are termed as over-reactions.
3. Blame shifting
Every time Siya loses her temper and goes into a fit of rage, she blames Arjun for his stupidity and insensitivity that made her lose her temper.
In the eyes of the gaslighter, everything is your fault. They are adept at making sure that the blame lies on you for whatever goes wrong. You are not careful enough, smart enough, intelligent enough, caring enough… the list is endless.
Whenever Meera asked Gaurav why he called her names, he would outright deny that he did so.
Gaslighters can lie as easily as they can breathe, without batting an eyelid or skipping a heartbeat. They will lie to you blatantly, to ensure that their version and your version of the events don’t match, to a point where you start questioning your version. Even in the face of irrefutable proof, they will continue to lie.
5. Hitting below the belt
The moment Arjun called out her lie, Siya pointed out how he had failed at achieving his financial goals so far, hinting, not-so-subtly, at what a failure he was.
They are masters of emotional blackmail, and saying things at a time and in a way that simply becomes your undoing. Each time, every time.
6. Tireless aggression
Whenever Meera tried to explain her rationale for any decision, Gaurav would keep pointing out why he thought it was a wrong decision and no amount of explanation or reasoning would be enough to convince him.
They are capable of wearing you down with their zealous efforts to prove how wrong you are. They argue and argue till you reach a stage where it is simply easier to give up and agree to what they are saying.
7. Repeatedly telling you that you are Insane
When nothing else worked, Siya’s standard phrase for Arjun was, “You’re losing your marbles.”
This is the finest and most effective tool in their kitty. Words like “You have lost your mind”, “You’re going crazy”, “You have lost it”, said repeatedly, over a period of time, eventually makes you question your own sanity. Many professionals call this as the gaslighter’s master technique.
Whatever the techniques or methods a perpetrator uses, the fact remains that you end up being gaslighted. What should you do in such a situation?
9 steps to deal with gaslighting
Extricating yourself out of a gaslighting relationship can be challenging, it is like being stuck in quicksand – the more you try to fight your way out, the more you feel yourself getting deeply stuck. Yet, extricate yourself you must! Because it has a huge impact on your mental health and your sense of self, you will need to take action and move yourself out of this power equation with the gaslighter. Few ways you can do this are:
1. Acknowledge the truth
One reason why victims remain in this manipulative equation is because they truly care for the person, and find it hard to believe that he or she could actually be gaslighting. At times, the gaslighter may not even be aware of the impact their actions have on the victim. However, if you have noticed yourself being stuck in a relationship where you are being gaslighted, chances are that you have been taking the abuse for long. Painful as it surely is, you need to acknowledge that this relationship and this person, is actually playing with your sanity. Once you accept the reality, you will then realise the harm it is doing to you, and will be in a position to figure out how to deal with what is happening.
2. Keep track of facts
Make a habit of keeping a record of conversations, words and actions where you feel you might be questioned by the gaslighter. You could keep lists, memos, an excel sheet, use notes on your mobile, or even simply record voice notes. These are more to remind yourself of the facts than to prove them to anyone else. Whenever you find yourself being pushed in a situation where you start questioning yourself, go back to your notes to remind yourself of the facts.
3. Don’t allow the perpetrator to wear you down
Stop yourself from giving explanations. State the facts as they appear to you, and exit the conversation, no matter how much he or she tries to prove you wrong. Don’t get into a situation where you have to defend yourself.
4. Learn to validate your own feelings
This is a hard one, since usually, gaslighting strips us of our self-belief. However, try your best to validate your feelings; allow yourself to feel all that you feel, without belittling your emotional experience. You are entitled to all your feelings and emotions, and that does not make you oversensitive or weak.
5. Be mindful of your self-talk
Over time, you have probably become excessively self-critical. Tune in to your inner dialogue, and ensure that you start giving yourself a larger rope. Don’t let the gaslighter’s voice get internalised; find your own inner voice, and start affirming to yourself that you are a capable, confident person who knows what you are doing.
6. Stop apologising
You don’t need to apologise all the time for real or imagined errors or mistakes that you have made. Do what needs to be done, and if you are being blamed for anything, keep calm and make sure you don’t automatically adopt an apologetic stance.
7. Talk to someone
Be it a parent, a best friend, or a trusted colleague – it is important that when you first start realising that you are being gaslighted, you talk to someone you trust. It is important to vent all that you have bottled up, and usually, talking about it also helps make what is happening real and makes it easier for you to acknowledge and accept what is happening.
8. Have compassion for yourself
If you are a victim of gaslighting, chances are, you no longer like yourself, you no longer think you are a capable, efficient person. The first thing you need to do is love and accept yourself. Yes, self-love and self-care are oft-talked-about phrases; yet, their importance cannot be undermined. You have gone without care and compassion for a long time, it’s important that you start being a little kind to yourself. [Read 4 wonderfully simple ways to cultivate unconditional self-love]
9. Seek professional help
Gaslighting can hurt your mental health. Not only does it erode your self-esteem and confidence and make you emotionally vulnerable, it can also lead to deeper problems like depression and anxiety. Hence, seeking the help of a mental health professional is very important.
The first step
Knowing that you are being gaslighted can be painful, because you are invested in the relationship, you care for the person, and often want the relationship to work. Very likely, the gaslighter cares for you too, in their own way; however, they clearly are caught up in a manipulative, exploitative dynamic.
A lot of research has gone on to show that gasighters usually tend to suffer from narcissistic personality disorder. They need help too. At a certain point, if you, or someone close to you both, can convince the person to seek help too, there is hope for the relationship to get better. However, the first step is to help yourself. The first step is to step out of the whirlpool, ensure your own emotional and psychological safety and build your inner strength and confidence.
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