How To Recognize Gaslighting
In essence, gaslighting is a process of manipulation intended to make you think that you're a bad, incompetent, or even crazy person. Its usual purpose is to make you perfectly compliant with what the gaslighter wants out of you and to stop you from doing, saying, or even thinking anything that might be bothersome or inconvenient to the gaslighter.
It's something we can encounter anywhere and can come from anyone. We might encounter it at work or school, in our families, in our relationships, or even on the Internet. Even some who claim that they're "just trying to help" or that they "just want what's best for everyone" are gaslighters.
Its effects are profound - "soul crushing" would be one way to put it. Victims are often left feeling as if they're terrible people who can't trust their own perceptions and judgment. They may constantly worry that they're doing something wrong when they aren't. They may feel afraid of doing anything for worry of doing something wrong.
So here's a list of gaslighting tactics, signs you've been affected by gaslighting, why someone might be gaslighting you, and what you might do to free yourself from it.
Tactics used by gaslighters
Insisting that you were the problem or that you acted wrongly in past situations - when it wasn't really the case. It's important to remember that people don't always remember everything perfectly, and we sometimes overlook our own flaws and mistakes. Thus, if someone occasionally remembers something differently than you do, it's possible that one of you is genuinely mistaken. But if someone frequently insists that you were at fault in situations that you remember very differently, or where you're very sure nobody else had a problem with you, then it's likely you're being gaslighted.
Insisting that you "should" have done something, when there's no way you could have feasibly done it, or could not have reasonably known to do it. Sometimes people have illogical or irrational moments and don't always immediately consider that others could not have been reasonably expected to do something, given the circumstances. But if you're constantly held at fault for not doing something you couldn't have feasibly done under the circumstances, or for not doing something that would have practically required you to read someone's mind or to see into the future to know that you "should" have done, then you're likely being gaslighted.
Denying or minimizing own actions. For example, by completely denying that something ever happened, or by telling you that you must be remembering wrong, or telling you that you're blowing things way out of proportion, or by insisting that their actions were completely justified or made perfect sense. Or they might tell you that they're "just trying to get you to consider another point of view" when in reality they refuse to let any argument go until you agree with them (even if they have to rekindle an argument you thought you finished weeks ago to do it!). Once again, human memory isn't perfect and we all have slightly skewed views of ourselves, but if this kind of thing happens on a regular basis, you've likely got a problem.
Claiming that your perceptions or emotions are the problem. It's true that nobody has completely objective perceptions, and our emotions sometimes really do get the better of us. Sometimes we misread situations or take things a little too personally. But if it seems that almost every opinion or complaint you voice that could be perceived as "rocking the boat" in any way is attributed to misperception, overreaction, or selfishness, then you're probably being gaslighted. Same goes if you're constantly being told that you're "too emotional" to do something or to have some conversation. (This goes extra if you're emotional because this person treated you condescendingly, callously, or insultingly to begin with!)
Persistently questioning what you say. If someone constantly asks you questions along the lines of "are you sure about that?" or "is that what really happened?", or gives you skeptical/sarcastic uh-huhs/mmhmms over and over until you change your answer or lose faith in it, you're probably being gaslighted.
Deciding your thoughts, feelings, and intentions for you. Although people can often make some pretty good guesses, nobody can truly know for absolute certain what's going on inside another person's mind. If someone frequently tells you what your own thoughts, feelings, and intentions are and/or frequently dismisses what you say they are (EG, with flat-out denial, mockery, or by telling you that you "lack self-awareness" whenever you disagree with this person's assessment of you), you're probably being gaslighted.
Reinforcing the you-as-problem narrative in other ways. In addition to the above, gaslighters might make statements like "Well, we all know how you are" and "You're always pulling this kind of stunt!" Or they might take something you said or did earlier out of context. (Though they will, of course, deny that they're taking it out of context.) They might also turn everything back around on you - for example, if you say that you don't feel like you're being listened to, you might be told "No, you're not listening to me. Listening is a two-way street, you know." Or if you say that you don't like the way you've been treated, you might be told, "That's real rich, coming from you of all people!" Or if you talk about something that happened to you, or about how you feel about something, you might get a snide or sarcastic response that makes it clear that the gaslighter thinks you're foolish, lying, or just looking for attention.
Isolating you from other people and perspectives. Gaslighters might make a point of telling their victims how their friends or family said negative things about them, or of telling them how their friends or family are untrustworthy or dishonest. They might do the same for counselors, therapists, or anyone whom the victims might possibly seek help from. This can discourage victims from talking to people who might be able to provide counterpoints to what the gaslighters say, while allowing gaslighters to claim that they aren't abusive because they never actually forbade or physically prevented their victims from seeing or talking to these people.
It's important to remember that nobody is perfect, and an isolated or one-time incident like this doesn't necessarily mean you're dealing with a gaslighter. Everybody has off days and miscommunication happens. However, if you see a long-term pattern of behaviors like these, then something is wrong.
Signs you've been affected by gaslighting
(Do note that some of these can be explained by anxiety and the like. If you can't think of a person in your life who has actually engaged in any of the above behaviors on a regular and ongoing basis, then anxiety may be a factor to consider.)
You desperately want to be a "good" person, but you actually have no real idea how. Sure, you might have some vague notion like "be less selfish/demanding/pushy" or "be kinder/more considerate/more respectful," but when you get down to it, you have no idea how you're supposed to be all that and still be a functionally independent and assertive human being. In fact, it might be that when you stop and really think about it, the only "right" answer seems to be "never assert yourself or do anything at all except what you are told or explicitly permitted to do."
You constantly doubt or dismiss your own perceptions, instincts, memories, and judgment. It's normal and healthy to question ourselves once in awhile - nobody's perfect and we're all prone to the occasional error. But if you're constantly doubting yourself or are always assuming that you must be in error somehow (especially where this person is involved), or if you're constantly fretting that you're doing or saying something wrong without realizing it, something is very wrong.
You know something is wrong, but you can't figure out exactly what it is. Deep inside, you might realize that this isn't how normal, compassionate people behave and think, or that this isn't how someone who really wants to help you become a better person acts. You might be realizing that while you constantly try to treat this person with empathy, compassion, and support, this person never gives you any. You might subconsciously recognize that you're being criticized or reprimanded for things that the gaslighter doesn't see as problems in other people. You might realize that how you're being asked or pressured to behave doesn't actually create a fair and functional social, work, or relationship dynamic, but instead creates a dynamic that really only benefits the gaslighter. Or your subconscious might be telling you that the gaslighter has been deceiving or manipulating you and that you need to question what you've been told.
How do gaslighters potentially benefit?
In my observation, there are five main ways that people prone to gaslighting behavior benefit from it. Not every gaslighter seeks to benefit in all of these ways, but many of them benefit in more than one way. Possible ways they can benefit include:
Avoiding criticism or reprimand. By scapegoating others, gaslighters can potentially escape criticism or reprimand themselves, thus keeping their reputations intact and/or avoiding other unpleasant consequences. Some might pick a designated scapegoat to blame for everything, and do everything they can to create a narrative that reinforces the scapegoat's guilt in everyone else's minds.
Justifying a personal crusade or quest. Some might decide for whatever reason that you're a "bad" person who needs fixed or knocked down a peg and take it upon themselves to do just that. In essence, they give themselves a proverbial dragon to slay, which can make them feel like they're doing something useful and necessary. (These types will likely ignore everything about you that doesn't fit their prejudices, while behaving as if every terrible assumption and misgiving they have about you are completely justified and grounded in hard reality.)
Feeling or appearing superior to others. Some gaslighters might try to boost their own egos or social statuses by trying to make others look inferior to them, thus making themselves look superior by comparison.
Getting sadistic pleasure. Some might just really enjoy tearing others apart and take pleasure in watching someone's confidence and self-worth crumble away.
Getting their way in general. Sometimes it might just be a matter of wanting to gain something. Sometimes it's a matter of wanting to get rid of or brush off a perceived threat. Sometimes it's just a matter of wanting to get away with something.
What do I do if I've been gaslighted?
Minimize contact with this person, if possible. You've got to reclaim your brain and pull yourself back together - essentially, you need to deprogram yourself - and it's hard to do that when you're constantly exposed to a person who has you brainwashed.
Start relying on your own self-check system. The best way to keep other people from running your mind is to run it yourself. If you start wondering whether you're the one in the wrong, ask yourself:
- "What would happen if everyone in positions similar to mine behaved the way this person wants me to act? Would that really create fair and functional social/work/relationship dynamics for them?"
- "Does the way I'm apparently expected to behave actually make everything better for everyone in a clear, logical, and demonstrable way? Has this ever actually been reliably shown to benefit people in the way this person claims it will? Or does it really only benefit this one person and perhaps this person's cronies?"
- "Did I do the best I could in that moment, based on what I knew and what I had at my disposal at the time? What did I actually know to do at the time that could have changed the outcome?"
- "Is it actually realistic to expect people to live up to all of this? Who is actually capable of living up to all of this?"
- "Why does it matter so much if I don't live up to all of this? Are there clear and provable negative consequence to this, or have the alleged consequences never been proven or demonstrated? Or are the only demonstrable 'consequences' this person's displeasure or punishment?"
- "Am I being held up to standards that this person doesn't live up to, nor expects out of others?
- "Am I being held up to a level of scrutiny that this person doesn't apply to others?"
- "Does what I've been told make logical sense?"
- "Which one of us probably knows better what I'm thinking - me who is actually in my head, or this other person who can only guess at what's in it?"
Work on letting go of wanting to make the gaslighter happy with you, or trying to make the gaslighter understand you. You might sometimes find yourself thinking, "maybe if I tried just a little harder, or explained myself a little better...!" Odds are, no. If it was possible to get through to that person, you'd have most likely succeeded a long time ago. (The last thing gaslighters want to do is see things from your perspective. They want to trap you inside their self-serving narratives. Your perspective doesn't help them do that, so they have no real interest in it.)
Look for outside help. You might talk to a therapist or counselor, or talk to a friend - preferably, one from another social circle altogether. You might look into self-help books or websites, or see if you can find an online support group.
Check out How To Recognize A Moral Abuser. Many gaslighters are moral abusers, and vice-versa.
Also, take a look at:
How To Deprogram Your Own Mind (Offsite)
AnxietyBC - Self Help (Offsite.)
Raised By Narcissists (Offsite support group for those with toxic parents of this type; many narcissists are gaslighters.)
Psychology Today: Are You Being Gaslighted? (Offsite)
10 Things I wish I’d known About Gaslighting (Offsite)
Gaslighting In Therapy (Offsite)
How To Recognize Bad Creative Mentors
Dealing With Criticism & Negative Reviews
Signs You're In A Toxic RP Community