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Why 'Gaslighting' Is Such A Powerful Weapon Of Emotional Abuse — And What To Do If It's Happening To You

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What Is Gaslighting? How To Deal With Emotional Abuse In Toxic Relationships
Contributor
Love, Family

Nobody deserves this.

In my personal experience, the emotional abuse technique known as "gaslighting" can be more subtle than the basic definition would have you believe.

What is gaslighting?

As defined by Wikipedia, gaslighting (or gas-lighting) is "a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim."

For examples of how gaslighting manifests in emotionally abusive relationships, I can look to my own relationship my mother.

For many years, my mother told me told me that my father loved me and didn’t love anyone else in the family. I have no idea if this is true or not — I certainly did feel loved by my father.

When I eventually told my mother, as an adult, how this made me feel, the guilt I carried for being the only one he loved, her first response was to deny that it ever happened, and that if she had said something to that effect, I'd taken it the wrong way.

Finally, she stated that I was selfish and self-centered for bringing the painful subject up with her, that I only ever thought about myself, and that it was hurtful to her that I loved my father at all.

RELATED: If He Does These 11 Things, You're Not 'Crazy', He's Gaslighting You

My reaction, as I’m sure you can imagine, for so many years was to continue attempting to make her understand my point of view.

I wanted to be listened to. I wanted to be heard. And I tried everything I could think of over the years to make her understand my viewpoint, until one day I gave up.

I was self-seeking — not selfish, and there is a world of difference. I needed to be heard and understood.

I tried to convince my mom to see the effect of her words on me. The more I persisted, the more she resisted.

I became incredibly needy, though unaware of it at the time. The traumatic effects of her psychological abuse colored and shaded all of my other relationships.

I didn’t trust what people told me. I was wary of being loved, because I didn’t believe I deserved it. I stayed incredibly insular in order to protect myself.

I was always waiting to be let down and I’m sure you can imagine the outcome — I got let down a lot by a lot of people.

RELATED: 4 Signs Your Boyfriend Is A Gaslighting Narcissist

Those were some of the results of my gaslighting experience, which I can share from a distance of time and healing. But at the time, I had no idea of this dynamic — and to be fair neither did my mother. She was recreating the same mother/daughter relationship she had with her mother (I believe).

Recently, I have been speaking to many women (not to say that men don’t suffer this sort of abuse) and I've found this to be a hot topic that stirs a range of reactions from "Am I going mad?" to "I should pack a bag and leave now. There is no time to waste!"

We all have our opinions based on our personal experiences, so I thought that it might be useful to give my take on the subject.

I'll start by saying that if you are in physical danger or even emotional or mental danger, please reach out to someone and ask for help.

You may not be at that point, however. You may feel the way I did in the example I shared above, left asking the following questions, which are more confusing than anything else:

  • Is this abuse?
  • Is she/he aware of it?
  • Is it pre-planned?
  • How can I make him/her change/understand/admit or ______? (Fill in the blank what ever you have the need to achieve.)
  • What can I do about it? (The big burning question.)

RELATED: The Scary Way 'Smart Home' Appliances Can Assist in Gaslighting And Emotional Abuse

I mentioned earlier how needy I became. I needed to prove something to my mother. And that meant I was handing my power away. Neither I was aware that I had handed it over nor my mother that she held this power.

When you're caught up in trying to answer the questions above and spending time trying to obtain certain results from that person, you're trying to fix the situation by "fixing" them.

They hold a position of strength in your life.

So how can you regain your power? Let's go back to these questions: "How can I make him/her change/understand/admit or______?"

The answer lies here: "Why do I need him or her to change/understand/admit or … Whatever?

When you know your motivation, you can then step outside the current dynamic. You can’t "fix" you partner but you can start to work on you.

For me, the motivation was seeking my mother's validation, expressed through my desperate need to feel heard and understood by her.

When you're on the receiving end of gaslighting in an emotionally abusive relationship, you question your intuition, thoughts, memories, and feelings. You may even question your sanity, depending on the level of abuse.

Here are 7 steps you can take in order to free yourself from the emotional pain and trauma caused by gaslighting.

1. Accept that you are correct about your own experience

Yes, this is actually happening.

2. Identify what it is you feel you need from your partner.

What is motivating you in your attempts to counteract their abuse?

3. Make a decision to change your approach.

Don’t get into the usual dance. Instead of pushing for an admission of guilt, look at why it's important to you and work out a strategy whereby you are your own personal champion.

My first step was making a decision to listen to my intuition and just be okay knowing that I know "my truth."

4. Give yourself whatever is it you feel you need.

If you feel that non-admission shows a lack of love, and you've been motivated by trying to get your partner to prove that they love you, work out how you can shower yourself with love whether or not they are around.

5. Step up and become your own champion.

Teach your partner that you're dancing to a different tune now. Lead by example.

Many times, I see that perceived gaslighting is nothing more than a defense mechanism by a very unhappy person. Teach them there is another way.

6. Drop your expectations, whether they're positive or negative.

When you change, your reality changes. It's that simple. However, if you keep expecting the same things to happen, they surely will.

7. Ask for help.

Whether that be from a therapist or by opening up to friends and sharing the real you, you'll be amazed at the difference this makes.

No one person can fulfill all our needs and when we look elsewhere for a support network, it lifts a lot of pressure from the relationship as well.

RELATED: 21 Signs You're In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Who is most susceptible to this sort abuse and how we can protect ourselves? Here is a list of traits that I recognize in myself, which have previously contributed to my part in this abuse system:

  • The need to be heard and understood
  • The need for love and approval
  • The need to be right

Other common traits that may attract gaslighting or other emotional or pathological abuse is the tendency towards people pleasing, being empathic, and always looking for the best possible outcome for all involved. The need to portray/see that person/partner through the veil of positivity and of course.

If you recognize yourself or are currently in a similar situation please reach out. Remember, you can't change your partner — if the gaslighting continues, you have every right to protect yourself by ending or redefining the relationship.

RELATED: 7 Things That Look Like Love, But Are Actually Emotional Abuse

Allison Reiner is a relationship transformation coach, mentor, and speaker. To learn more, visit her website.

This article was originally published at The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.