50 Shades Of Gaslighting: Disturbing Signs An Abuser Is Twisting Your Reality

“The erasure of the abuse was worse than the abuse…One of the most insidious things about gaslighting is the denial of reality. Being denied what you have seen. Being denied what you have experienced and know to be true. It can make you feel like you are crazy. But you are not crazy.” – Ariel Leve, How to Survive Gaslighting: When Manipulation Erases Your Reality
Joshua Fuller

How do you convince someone that something they to be true isn’t? In psychology, what is known as the “illusory truth effect” is a phenomenon in which a listener comes to believe something primarily because it has been repeated so often. When an abuser continually tells you that you are oversensitive or that what you are experiencing is in no way abuse, you begin believing it, even if you know deep down it isn’t true.

In other words, a lie that is repeated long enough eventually can be seen as the truth. Researchers Hasher, Goldstein and Toppino (1997) discovered that when a statement (even when it is false and readers know it to be false) is repeated multiple times, it was more likely to be rated as true simply due to the effects of repetition. This is because when we’re assessing a claim, we rely on either the credibility of the source from which the claim is derived or familiarity with that claim. Surprisingly, familiarity often trumps credibility or rationality when assessing the perceived validity of a statement (Begg, Anas, and Farinacci, 1992; Geraci, L., & Rajaram, 2016).

The illusory truth effect can cause us to become susceptible to the effects of another dangerous form of reality erosion known as gaslighting. Deliberate manipulators who gaslight with the intention of eroding your reality and rewriting history tend to use the “illusory truth effect” to their advantage. They will repeat falsehoods so often that they become ingrained in the victim’s mind as unshakeable truths.

When this is done repeatedly to override what was truly experienced, it can leave an immense dent in the fabric of someone’s perceptions and ability to trust themselves. When used chronically to control a victim, it becomes a damaging aspect of psychological abuse, placing the survivor at risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal ideation and even what is called by some therapists as “Narcissistic Victim Syndrome” (Louis de Canonville, 2012; Van der Kolk, 2016; Walker, 2013; WolfFord-Clevinger, 2017).

What is Gaslighting?

The term “gaslighting” first originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, , in which a manipulative husband drives his wife to the brink of insanity by causing her to question her own reality. It was also popularized in the 1944 film adaptation, a psychological thriller about a man named Gregory Anton (played by Charles Boyer) who murders a famous opera singer and later marries her niece, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman) to gain access to the rest of her family jewels.

Gregory erodes his new wife’s sense of reality by making her believe that her aunt’s house is haunted in the hope that she will be institutionalized. He does everything from rearranging items in the house, flickering gas lights on and off to making noises in the attic so she feels as if she’s becoming unhinged. He isolates her so that she is unable to seek support for the terror she is experiencing. The real kicker? After manufacturing these crazymaking scenarios, he then convinces her that these events are all a figment of her imagination.

Gaslighting has become a well-known term in the abuse survivor community, particularly for the survivors of malignant narcissists. Unlike more vulnerable narcissists who may possess more of a capacity for remorse, malignant narcissists truly believe in their superiority, are grandiose and lie on the higher end of the narcissistic spectrum. They have antisocial traits, demonstrate paranoia, bear an excessive sense of entitlement, show a callous lack of empathy and display an egregious liking for interpersonal exploitation.

Gaslighting provides malignant narcissists with a portal to erase the reality of their victims without a trace. It is a method that enables them to commit covert psychological murder with clean hands.

Is Gaslighting Intentional?

One might wonder: is gaslighting intentional? After all, we’ve all had experiences where we’ve inadvertently invalidated someone’s experience without meaning to. Perhaps we lacked enough information about the matter. Maybe we were defensive about being right. Or, we just didn’t agree with their “interpretation” of events. What Dr. Sherman calls “everyday gaslighting” may occur due to human error – but that does not negate the danger of gaslighting when it is used to emotionally terrorize someone.

In the context of an abusive relationship, gaslighting is used to deliberately undercut the victim’s reality and make him or her more malleable to mistreatment. As Dr. Sarkis writes in her article, “Are Gaslighters Aware of What They Do?” not gaslighters engage in it intentionally, but those who are cult leaders, dictators and malignant narcissists most certainly do so with an agenda in mind.

As she writes, “The goal is to make the victim or victims question their own reality and depend on the gaslighter…In the case of a person who has a personality disorder such as antisocial personality disorder, they are born with an insatiable need to control others.”

Gaslighting allows perpetrators to evade accountability for their actions, to deflect responsibility and exercise their control over their partners with alarming ease.

“Narcissists are like Teflon; nothing sticks. They don’t take responsibility. For anything. They are master deflectors and try to avoid the blame when cheating, stealing and everything in between. They make up complex excuses and can rationalize anything. When they are finally called out, they are quick to claim they are being persecuted, though they may be apologetic for a minute. When someone never takes responsibility for anything – words, actions, feelings – it is a challenging, if not impossible way to maintain a relationship.” Dr. Durvasula,

Beliefs, after all, are immensely powerful. They have the power to create division, build or destroy nations, end or start wars. To mold the beliefs of an unsuspecting target to suit your own agendas is to essentially control their behavior and even potentially change their life-course trajectory. If narcissistic Calvin decides he wants to wreak havoc over his girlfriend Brianna’s reality, all he has to do is to convince her that she cannot trust herself or her instincts – especially about the abuse she is experiencing.

How Does Gaslighting Unfold?

As Dr. Robin Stern notes in her book,

“The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people: a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self, and his sense of having power in the world; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define {his or} her sense of reality because she idealizes him and seeks his approval.”

It is in the victim seeking validation and approval from the gaslighter that the danger begins to unfold. Gaslighting is essentially psychological warfare, causing a victim to habitually question himself or herself. It is employed as a power play to regain control over the victim’s psyche, sense of stability and sense of self.

By playing puppeteer to the survivor’s perceptions, the manipulator is able to pull the strings in every context where his or her target feels powerless, confused, disoriented and on edge, perpetually walking on eggshells to keep the peace.

What Gaslighting Looks Like: An Example

Imagine this scenario: Diana and Robert* have been dating for several months. Diana thinks she’s met the “one” – Robert is generous, kind, supportive and funny. They become enamored with each other quickly and move in together shortly after their one-year anniversary. As soon as Diana signs the lease on their new apartment, however, it is evident that there is some trouble in paradise. Robert’s usual warmth and affection begins to wane. After several months, Diana notices that he has more become inexplicably cold and withdrawn.  He lashes out more often, creates nonsensical arguments (in which he uses Diana as a scapegoat for every issue) and criticizes her on a daily basis. It’s almost as if he’s undergone a personality transplant from the once charming and down to earth man she thought she knew.

He has also stopped paying his half of the rent, claiming that he has been struggling financially ever since the move. Though Diana remembers him enthusiastically choosing the neighborhood where they currently live, he now complains it is far too “expensive” for his taste and accuses her of being too extravagant. She notices he has more than enough funds to spend on drinking with his friends or gambling late into the night, but grudgingly agrees to pay his half until he gets back on his feet.

Diana recognizes that Robert is not only taking her for granted, but taking advantage of her. When she finally confronts him one night as he stumbles into the apartment at an obscenely late hour, his response is rageful and defensive. He accuses her of not trusting him. He calls her horrible names. He threatens to leave and never come back. He refuses to speak to her at all about his behavior and ends up going to a “friend’s” place, leaving Diana in tears and filled with anxiety about his whereabouts.

In the midst of her despair, she begins to wonder if she’s been too hard on him. She calls him multiple times, begging for him to come back and apologizing profusely for the things she’s accused him of. He does come back, but the cycle only continues. After only a few blissful days of “making up,” where Robert “graciously” forgives Diana for her “overreactions,” Robert begins disappearing during the nights and reappearing with a suspiciously unkempt appearance. He also receives mysterious phone calls at odd hours, which he takes privately in the bathroom with the door locked.

Each time Diana tries to raise questions about where he has been and whether he’s been seeing other women behind her back, he pushes back, accusing her of being “crazy,” “needy” and “paranoid.” Despite her attempts to uncover the truth, she starts to wonder if she really being paranoid. Maybe it really is her fault that he is distancing himself. Maybe he just needs time to “unwind.”

She begins avoiding confrontation with Robert altogether and instead tries her best to please him instead – doubling her efforts to show him more affection and understanding. Her hope is that, once he realizes what a great partner she is, he will stop his shady behavior and go back to being the man he presented himself to be in the beginning. Unfortunately, as most victims ensnared in the vicious cycle of emotional abuse know, this is rarely the case. This is just the beginning.

*This example was created using the accounts of multiple survivors from surveys on narcissistic abuse; the characters are fictional and only used for the purpose of illustration. Although in this particular scenario the gaslighter is male and the victim is female, gaslighting is not exclusive to any gender and can happen to anyone.

Why Does Gaslighting Work So Well?

Diana and Robert’s story illustrate a classic example of the cycle of narcissistic abuse – one in which idealization is followed by devaluation and the honeymoon phase dissipates into the unmasking of a covert predator. Robert is able to gaslight Diana into believing she is the problem – all while she financially supports him and doubles her efforts to be a more loving partner. Meanwhile, he engages in infidelity, verbally berates her and subjects her to bouts of narcissistic rage, without any consequences or accountability. This isn’t at all the healthy, loving relationship Diana signed up for, but the powerful effect of gaslighting is that Robert’s version of reality (Diana is crazy, he is the one putting up with it) replaces the truth.

Do you see what’s wrong with this picture? Gaslighting lets the perpetrator off the hook while the victim is left picking up the pieces and then some.

Why do survivors believe in gaslighters?

Executed effectively and done chronically, gaslighting causes self-doubt and cognitive dissonance – a state of turmoil stirred by inconsistent attitudes and beliefs. Survivors of emotional predators sense that something is amiss, but when they attempt to address it, they are often blindsided by their abuser’s complete dismissal and invalidation of their reality.

Diana “knew” something was wrong and felt like she was being taken advantage of when Robert stopped paying his half of the rent and began coming home at odd hours, but after being on the receiving end of his gaslighting and verbal abuse, she rationalized that her behavior must have caused the conflict. She did not want to lose out on her emotional investment in what appeared to be a great relationship in the beginning. As a result, she instead invested more – unfortunately, risking the loss of her own sense of self.

Gaslighting, after all, begins insidiously in stages; in the first stage, survivors still have a grasp of their perceptions even if they might not understand what is happening. Like a frog in slowly boiling water, they become accustomed to the insidious warping of their reality, until they no longer recognize their reality or even themselves. Initially, like Diana, they may attempt to reiterate their perspective and express disbelief at the gaslighter’s claims.

As gaslighting continues, however, it wears down the victim. Diana eventually tries to “win” Robert back because she feels unable to self-validate after his constant verbal attacks and rageful responses. This is not uncommon for victims of chronic gaslighting, especially when a repetition or reinforcement of false claims is involved. According to Lynn Hasher, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, “Repetition makes things seem more plausible…and the effect is likely more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information.”

Chronic gaslighting eventually leads to pure exhaustion – victims develop a sense of learned helplessness as they are met with the intense consistency of denial, rage, projection or accusations from the gaslighter.

Exhaustion from abuse and retaliation for asserting oneself creates a mental fog of epic proportions, one in which a survivor can easily drown in even the most ridiculous excuses as long as they carry a grain of truth.

The survivor of a conniving gaslighter becomes submerged in confusion about what actually occurred and whether anything truly occurred at all. So instead of questioning the gaslighter, they attempt to prevent further psychological assault by feeding their own self-doubt and uncertainty surrounding the abuse that is occurring. Dr. George Simon, who specializes in the character disordered, writes:

“Gaslighting victims question their judgment. They can even come to question their very sanity. Crafty covert-aggressors know how to make you doubt. In your gut you feel they’re trying to play you. But they can have you feeling like you’re a fool for thinking so. They can even have you questioning what’s real and what isn’t.” – Dr. George Simon, Gaslighting Victims Question Their Sanity

To summarize: why does gaslighting work? There are more than a few reasons:

  • Gaslighting exploits any existing self-doubt about one’s capabilities as well as any past traumas that may cause the victim to feel too “damaged” to see reality clearly.
  • Gaslighting exhausts a victim’s internal resources so they are unable to self-validate and eventually give into a sense of learned helplessness.
  • Gaslighting depletes individuals of a stable sense of self-worth and certainty about how they interpret the world.
  • Gaslighting manufactures insecurities and fears that never existed, causing the victim to focus on his/her perceived flaws rather than the abuser’s transgressions.
  • Gaslighting causes the survivor to investigate whether he or she has done something wrong, instead of looking at the perpetrator’s behavior as the cause of concern.
  • Gaslighting sets up survivors to fail no matter what they do; abusers will demonstrate disapproval regardless of how hard the survivor tries to please the abuser. Whether victims stay silent and compliant or aggressive and assertive, they will be punished. By moving the goalposts, the perpetrator is able to shift their expectations and their claims at the drop of a hat.
  • Gaslighting diverts from, denies, rationalizes and minimizes horrific acts of psychological and physical violence.
  • Gaslighting creates a dangerous form of retaliation for victims speaking out, because each time they do, they are met with a psychological or even physical assault that causes them to feel increasingly diminished.

Survivors often take on the responsibility for reducing the cognitive dissonance that arises when what they know to be true is threatened by gaslighting of an abuser. They do so by essentially “gaslighting” themselves into believing in what their manipulators are telling them, rather than trusting their own inner voice. They may even socially withdraw and become overly defensive about protecting the gaslighter due to their need for validation from the relationship. The gaslighter “trains” and conditions them into seeking their approval, and they fear losing that approval because it symbolizes the loss of the relationship itself.

Mar Newhall

Smoke and Mirrors: How Gaslighting Works to Erode the Victim’s Reality and Sense of Self

While the definition of gaslighting may appear clear-cut, the reality of how it is used in abusive relationships is complex and multifaceted. There are many ways in which malignant narcissists gaslight their victims, and when done chronically, gaslighting becomes an effective tool to manage down the victim’s expectations for decency, honesty and transparency over time.

After all, if someone cannot trust their own perceptions, it becomes that much easier to hand over the reins to the person who is shaping their reality in the first place. It becomes that much more difficult to confront the gaslighter without the fear of being shamed and silenced. Here are some ways in which gaslighting can show up in toxic relationships:

1. Denial and dismissal.

Perhaps the most popular form of gaslighting occurs in the art of the blatant denial. A cheating wife refuses to admit that she had an affair, even when concrete evidence (such as explicit photos) surface. A malignant parent denies ever abusing their children despite the fact that they still have the scars (whether emotional or physical) and memories to prove it.

A predator with a history of committing sexual assault simply says it did not happen, despite many victims coming forward. By dismissing the evidence and holding steadfast to the “alternative facts,” the abuser is able to instill a sense of doubt – however tiny – and by planting that seed, they create a burgeoning ambivalence in their victims, law enforcement, society as a whole – that perhaps it really didn’t happen, or at least, it didn’t happen in the way the victim reported it did.

Much like reasonable doubt can sway a jury, continually denying a victim’s experiences can lead the victim to search for evidence that confirms the abuser’s reality rather than their own. At most, it provides a counternarrative to the truth that enablers of the abuser can hold onto, and at worst, it creates so much distortion that the abuser is rarely held accountable for his or her actions.

Unfortunately, this form of gaslighting also preys on a sense of hope just as it does uncertainty. Victims may have their own reasons for believing in the abuser, but they are also trauma bonded to their perpetrators through the intense experiences of abuse in an effort to survive. As a result, victims of a trauma bond often protect their abusers and work even harder to depict their relationship as a happy, stable one.

As trauma and addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes (2015) writes in his book, :

“Exploitive relationships create betrayal bonds. These occur when a victim bonds with someone who is destructive to him or her. Thus the hostage becomes the champion of the hostage taker, the incest victim covers for the parent, and the exploited employee fails to expose the wrongdoing of the boss…{this} is a mind-numbing, highly addictive attachment to the people who have hurt you. You may even try to explain and help them understand what they are doing – convert them into non-abusers. You may even blame yourself, your defects, your failed efforts…these attachments cause you to distrust your own judgment, distort your own realities and place you at even greater risk. The great irony? You are bracing yourself against further hurt. The result? A guarantee of more hurt.”

As Carnes notes, the emotional investment we have built in our relationship with the gaslighter is what keeps us hoping for a return on our investment. Yet the more we invest, the more we inevitably risk.

An adult child of an abusive parent does not want to face the reality that their parent may have never loved them; a doting husband may prefer to believe that any evidence of his wife cheating was misconstrued; a sexual predator’s victims may wish to not move forward with legal charges because they hope they can move forward with their lives.

Denial – however simple it may seem – can be an effective strategy for an abuser to use precisely because it also works with a victim’s natural desire to avoid conflict, protect themselves from the trauma of the truth and maintain the false comfort of the abuser’s false mask.

2. Shaming and Emotional Invalidation.

When abusers are unable to convince you that your truth is a false reality, or when they feel they need to add an extra dose of emotional anesthesia to keep you quiet and compliant about their transgressions, they’ll add in subtle shaming or emotional invalidation. This is when, not only are your claims dismissed and denied, the fact that you brought them up in the first place make you somehow defective, abnormal or incompetent.

Shaming is powerful because it taps into the deepest core wounds of childhood. To be shamed is to ‘regress’ back into the first time you were reprimanded, belittled, made to feel small. It reminds you when you were once voiceless – and it repeats the destructive cycle by regurgitating old belief systems of unworthiness. When we feel unworthy, we are less likely to speak out or counter injustice in empowering ways by advocating for ourselves – which is why we tend to rationalize, minimize and deny gaslighting behavior and blame ourselves.

3. Pathologizing the Victim.

Malignant narcissists take it one step further when it comes to their victims; they engage in concrete actions that pathologize and discredit their partners. They play the smirking “doctors” in their intimate relationships, diagnosing their victims like “unruly patients,” all while downplaying their own pathological behavior. While they can also do this through a smear campaign, the most covert predators tend to use more underhanded methods to come out on top.

A victim whose credibility is weakened serves as ammunition for an abuser, because the abuser is able to evade accountability for his or her actions by claiming that the victim is unhinged, unstable, and pursuing some form of vendetta against the abuser.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline estimates that around 89% of their callers have experienced some form of mental health coercion and that 43% had experienced a substance abuse coercion from an abuser. According to them:

Most survivors who reported their abusive partners had actively contributed to mental health difficulties or their use of substances also said their partners threatened to use the difficulties or substance use against them with important authorities, such as legal or child custody professionals, to prevent them from obtaining custody or other things that they wanted or needed.”

The most covert gaslighters manufacture scenarios that drive their victims over the edge while erasing any trace of their involvement. They exploit existing vulnerabilities in the victims, such as past traumas, addictions and mental health issues. They create chaos so that the victim reacts and they are able to use the reactions of their victims against them (sometimes even going so far as to videotaping their reactions while failing to provide the context of their abusive behavior).

“Narcissists magnify the gaslighting effect when they accuse their victims of requiring professional help, medication or a psychiatric evaluation when their victims begin to call out the abuse. They may even coerce their victims to take drugs or push them over the edge when their victims are feeling suicidal from the impact of the long-term psychological terrorism they have endured. This is all done with the dual purpose of gaslighting the victim into thinking he or she is the crazy one – and of gaslighting society into thinking that they, the abuser, is actually the victim instead.” – Shahida Arabi, 

They use the vulnerabilities their victims disclosed to them early in the relationship against them to retraumatize them and shame them into feeling that no one would believe them if they spoke out. They accuse their victims of being “bitter” and “obsessed” with them, when in fact, they are the ones stalking their victims. Not unlike the set-up in movies like , the victim finds himself or herself being told that they are “crazy,” “losing it,” “imagining things,” or “delusional” even after they endure blow after blow.

Similarly, as victims of psychological violence get closer to the precipice of truth, the man (or woman) behind the curtain creates a great deal of noise to divert their victims from ever seeing what is beneath the surface of their façade and grandiose claims of authenticity. The noise malignant narcissists create instead refocuses on attacking the credibility of the victim rather than addressing their own crimes.

This includes: (1) telling the victim to seek “help” for calling out their behavior, convincing the victim to obtain medication to help manage their “symptoms” (because getting close to the truth, apparently, requires extensive care) (2) encouraging the victim to abuse substances (in an effort to control them, as well as to make them a less credible ‘witness’ to their crimes) and (3) using their trauma history against them to make them believe that they have no case for accusing them of abuse.

An expert gaslighter will point to the fact that you were violated in the past, which be why you’re acting out your trauma onto them in the present.

An expert gaslighter can even drive his or her victim to suicide.

Gaslighting in Conversations

What does gaslighting look like in day to day conversations? It usually involves some form of the following:

Malignant repetition of falsehoods. As noted previously, repeating a lie frequently enough can become a way to reinforce and cement it as truth. Whether these lies are seemingly innocuous or potentially damaging, they can overwrite existing perceptions.

“You flirted with that guy. I saw you.”

“I am such a nice guy/girl. I treat you so well.”

“I told you, I was at work. You need to stop with these baseless accusations.”

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Minimizing the impact or severity of the abuse. This is when the gaslighter has committed a serious offense against you and instead of acknowledging it, minimizes the impact the abuse had on you or the gravity of the abuse. Tell-tale signs someone is minimizing verbal, emotional or even physical abuse may sound something like:

“That wasn’t even abusive. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“I didn’t hurt you that badly. You’re just being a crybaby. There’s barely a scar.”

“I didn’t raise my voice. You’re just misinterpreting things.”

“So what if I cursed? Are you a child? Do I have to censor myself?”

Projection and generalization – The gaslighter diverts the claim back to the victim, claiming that he or she is the one who “always” creates trouble, when in fact, it is the gaslighter who is perpetually creating chaos and refusing to validate the victim’s claims. The gaslighter then generalizes all of the victim’s claims and assertions as ridiculous or characterizes them as attempts to create conflict, as if conflict did not already exist in the first place. Common examples include:

“You’re just so sensitive.”

“You take everything so seriously!”

“You’re always causing trouble.”

“You just love drama.”

Withholding information and stonewalling – The abuser is unwilling to engage in the conversation at all and often shuts down the conversation any time a claim is made against him or her about their behavior. This might look like:

“I am done discussing this.”

“I am not going to argue with you, this is pointless.”

“This conversation is not going anywhere.”

“That doesn’t even warrant a response.”

“The fact that you’re accusing me of that says a lot more about you than it does me.”

Questioning their memory, emotional stability and/or competence – The abuser avoids accusations and conversations by questioning the victim’s memory or ability to comprehend the situation in an unbiased way.

They may say things like, “I don’t remember that. Are you sure you’re remembering that correctly?” even if the event just happened a few moments ago. They may call into question a victim’s awareness, or, if they’ve engaged in substance abuse coercion with the victim, may use that against them to ensure that no one would believe them by asking things like, “Have you been drinking again?” or “Are you off your meds?”

Other common phrases include:

“You really have some issues.”

“You need to learn how to trust people.”

“God, you’re crazy.”

“You need to calm down and think about this.”

“You’re blowing everything out of proportion, as usual.”

Bringing in a third party/the triangulation maneuver. Triangulation is the act of bringing in another person into the dynamic of a toxic interaction. While we usually talk about triangulation in the context of manufacturing love triangles, when it is used in gaslighting, it can manifest quite differently.

Triangulation (in the context of gaslighting) can be used to confirm the abuser’s version of reality and shame you into believing that you truly are alone in your beliefs and perceptions. It fuels a victim’s sense of alienation when another person (or a group of people – such as the narcissist’s harem) agrees with his or her distortions.

Malignant narcissists are prone to recruiting what the survivor community refers to as “flying monkeys” to agree with their perspective. They may bring these people in physically to confirm their point of view (“Hey Sandra, what do you think? Isn’t Laura being paranoid?”), or even mention them in passing (“Even Sandra agreed with me that you’re being a bit paranoid, Laura”).

For example, in the movie (1944), the conniving husband is able to bring in his maids one by one to confirm that a small painting (which he deliberately misplaced) was not in fact, moved by them. This enables him to pretend that his wife has moved the portrait, though she has no recollection of doing so. These third-party “witnesses” or enablers convince her that she must be truly going insane, if she doesn’t at all remember doing what he accuses her of doing.

Diversions from the topic to assassinate the victim’s character or challenge the validity of the relationship. The gaslighter diverts the focus from his or her behavior onto the perceived character traits of the victim or the stability of the relationship.

They may say things like, “We just don’t get along,” or “We’re just too different. We’re not right for one another,” drawing attention to the relationship as a whole instead of the specific issue at hand. In a normal relationship where incompatibility is an issue, the idea that two people are simply “too different” may be true, but in the context of an abusive relationship, these are gaslighting phrases meant to divert you from the reality of the horrific abuse and onto the milder myth of incompatibility.

The truth is, no one is “compatible” with an abuser, and in a gaslighting power dynamic such as this, the problem is not the fact that you two don’t “get along.” It’s the fact that one partner is abusing his or her power to distort your reality.

Healing from Gaslighting

Healing from gaslighting can take time and support. It requires distance and space from the abuser in order to reconnect to your reality and get grounded in what you actually felt and experienced. Here are some tips on how to get started:

Make ‘redirecting’ anchoring statements when you find yourself romanticizing your abuser or dismissing an abusive incident. The good news is, repetition can go the other way: we can repeat the truth until we finally believe in it, and ourselves again. Creating “anchoring statements” that help redirect you to the reality of the abuse are especially helpful when you find yourself doubting what you experienced and minimizing what you felt.

Keep a list of general statements or a record of incidents of abuse that you can refer to in times of self-doubt. These can include documentation of the abuse (journal entries, text messages, voicemails, photographs, videotapes) or affirmations that remind you of what you experienced and why it wasn’t acceptable. This will help ground you back into your own reality and rewire your thinking so that you are no longer focused on the falsehoods fed to you by the abuser.

Seek self-validation and let go of your need to gain validation from the abuser. Abusive people are far too invested in their own agendas to ever validate your reality or confirm incidents of abuse. That is why it is important to establish No Contact or Low Contact (a minimum amount of contact in cases of co-parenting) with the abuser so you can get the necessary distance from your abuser to regroup and reemerge from the warped world created by this toxic person.

Consult trusted outsiders to do some much needed ‘reality testing.’ In the movie , it is only when an inspector confirms that the gas lights are indeed flickering to the gaslighted wife, Paula, that she realizes that she was right all along. Find a mental health professional who is trauma-informed, knowledgeable about malignant narcissism and understands the dynamics of covert violence. Describe what you felt, heard and witnessed exactly how you experienced it rather than telling the story through your abuser’s narrative. Regaining your voice in a setting where you can be validated and listened to is essential to the healing journey. Some survivors may also benefit from telling their stories to other survivors, who know what it is like to be gaslighted and can resonate with their experiences.

Write your story and bring it into the context of longer-term behavioral patterns. Journaling can be an excellent way to track your progress and narrate your reality. Keep a journal of incidents that occurred and how they made you feel. Separate the reality of your experiences from the claims of your abuser. For example, a journal entry may look like the following:

This narrates the experience without ‘giving in’ to the gaslighting attempts of the abuser. It reframes the experience to recall the victim’s feelings during the interactions and to address what rights were violated. It also includes mention of a pattern of behavior – ‘Tom,’ as the victim notes, has a habit of disrespecting her wishes even though she has addressed the fact that name-calling makes her uncomfortable. The victim of gaslighting is then able to draw a conclusion based on a pattern of behavior that she sees reoccurring, rather than dismissing it as an isolated incident.  This helps her to relieve some of the self-blame and cognitive dissonance as she reaffirms her reality and begins to trust herself again.

A Note About Gaslighting on a Societal Level

Gaslighting can also take place in contexts outside of intimate relationships. It can occur in the workplace, in family units, in schools, in politics, in cults and in society as a whole. Society often gaslights women, for example, by depicting them as “overemotional,” “unhinged” or “crazy” when they dare to be anything less than demure and submissive or when they ‘dare’ to be enraged about the way they’re being treated.

Society also routinely gaslights survivors of abuse or assault by interrogating them about their behavior and minimizing the impact of what they experienced. Politicians, lawmakers and court systems can dismiss the impact of emotional abuse by allowing it to fall under the convenient umbrella of “nonviolence” while setting the perpetrators free to commit more crimes that will never be persecuted under a court of law.

Those who benefit from an enormous amount of privilege can condemn those more marginalized when they speak out about social injustices like racism, sexism and ableism because it threatens their positions of power and control. They may call those who fight for justice “divisive” or “hateful” simply because they’re calling out bigotry, prejudice or unjust laws. Institutions may “gaslight” disadvantaged populations any time they wish to maintain that power by shifting the focus onto the behavior of marginalized people rather than examining what they can do to better support these populations.

There are many ways and contexts where we experience gaslighting and it is not just restricted to an abusive relationship. It is up to us as individuals and as a larger society to tackle gaslighting when we see it. Whether it is done with malicious intent or unwitting naiveté, gaslighting bears dangerous consequences when it goes unchallenged. Gaslighting has the power to shape and rewrite our reality. It’s about time we take back the narrative and hold fast to the truth – unapologetically owning our stories as we do so.

To learn more about gaslighting and covert emotional abuse, be sure to check out:

Works Cited
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De Canonville, C. L. (2012, July 24). The Effects of Gaslighting in Narcissistic Victim Syndrome. Retrieved November 8, 2017.
Dreyfuss, E. (2017, June 03). Want to Make a Lie Seem True? Say It Again. And Again. And Again. Retrieved November 7, 2017.
Durvasula, R. (2015). . New York: Post Hill press.
Geraci, L., & Rajaram, S. (2006). The illusory truth effect: The distinctiveness effect in explicit and implicit memory.  210-234.
Hasher, L., Goldstein, D., & Toppino, T. (1977). Frequency and the conference of referential validity.  (1), 107-112. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(77)80012-1
Leve, A. (2016, March 16). How to survive gaslighting: When manipulation erases your reality. Retrieved here November 5, 2017.
Sarkis, S. (2017, January 30). Are gaslighters aware of what they do? Retrieved here November 7, 2017.
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Stern, R. (2007). . Morgan Road Books.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). . NY, NY: Penguin Books.
Walker, P. (2013). . Lafayette, CA: Azure Coyote.
Warshaw, C., Lyon, E., Bland, P. J., Phillips, H., & Hooper, M. (2014). Mental Health and Substance Use Coercion Surveys. Report from the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. . Retrieved here November 5, 2017.
Wolford-Clevenger, C., & Smith, P. N. (2017). The conditional indirect effects of suicide attempt history and psychiatric symptoms on the association between intimate partner violence and suicide ideation.  , 46-51. Retrieved here.

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