Gaslighting is an extreme and insidious form of psychological abuse where the abuser slowly feeds lies, reality distortions, isolation tactics, and undermines a person's self-trust so that they can destabilize their sense of reality forcing them to rely more heavily on their abuser.
This tactic is very explicitly about deliberately gaining power and control over the victim without ever laying a hand on them.
The term "gaslighting" comes from the Alfred Hitchcock play/movie Gaslight (film, 1944) in which a husband deliberately destabilizes his wife's sense of self-trust and sense of reality until she has a mental reality break/emotional breakdown. [Note: the film is pretty triggering as the mental & emotional web of deceit/lies is built up. The abuser in the movie has an ulterior motive to wreck both the credibility and stability of his victim aside from simply being abusive.]
Multiples are particularly susceptible to gaslighting tactics when they rely on any one person to help them test reality due to amnesia or memory gaps or differences in perception/interpretation of events between alters.
Note that organized abusers, cults, etc. can deliberately use these tactics as a group. That's almost an entirely separate conversation since traditional gaslighting involves a single abuser.
Subjective Experience of Gaslighting
This is a taste of what it feels like or the personal perspective/symptoms if someone is a victim of gaslighting:
- You feel you're going crazy.
- Evidence for things you definitely remember has disappeared. Evidence of things you don't remember has appeared.
- You were really angry at them, but when you tried to confront them the conversation derailed, you got distracted, and couldn't remember the point you wanted to make.
- You can't trust your senses or your memories; you second-guess yourself.
- You're afraid to confront this person because their reaction to any accusations makes accusing them very painful. Maybe you're just too sensitive?
- It's pointless to confront them because they'll never believe you or even consider what you have to say. You're probably misremembering things.
- Any confrontation leads to a long drawn out argument that always ends with them winning or you capitulating.
- You're frustrated and exhausted with arguing, and no longer sure what all the arguing is about. You have no energy left for decisions about your life or to think about what's going on.
- You feel you have to defend and excuse this person's behavior to others.
- You know something's wrong but can't put a finger on it or express it to anyone, even yourself.
- There's no one else you can trust. Or you're not sure there's anyone else you can trust. You certainly can't tell anyone about this person's behavior.
- You have no confidence in yourself, your instincts, your memories, or your sense of reality. You can't make decisions, even simple ones. You beileve you can't do anything right.
- Telling them about your problems or feelings becomes so painful, you either lie about it or bottle it up and don't tell them anything anymore.
- You feel like you're walking on eggshells or always having to apologize to them for something.
- You're no longer happy in the relationship, but you're still there.
Aside from a normal abusive, frightening, or painful power & control grab which gives an ego boost to the abuser, undermining a victim's self-trust can cause them to voluntarily give (or allow) even more decision-making, legal, financial, or medical control over them. It can also play into involuntary loss of control if the gaslighting results in a loss of functionality and the abuser attempts to exert legal influence to have their freedoms taken away.
So abusers can gaslight their way into inheritances, joint bank accounts, shared credit card accounts, medical power of attorney, or having a person involuntarily committed (which was the point in the movie).
Confronting Abusers who Gaslight
Unfortunately it's dangerous to accuse someone who uses gaslighting tactics of abuse for several reasons. Often these types of abusers will respond to accusations with direct personal attacks, and may even turn the tables and attempt to accuse you of gaslighting them. If this happens at work, seek out HR. Document everything you can. If this is happening in a domestic situation, seek out domestic violence organizations or Adult Protective Services (links below for the US).
If an abuser gets desperate and feels cornered, they can always react violently, even if they've never gotten physical with you before. Panic can make people do things they've never done before.
Write down the time/date, what happened as exactly as possible, and how it made you feel. Keep this locked away in something only you can access (like in the cloud under entirely new accounts with new passwords) until you need the documentation. Your memories as direct evidence will help you resist the programming and lies, and this can serve as evidence if needed. Protect your evidence from tampering. Your potential abuser can use a keylogger to record passwords, can go on your computer and delete emails, etc. in order to make their case that you're crazy.
Methods and signs of Gaslighting
This is almost a menu of different tactics used by abusers who gaslight. They don't have to do all of them, but these all contribute to their gaining power and control over their victim(s).
Some of the methods mentioned below are very specific to gaslighting, others are general abuse issues, but may be used in a way very specific to gaslighting.
- Island of Sanity (specific to gaslighting)
- They're your only source of "sanity". They slowly make you doubt everything in your reality except for them. You rely more and more on their take on things to provide stability while the world around you crumbles.
- Reality Distortions (specific to gaslighting)
- The person will tell you you are mis-remembering things you actually do remember until you doubt your own memory. The purpose is to undermine your self-trust and your internal reality testing.
- (example from the movie) Moving objects, losing or throwing items away, leaving items around, playing sleight-of-hand tricks, or other manipulations of the physical environment to create situations to undermine the person's sense of reality and back-up claims of how the person is losing their sense of time, object permanency, or reality.
- They vehemently deny things they've said or done that you can clearly remember. They'll tell you how you feel, and if you say that's not how you feel, they'll deny your reality.
- Violating Intuition (specific to gaslighting)
- The reality you're being fed violates your intuition. Your gut reaction is that something is wrong, but this very reasonable-seeming person is telling you not to trust your gut, that your gut feeling is wrong. This is an extreme personal violation that can destabilize your intuition and severely distort your self-trust.
- Internal Gaslighting (specific to gaslighting)
- They can gaslight members of your system differently. This issue is specific to multiples — but they can pit people in your system against each other. If you have amnesia between alters, they can play your internals against each other without you remembering anything being done. They can destabilize your system and make you even more "crazy" by encouraging internal chaos. This erodes your own system protections against abuse and is exceptionally dangerous and particularly insidious.
- Secrecy and Isolation (specific to gaslighting)
- They can be gaslighting multiple people. Gaslighting is also possible if your potential abuser demands that you not compare notes with others, or not discuss their behavior with other people, and has fits about their "privacy" being violated. If it involves you it's not about their privacy. What may seem like a reasonable demand is an isolation tactic.
- Other types of abuse use secrecy and isolation for other reasons — in gaslighting it's so that you don't use other people for reality testing.
- Carrot & Stick (specific to gaslighting)
- They make promises to get your compliance, then pull back on the deal and say they never said that, that you're remembering incorrectly. Again, you may have proof. You may even have it in writing. But it gets explained away making you feel like you were mistaken — specifically to shake your confidence and demoralize you.
- Liar, Liar (specific to gaslighting)
- Telling you that everyone is a liar, or accusing you of lying. This can include coworkers, friends, family, the media, books, professionals, etc. They want to be your one source of "trusted information" and will do whatever they can to isolate you. They will tell people that you're sick, crazy, or otherwise gaslight them into separating themselves from you. Also see the bullet on psychological projection, below.
- The person lies, is even caught in blatant outright lies, but argues them into seeming reasonable. The arguments will not end until you capitulate and accept their reasoning.
- Other abusers will lie, but these lies are to reinforce the broken reality they're feeding you.
- They may use verbal manipulation to back you into a corner. "Everyone knows that…" or "If you really loved me you would(n't)…".
- Fostering Exhaustion
- They will wear you down. Forcing you into confrontations you're not prepared for. Long conversations, emotionally charged arguments, the use of big words or convoluted reasoning that mentally exhausts you, making you stay up late when you're exhausted to settle an argument, and ramping up the intensity (of lies, denying your memory, arguing, and sleep deprivation, etc.) until you no longer have the willpower to resist them.
- Intermittent rewards
- Occasionally they throw you a bone. You get a compliment, praise, gift, an ego boost, etc. occasionally which simultaneously endears you towards them and keeps you hanging around waiting for more/craving more praise. If it was all bad news, why would you stick around? Intermittent unpredictable rewards are more addicting (think gambling addiction) than predictable regular rewards.
- Social Control
- They will limit your interactions with others, will pit people against each other. Like many types of abuse, gaslighting is best done 1:1 — so the abuser will undercut your trust of your network and social circles, but also may lie and pit both sides against each other, so that your social circle rejects you. Note: if they work in a group, they'll have other people who swear by them and deny you or undercut your sense of reality as well.
- This is difficult to detect, but since multiples are highly suggestible, they may pepper the conversation with tiny suggestions that get through your protectors because they're nearly invisible.
- Eliciting Empathy
- Mentioning being in pain, medical issues, etc. may elicit empathy for them — however note that they probably have no true empathy for you — every time you have an issue it becomes about them. (See also our article about empathy or being an empath.)
- Dismissiveness, Undermining, Trivializing
- Telling you you're crazy, or blowing things out of proportion — or somehow implying it. This can include telling you that other people think you're crazy (or strongly implying it). They may also talk to ex's or ex-friends for more fuel/ammo or to reaffirm their own reality about you. These accusations can be couched in "you're too sensitive", "you must be having PMS", "you're a drama queen", or "you're too emotional" or "you're imagining things".
- Can also be a response to your subconscious reactions to loss of power and control — you know something is wrong but you can't put a finger on it. You're having outbursts of crying, anger, etc. or accusing your abuser of abusing you, but they're discrediting you. Your protectors are going crazy, and know something is wrong, but are unable to lock down on exactly what it is and how to protect you.
- Refusing to let you communicate something to them. Refusing to allow you to speak on a topic anymore. Cutting off communication or pretending not to understand something you've said as a way of stopping you from telling them something.
- They use your problems as ammunition; they don't empathize with your issues. Any time you have a problem, it becomes more fuel or ammo to destroy your self-confidence or undermine your reality. They push against you with your problem making the problem your fault so that it undercuts your sense of self or your self-confidence.
- A problem you have is minimized by shifting it to a problem they have that's even worse. You wanted a sympathetic ear on an issue, but now it becomes something you have to fall over yourself to console them and make them feel better.
- Over time everything gets more intense. What started out slow, sneaky, and subtle now is faster, overt, and blatant. As they feel they're getting a grip on your reality, they begin to increase the pressure and force on you, take more and more power and control.
If You Suspect Gaslighting
It's really tricky to spot gaslighting tactics. Here's some very specific things that you and your internal protectors can do and look for to alert your system to gaslighting tactics.
- Don't fight with the gaslighter. Do not capitulate to their version of reality, no matter how late they try to keep you up, no matter how "reasonable" they try to sound, and no matter how "bad" they tell you that your perceptions or memories are. You won't win. Your realities do not need to agree. Don't give in to their reality, but don't insist that they have to give in to yours either. Agree to disagree goes a long way here. They can keep insisting "But do you see my point?" or "But that's not how it happened!" and you can simply acknowledge "I understand that you see it that way, and that I don't see it that way. And that's Ok."
- No one (even and especially the gaslighter) has an accurate view of reality. Minor differences in perspective of the same event are entirely normal. You are entitled to your own point of view on anything and giving in to their version just gives them permission to keep leading you along down their imaginary road to crazy.
- Trust Yourselves
- Individually and collectively. While folk in your system may see things differently, this is entirely normal and you should accept a range of differences in perspective. If someone in your head is screaming that there's a problem in your life — listen to them and trust them. In fact, in the case of multiples sticking with an abuser can be an enormous source of internal chaos and strife. There may be people in your system who know you're being abused — it may may you "feel crazy" because you are not all (in your system) in agreement on what's going on. You are with the people in your head for life — but not so with your potential abuser. Maybe the people in your head are right and this is not a healthy relationship. These internals have always had your back. Their methods and their panic reactions may not always be helpful, but they're usually right that something bad is going on — after all you've been through, they deserve to be heard and, whenever possible, trusted.
- Their Actions Speak Louder than Words
- Mismatch between what your potential abuser says and what they do. Watch their actions not their words. Don't listen to their reasoning or arguments. Don't let them rationalize abusive behavior; it's still abuse, period. Their rationalizing taking your power and control away from you is a web of lies. It's your life, your power, your control; own it.
- Regain Sounding Boards
- Seek help without their involvement. A therapist, psychologist, coach, friends, family, etc. People outside of your potential abuser's control and influence. Do not allow your potential abuser to come with you. Do not let them feed their lies to your professional team. No matter how insecure you feel, no matter how much you feel you need someone to back you up on things, no matter how nervous you are about talking to a professional, ask yourself: how many people would I trust to help me in this situation? If the answer is just this one person, perhaps you need to make sure you're not a victim of gaslighting?
- Panic Over Seeking Support
- If your suspected abuser is in a snit or panic over you getting help without them present (see immediately above), that's a bad sign. If they want to talk to your professional first, if they insist on paying for your meetings or telling you who you should see, if they want to insert themself into relationships with professionals you hire, or they insist that you can't possibly explain your situation to a professional without their help (because your memory sucks or you are out of touch with reality, etc.), that's a bad sign. This is your professional who is there for you to help you and for you to direct, not them. Don't even tell them who you are going to see, if needed. Let their behavior devolve and let them throw fits about it.
- Ask Who Does this Serve?
- When you are praised or rewarded, does it serve the potential abuser? Is it really about or for you, or is it about or for them? Did it keep you sticking around hoping for more? Is it consistent or intermittent? Does it just help them keep/maintain power and control over you? Sometimes praise, gifts, rewards, etc. are just a gift that they're using to give you hope only to yank the carpet out from under you later. There's an example of this in the movie where he says they're going to a performance and she's all excited, then something happens (that he specifically set up for this purpose!) and he rescinds the gift of going to the performance based on how unwell she obviously still is, which further demoralizes her.
- Look for Psychological Projection
- They may accuse you of doing something they do. Since most abusers who gaslight have their own deep-rooted psychological issues, you may find they have some strange accusations that are blatantly false and don't fit you at all — but maybe that's because it's one of their own issues. Many people do this unconsciously, but sometimes it's a very blatant misplaced accusation (like they like to go to casinos and gamble a lot, and you never gamble — but they accuse you of having a gambling addiction), the whole "when they point at you there are 3 fingers pointing back at them" saying happening right in front of you. Don't bring it up when you see it: keep it to yourselves and use it as an internalized anchor that you can blatantly see their take on reality is not correct. Bringing it up will just lead to misdirection and lies, and them questioning your reality. So don't engage on this. Allow their lie to dispel their web of lies around you. They are flawed. They have issues. They are not better than you.
- Look for their Lack of Empathy
- Can you elicit real empathy or compassion from them? Are they truly supportive? Is this relationship balanced? Relationships are about give and take, and uneven relationships may find one person giving a whole lot more while the other takes a whole lot more. A gaslighter may spend a lot of time or money or energy on or around you, but it's all self-serving in fabricating this elaborate chain of deception and false reality to gain more power over you. If they spend more energy and time on destabilizing you, questioning your reality, telling you what is real, etc. than they do supporting your power to choose, supporting your dreams and ideals, enjoying your accomplishments, laughing at your jokes, etc. — then they're no friend to you.
- Don't Play Telephone
- If your potential abuser says another person said something about you, you need to carefully verify this with the accused and clear the air. If possible, don't take the accusation to heart — because it would suck to lose a friend over either a misunderstanding or a lie. Do not allow someone to get between you and friends, family, your practitioners, or other trusted associates. In the movie, the husband supposedly checked into her family history and was "told" that her mother died in an asylum and had the same symptoms he is encouraging. He asks whether she wants to speak to them herself, and she says no. She should have said yes, obviously.
- You need to communicate with people directly. Communication is vital and complicated. Don't make assumptions based on hearsay, even from someone you ought to trust. Have your own conversations directly with them, not through a 3rd party. Perhaps say, "Hrm, that's interesting. Thank you." then immediately call or better yet visit them face-to-face and have your own conversation. If the potential abuser throws a snit over your need to fact-check, then simply say "You must have misunderstood. I do trust you, but this person is so important to me that I really ought to check." Note that your potential gaslighter will likely insist your friend or family member is then lying and really did say those things. But this pattern is predictable.
- Don't accuse and put your friend or family on the defensive. "I heard something very interesting the other day. Would you have said […] to someone?" If you are being gaslit, then the gaslighter is a blatant liar and attempting to pit people against each other. So who should you be angry with? Your friend or your abuser? So do your best not to take any accusations or divulged conversations to heart until you verify with the actual parties involved.
- DID does not mean Delusional
- Reality distortions are not a feature of DID or OSDD. There may be gaps in memory, amnesia, and dissociation in memories (like not remembering sound, or only remembering what was said but not where you were, or remembering something from an out-of-body perspective), but actually blatantly mis-remembering the event is not a common feature of DID. Some multiples are doubly concerned about trying to have an accurate memory due to the amnesias and perception that multiples have a "bad" memory. The idea of "bad" memory is a falsehood. Either you remember something, or you don't. You may have a foggy memory of something, but it's still an accurate (if foggy) memory. Your memory is from your perspective on things — and except when something "goes missing" like sensory information, or the entire event, it is as accurate as anyone else's memory. When someone tells you you are mis-remembering something, they're probably wrong.
- Use a locked-down journal with a password only you know and do not have your devices auto-login to the service or application. Make sure the files on the drive are encrypted by the program, or use an online service. Better yet, use a computer outside your home like at a library to journal and log and talk amongst your headmates about what is going on, in case they've installed a keylogger on your home computer. Take notes, note instances of inconsistencies, reality distortions, unkept promises, lack of empathy, etc. until you have a body of evidence. Also journal about your feelings, bitch about things to one another, express yourselves in the safety of your own little journal environment. Do NOT show it to them, ever. Make sure that no one in your system will be inclined to do so, even if y'all have to pinky swear each other to absolute secrecy. Your collective safety depends on it.
- Beware Public Support Groups
- Groups online (like on Facebook) could be infiltrated by your potential abuser under a false identity. They may be watching you online. Complaining about them in a venue where they can watch you will give them more ammunition and let them know more about how to get under your skin. Make sure that you can trust the people you confide in. Going to an in-person trauma/survivor support group may be safer than an online group in this case, if you won't be followed there.
Protecting yourself from Gaslighting
If you now know you're a victim of gaslighting, here's some help:
- Acknowledge there's a problem.
- An abuser may not know they are using "gaslighting" tactics, nor would they admit it even if they studied them explicitly, so accusing them using that word will not work. You have to acknowledge this to yourself. You won't get confirmation from your abuser, and even if their heart was once in the right place and they didn't "plan" to do this to you, you're not going to get anywhere with this person in a verbal confrontation.
- Disengage/Distance Yourself
- This may be difficult, but gaslighting is very serious. Do not engage with an abuser in debate or discourse since they're a master of verbal/intellectual deception — so talking to them about it just ends in more manipulations and flailing about for power and control. Even a trained/professional mediator or therapist (if you can even get the abuser into the room) will probably not detect this in just a few sessions with them. If they suspect that you're trying to pull away, they will redouble their efforts to regain and maintain control. In fact, if you mention you think you're being abused, it may be turned around and made to be all about them and they may get angry (yelling) or upset (crying) about your lack of faith/trust/love in them and throw a fit. Wait a minute — wasn't this about me being abused? How did this become about you being accused? But that's what they do.
- Get Help!!
- When an abuser is being cut off from a victim, they may very well escalate tactics or change tactics. Someone who has been psychologically abusing you could escalate to physical violence. Make sure you seek out help immediately.
The national domestic violence hotline in the US is at: http://www.thehotline.org and they have chat and phone numbers etc.
If you are an adult and being gaslighted by someone who does not live with you, try the Adult Protective Services hotlines http://www.napsa-now.org — having a mental health diagnosis should qualify you as a vulnerable adult.
Recovering from Gaslighting
Gaslighting can damage internal relationships and perspective. Here's a few things that you may need to address in therapy if you've been a victim.
- It was Never About You
- You didn't make them gaslight you no matter who you are, what you said, or what you did. Your traits, your abilities, your disabilities, your needs, etc. did not force them to do this to you. They can say it was for your own good, but once they took power and control from you, everything was for their own good, not yours. You have every right to your life, your agency, your thoughts, your self-image, your self-control, your memories, your headmates, your internal community…. They had no right to try to take any of this away from you, whether they're your spouse, parent, boss, or child.
- The first thing is your own trust in yourself as an individual. Since gaslighting with a multiple may target specific vulnerable members of your system, their individual confidence may be shaken and they may feel an overwhelming sense of needing to apologize to people or the system. Remember: you were abused, you were a victim, and you fell into a trap. You are not to blame for being manipulated, and you can apologize and make reparations for things you did under their influence, but were probably not responsible for everything you did.
- Internal Trust
- Gaslighting may also target your internal community, sense of trust between system members, vilify certain system members, set your protectors up as not being trustworthy, etc. They may make you doubt whether or not you're really multiple, feed you misinformation about multiple systems, and so on. You should have each other's backs and be looking for external threats, but now you're too busy being suspicious of each other instead. Work on your internal relationships, have a big debriefing session and get all the gunk out. You can find each other again.
- Reality Testing
- When we have self-doubts and aren't sure of our real motivations, we should do something called "reality testing". Insecurities can plague anyone at any time. To "sober up" and face reality, you can use a coping mechanism called "reality testing". In its most basic form, you ask yourself: "Is it true?" And try to have a more objective point of view on the issue at hand.
- For example if I have been told I should not look for work because no one would hire me (for whatever fabricated reasons). I can ask myself "Is that true?" Is it true that no one would hire me? No, I've been hired many times before. Is the fabricated reason true? No, they were making crap up to hurt me. So is it true that I should not look for work? No, I can look for work. The entire notion is fabricated and part of the falsehoods that have been told to me.
- Things that have been said to you several times may become part of your own programming or belief system. So if I've been told many times in many different ways that no one would hire me and a whole list of reasons, and many reality distortions, etc. it may become part of my being until I can get rid of it — I have come to actually incorporate the lies over time into "who I have become" on some level. You may require a deprogramming technique to help you dismiss the erroneous ideas. Some of the techniques we're aware of are at Deprogramming Triggers New such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and Implementation Intentions to help us with deprogramming false notions.
- Energy Cleansing
- If you believe in auras, the spirit world, etc. then you may also want to consider a cleansing ritual, smudging, and whatever processes will help you remove other energetic attachments that your abuser may have exerted on you in the spiritual systems you practice.
- You may also want to read Cording for energetic links and Crisses' soulloss article on Liberated Life Coaching website for the shamanic perspectives on trauma, abuse, energy systems, and how to heal them. Also the shamanic concept of "Shamanic Extraction" may be interesting in this case.
- Repair Your Boundaries
- Listen to our podcast Boundaries and Empathy (011) New. Whether you were vulnerable before, at least for now you're vulnerable, and it's important to realize you can defend yourself and work on protecting your boundaries.
- Memory Trust
- You may also need to recover your confidence to trust your own memories and your authentic (even if dissociated) point-of-view when you remember things. Creating doubt in your own memory/mind is a cornerstone of gaslighting. Coming to trust your own memory again is important. Unless you have other reasons to mistrust your memory such as a brain injury, drug use or alcoholism, or another directly-memory-related issue, there's not any reason to suspect that your memories are wrong.
- DID and DDNOS may include amnesia and missing memories, dissociation may cause you to have memories with missing sensory information or with time/space displacement such as a memory that is experienced as being out-of-body and your memory may be experienced as "foggy" or "dream-like" due to anxiety and dissociative experiences at the time the memory was recorded. But studies show there's nothing wrong with memories actually recalled by persons who have experienced extreme childhood trauma in itself — such memories(even if foggy or missing some sensory information) matched the case records of reported incidents from when they were children, for example. So try to trust your memory and if you can work on that sense of trust with a professional.
- When you remember something differently from someone else, it does not mean that your view of reality is incorrect and theirs is correct, no matter how good you think their memory is or how bad you think your memory is.
- Heal Your Intuition
- Since being gaslighted makes you even distrust your own intuition, you may need to reestablish communication and trust in intuitive techniques again. See Litmus Test for some ideas on working with your intuition. This is also another method of deep reality testing. Your true intuition rarely steers you wrong.
- Another movie term meaning a movie project will be funded and it's OK to move forward. Give yourself permission to move on from here, to completely detangle yourself from your abuser, forgive yourself for being vulnerable (because letting people in can be a rewarding and healing experience when they aren't complete assholes), and permission to allow people into your life again.
Hopefully the tips on this page will help you know how to protect yourselves from abusive situations, since many common abusive tactics are used by abusers who gaslight (like isolation, etc.).