Are you or someone you know a victim of gaslighting? Discover the serious psychological implications and learn strategies to protect your mental wellbeing.
Gaslighting is a manipulation technique experienced in toxic and abusive relationships, in which someone tries to make you doubt your own thoughts, feelings, or perceptions—causing you to question your own sanity and reality.
The word is something of a buzz word now, which is a good sign that awareness is on the increase - but the psychological effects on us and the long-term recovery needs are often less talked about.
In this article, we address this gap.
What is Gaslighting? (a quick summary)
In case you've not come across the phrase in detail, gaslighting refers to the behaviours of a person (usually an abusive partner) to make another person (the victim) mistrust their own experiences, feelings, thoughts and perceptions.
Common gaslighting tactics, include:
Obfuscation: deliberately muddying or overcomplicating an issue.
Withholding: pretending not to understand the victim.
Countering: vehemently calling into question a victim's memory despite the victim having remembered things correctly.
Blocking and diverting: diverting a conversation from the subject matter to questioning the victim's thoughts and controlling the conversation.
Trivialising: making the victim believe his or her thoughts or needs are unimportant.
Forgetting and denial: pretending to forget things that have really occurred. The abuser may deny or delay things like promises that are important to the victim. Although anyone can deny or delay, the gaslighter does it regularly in the absence of real external limitations. The gaslighter may make up or create artificial barriers to allow themselves to deny or delay that which is important to the victim.
On their own and in less extreme versions, they can be common in even healthy relationships when people get stressed or argue. But when they are repeated in a campaign, common to abusive and toxic relationships, they create changes in the psychology of the victims that is difficult to notice.
How Does Gaslighting Effect Our Psychology
Below, we discuss the generally known outcomes of gaslighting - but here we talk about the lesser discussed effects of gaslighting, that are critical in our understanding of why we may stay in relationships that are abusive.
Gaslighting interacts with some of what makes us human, some of the unique psychology that supports how we see the world. At the core, we are human making machines. We choose what we believe and we are guided by those beliefs, or at least that's how it seems.
It turns out, that we can be steered, groomed and shaped to believe many things that are not true - even when they damage us. We can believe we are to blame for our own abuse, that our abusive partner loves us (deep down), that we can never leave, we can never survive alone or that we are not worthy of love... and more. They are all delusions that emerge out of past trauma and abuse, and are magnified by gaslighting.
Gaslighting chips away at the very basis of human existence.
"I think therefore I am"
...is a well known phrase from the philosopher Descartes and describes how we must exist, because we can think. But gaslighting, ironically, communicates to us that what we think - we can't trust. Rather, we have to trust (or fear and serve) what our partner thinks, else experience their response (usually abuse). So, in essence, we lose what makes us conscious beings in charge of our own lives - we lose the ability to trust what we think and we lack an ability to see this happening, only the confusion that it has.
This may sound dramatic - but it happens. It is at the root of why so many people struggle to leave an abuser, struggle to stay away, struggle to know how to recover, struggle to ever find true love. Once we lost trust in what is real, it is hard to trust even ourselves again - to make choices, to build a life and to know who and what we need.
But this trust can be regained, with work.
Strategies to Support Recovery from Gaslighting - Regaining Trust in Ourselves.
Humans live through stories. We read them, we tell them and we think of our lives as a story - with a start, a timeline and a future. Stories are central to how we think and process our lives, as humans.
Our story can be broken when we experience abuse and our ability to tell our own story is fractured when we don't trust our own experience.
Story telling is a core part of most therapies, where we explore our past and we are supported to make sense of confusion and to let go of fear, guilt and shame in place of self-compassion.
We can access story telling as a therapeutic tool through our own journal, talking to supporters, accessing help services, seeking a therapist or entering into recovery programme like GOGL. Retelling our story, with a deep understanding of all of the psychological changes that happened in us, and why, means that we start to heal and recover - developing self worth, self love and freedom - but all alongside trust.
This is a must for any of us who are leaving a relationship where we were gaslit. Understanding, repairing and learning boundaries are the strategies we need to avoid the effects in our futures. Either on our own, or with support.
They take time, but are so worth it!
Mental Health Resources to Support Victims of Gaslighting
There are some more general outcomes, that are often recognised. Victims may experience feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, and distrust in their own thoughts and feelings. Additionally, they may develop depression, anxiety, and PTSD as a result of this manipulation. In some cases, these psychological effects are long-lasting and can be difficult to diagnose or treat due to the manipulation that caused them.
If you or someone you know is experiencing psychological distress from being a victim of gaslighting, it is important to seek mental health support. There are many resources available to help, including counseling services, peer-based programs like support groups or hotlines, and mental health apps with trusted therapists. Speaking with a professional can provide an objective understanding of the situation and offer the valuable insight needed for healing.
Our website has a signposting page to many of these services, in the UK.