Heartbreak

18 Signs Of Gaslighting & Examples Of How It Plays Out In Abusive Relationships

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woman experiencing gaslighting

Gaslighting isn't a new concept, but in recent years the term has gained increasing attention as discussions of emotional and psychological abuse have become more prevalent and gained more traction in mainstream media, where examples of gaslighting have become more common in highlighting stories of abusive behavior.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional and mental abuse in which the abuser questions or denies the victim's reality, making them doubt themselves in order to deflect from their own guilt and bad behavior. Ultimately, this often grants the abuser what they want — control over the victims thoughts, feelings and actions.[1]

Because you are being manipulated into believing something that is not true — that you are the "bad," "irrational," or "abusive" person in the situation, or that things you know are true are not — gaslighting can make you feel crazy.

The name for this concept comes from a 1938 play and the subsequent 1944 film called "Gas Light" starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman whose husband secretly dims and brightens their gas-powered indoor lights, yet insists she is imagining it, leading her to believe she is going insane.[2]

The APA notes[3]: "The term once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally. It is usually considered a colloquialism, though occasionally it is seen in clinical literature, referring, for example, to the manipulative tactics associated with antisocial personality disorder."

If someone is gaslighting you, you may literally question your own sanity and stop believing in yourself.

Why is gaslighting so effective?

As signs of gaslighting pop up in your relationship over time, they are likely to be subtle, especially at the beginning.

An abuser may try twisting your words to fit their own narrative, or they may flat-out lie about things so adamantly that you back down and blame yourself for ever having raised the issue you (rightfully and understandably) raised in the first place.

As the abuser invalidates the victim's emotions, it raises doubts in the victim's own mind about their sense of reality and rational thought processes. As the victim's confidence in their own memory of events wavers, the abuser grants themselves the de facto upper hand.

Knowing how to recognize gaslighting when you encounter it can help you protect yourself and others from this particularly damaging kind of psychological warfare. Stay informed and pass on this information because you never know who’s life you are saving:

RELATED: How To Recognize Even The Most Subtle Signs Of Domestic Violence

18 Signs of gaslighting (with examples)

1. You feel something is off but can't pinpoint what or why.

How can you possibly tell anyone that something is wrong or off if you don’t know how to explain it or specifically what it is? This makes the victim feel weaker and more isolated.

Example: Your partner speaks proudly of being the provider in your relationship, but never seems to have his wallet with him when the check comes.

2. You have frequent feelings of confusion and disorientation.

You feel like you're in a daze and things around you are blurred.

Example: You find yourself zoning out, lost in thought as you revisit confusing conversations that didn't go as you expected, and you can't figure out why.

3. Your partner's actions do not align with what they're saying.

What they are saying and what they do are completely different. Remember this: when a story or explanation starts becoming confusing or not making sense, it’s likely the other person is lying.

Example: Your partner says they couldn't possibly have taken money from your purse because they don't even know where you keep it, but you know it was right there on the kitchen counter in the morning when they were in there making coffee and you were in the shower.

4. You start doubting yourself, making it difficult for you to make decisions.

Your ability to make simple decisions becomes increasingly difficult.

Example: You want to buy a new car and you've purchased several on your own in the past, but now your partner has been telling you that you let people take advantage of you, so you don't feel safe going through with it without taking them along with you to the dealership.

RELATED: Why Emotional Abuse Makes You Feel Crazy, Even When You're (Pretty Sure You're) Not

5. You constantly apologize for what you do or who you are.

Even though you have no idea what you did or why the abuser is saying or doing things, you will apologize in hopes of smoothing things over.

Example: You were so excited to post that cute selfie on Instagram ... until your partner told you it made you look desperate for attention. So you apologized for being so vain and deleted the post because now it just makes you sad to see it there on your feed.

6. You feel unusually fearful and scared of your partner.

You become increasingly fearful of the abuser. You don’t know who to tell or what to do because you can’t exactly put your finger on why you’re afraid.

Example: You have something you want to tell your partner, because that's what partners do, but you just know there's a good chance it will set them off, even though it's honestly no big deal.

7. You never feel good enough for your partner.

How can you feel good enough for the abuser when they are constantly putting you down?

Example: You're so excited to have started a new evening walk routine, but you know your partner is still unimpressed you're just walking quickly, not jogging.

8. You find it increasingly difficult to trust your own judgment.

You start believing things are made up in your head and you can’t think straight. You start doubting your intuition and gut feelings and start believing their judgments.

Example: You just know your partner and that "friend from work" seem to be spending way too much time together, but you've been told you're jealous so many times, you wonder if it's really just you being insecure.

9. You feel as if you're "neurotic" or "losing it."

They will brainwash you to a point of questioning your own sanity and judgment. You will feel like you're going crazy.

Example: You've had this suspicion that they are in the wrong so many times before, but they've always managed to turn things around so you are the one who apologizes, so you literally start to wonder if maybe there's something wrong with your mental health.

Credit: Zaie / Shutterstock

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10. You're afraid and fearful to speak up about anything or stick up for yourself.

You want to avoid confrontation at all costs so you remain silent.

Example: Even when you know you are in the right, you have been so rattled by their psychological warfare in prior arguments that you'd rather blow it off than risk facing their furious denial again.

11. You second-guess your ability to recall past events and details.

Because you start believing their judgments and versions of events, you start to second and third guess yourself and wonder if certain things were completely made up in your own mind.

Example: You revisit arguments in your head over and over, wondering how you could possibly have been so sure you were right when they so easily proved you wrong.

12. You feel like you're constantly overreacting or being too sensitive.

You blame yourself by telling yourself that you’re overreacting or being too sensitive.

Example: You confront your partner for something you know was a complete violation of your trust, but somehow the conversation always ends with you apologizing for overreacting or jumping to conclusions.

13. You feel hopeless and helpless.

You feel trapped and feel there’s no way out.

Example: You know you want to leave the relationship, but you just feel like you can't, even though you can't explain why.

14. Your partner calls you crazy or tells others you're crazy.

They want you to feel crazy and want others around you to think you are crazy so that you are isolated in your thoughts and mind.

Example: When you tell your partner something is bothering you, they ask you've spoken to your therapist about that.

RELATED: Yes, You Can Get PTSD From Staying In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

15. Your partner tells you everyone else is a liar.

They will never admit they did something wrong or lied about anything. They will portray themselves to be perfect and everyone else out to be the bad ones.

Example: Your partner's best friend confesses to you that they know there is someone else, but your partner insists their own best friend is making it all up.

16. Your partner takes what you value and love most and uses it against you.

Your family. Your friends. Your classmates. Your professors. School. Anything that you value and is important to you may be used against you.

Example: When you tell your partner your mom, dad, sister, brother or best friend pointed out something they did that was obviously unfair to you, your partner goes off about how your family has never accepted them because they are so judgmental and elitist.

17. Your partner denies they ever said or did anything — even with solid evidence presented.

You can tell them that the sky is blue and they will continue to tell you the sky is red or green.

Example: You show your partner a photo of them with their arm around that same work friend's waist and they tell you someone Photoshopped it as a prank.

18. Your partner attempts to get other people to go against you.

They want you to have no one. They want you to be alone and isolated with no one to tell you the truth or plant the seed that something is wrong with the abuser.

Example: Before you can ask someone to verify your partner's side of the story, your partner has gone to that person and warned them that you have been irrationally jealous lately and that they should be careful if you try to talk to them.

These examples of gaslighting are extremely dangerous and can be harmful to your long-term mental health.

Because of the slow progression of such subtle acts that over time, it becomes more serious the longer you allow the abuse to continue, and could eventually lead you to develop PTSD.

You should never doubt your instincts and always listen to yourself when something feels off. You don’t owe anyone an explanation about why or how a person is affecting you.

If someone is negatively impacting your life, end the relationship before it goes any further, and know that you are not alone.

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What to do if you think you are being gaslighted

If you think you may be experiencing some of the signs of gaslighting listed above, don't brush it off. Take some time completely for yourself when you know no one will disturb you, and use it to pause and reflect.

Donna Andersen, founder of Lovefraud Education and Recovery, recommends that you ask yourself some important questions.

"If you suspect that you're being gaslighted, I recommend that you sit quietly, calm your mind, and listen to your body. Do you feel uneasy? Full of tension? Like something isn't right? Do you have the sense that you're not getting the whole or complete story? Your instincts know. The key is to listen to them, and take action based on what your intuition tells you," she says.

Dr. Judy Tiesel-Jensen, LMFT, adds, “If you think you're being gaslighted, the first thing is to trust yourself. Second, find an objective person who can listen to your experience. That may be a counselor, advisor, or a friend who can hear without protecting or blaming. Third, strategize with that objective person, like a counselor, what the next best step is. Next steps will depend on who the ‘gas-lighter’ is, and you may have a different approach if it is a supervisor, partner, or family member."

Feeling as though you're being gaslighted can make you feel helplessly ensnared in someone else's controlling grip and upside-down world.

However, you can break free and find a way to recover, trust yourself again and feel at home in your own mind and body.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Get Your Power Back And End Emotional Abuse

Brittney Lindstrom is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor.

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