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What is ‘gaslighting’? Our resident psychotherapy columnist Elaine Bond explains more about this form of emotional abuse

We have all read about gaslighting and how it affects us. But what exactly is it?

It is based on the plot of a 1938 play called “Gaslight”. In this play, a husband attempts to convince his wife that he is going insane by changing small things in their home and then telling her she is mistaken. The title is based on the fact that the husband dims the lights in their home and pretending nothing has changed. So, the wife doubts herself. His motive? To find the jewels which are hidden in the attic that belonged to a woman he has murdered. The more she doubts what she sees and hears, the easier it is for him to do what he wants, and ultimately he wants to get her sectioned so that he can search the house in peace.

Today we know gaslighting as a form of emotional abuse,  such as when someone makes us question our experiences which then really impacts our self-confidence. We lose the ability to question our abuser (yes, they are abusers) as they challenge and change our perceptions of their abuse. We end up scared, confused and manipulated.

The damage caused by gaslighting is huge, as we lose our sense of self, we have no confidence in what we say, do or think, so we cannot make decisions without referring to others, and mostly that will be the abuser. Constantly second guessing ourselves leads to low self-esteem, we cannot trust our view of the world and then finally we become dependent on the abuser.

Gaslighting has some key stages. The abuser is subtle and clever, so we do not notice what is happening straight way. In fact, the abuse is often so subtle it is way down the line before we realise just how much we doubt ourselves. Gaslighting starts with lies and exaggeration or generalising issues with us without facts, just statements like ‘you know I don’t like it when you wear that dress as it’s just not you’. The next stage is repetition and repeatedly we will hear these subjective comments about us.

At this point we may challenge the abuser and that’s when the attacks are doubled and get worse. Out and out lies will be told to ensure we doubt ourselves. Blame, denial and misdirection will all be used until we are confused and doubt what happened.

PICTURED: Chales Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight

Eventually we are worn out, riddled with doubt, fearful and confusion turns into anxiety. We doubt our self, our perceptions and even our reality.

So, then we are dependant and used by the abuser as they have all our power and we are now unable to move without them. Of course, this is just to get us to do whatever the abuser wants us to do.

To keep us there, the abuser will occasionally be nice, kind and considerate which leads us to believe that they are not that bad. This is purely to keep us in a state of doubt ‘She is not that bad, it must be me overreacting’.

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Gaslighting is easiest in relationships, as the constant contact and ability to lie and deceive makes it easy to do. But It is also used in workplaces, families and friendships.

Some key signs that we may be the victim of gaslighting are –

We say sorry a lot and are constantly apologising as that is easier that standing our ground. But this give our abuser an easy life as they never have to take responsibility for their actions.

We find ourselves obsessed with our faults, whether that is in our character, body, intelligence or personality. We start to ‘know’ we are faulty, and we feel a lot of shame about ourselves. Our abusers have ensured that we believe no one will want us.

PICTURED: Gedling-based counsellor Elaine Bond

Our self-esteem is so low that we believe we deserve to be treated badly and we don’t deserve happiness or good things. As a consequence of this, we turn down opportunities to meet friends or family and have a good time because we believe we don’t deserve it.

We feel like a disappointment, not just to the abuser, but to others and most importantly to ourselves. We are not good enough at anything.

We make excuses to others about the abuser’s behaviour,  by rationalising that “t’s not them it’s us”. In fact, we won’t hear a bad word said about them, we believe they are perfect.

We know we are ‘too sensitive’ and we ‘overreact’ but it’s a flaw and we should stop creating our own problems.

Our bodies tell us what we don’t believe and we tense up around the abuser. The emotional abuse has created an anxiety response that is out of our control. Our fight/flight response is activated as we prepare to be gaslighted again.

Coming out of a gaslighting relationship is hard and we need the support of people who care about us,. especially those who have told us they don’t like the way we have been treated.

We need to be defiant, trust ourselves and if we did not put the cereal in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard – don’t get up and check it. Trusting our own version of reality is key and being angry is okay.

Let go of what you want the relationship to be and the magical thinking that we now have. ‘If I try hard enough, she will love me again’. We need to find our logic and look at what we are doing in this relationship.

We also must remember who we were before and realise the changes that we have made are completely unreasonable.

Finally, we must accept we will never ‘win’ with an abuser as their narcissistic personality will not let you ever have the upper hand. To fully recover we have to leave.

Emotionally abusive people are usually charming and great manipulators  so we need to strong and aware of what they are capable of as we leave them behind.

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