Who's got the remote control of your life?

Decoding 'gaslighting' and its many effects...

Gaslighting involves the psychological manipulation by one person, of a single victim, over a prolonged period of time.

Interpersonal relationships involve complex dynamics, and being able to work through them holds the key to them being mutually satisfying. There are some dynamics, though, that simply cannot be worked through, no matter how hard you try. ‘Gaslighting’ is one such.

Like everything else in life, before you can identify it, or identify with it and acknowledge it, you need to know what it is. So, let’s first figure out what ‘gaslighting’ is before you jump to the conclusion that it is your problem.

Put very bluntly, ‘gaslighting’ is a technical-sounding name for the widely prevalent act of emotional abuse. It happens mostly between partners in an intimate relationship, but can very well happen in any relationship where there is a power imbalance — at the workplace, in politics, and even in school. It happens when one party in the equation makes the other feel they are losing their ability to think and function, erasing their confidence and self-worth in the process.

Decoding gaslighting

Named after the 1944 movie Gaslight where the husband convinces the wife that she is going insane, ‘gaslighting’ involves the psychological manipulation by one person, of a single victim, over a prolonged period of time. The process ends up with the victim’s self-esteem being so damaged that the victim becomes dependent on the ‘gaslighter’ for validation — thus making the victim even more vulnerable. It is the specific kind of manipulation that is aimed at getting victims to question their own reality, memory or perceptions. And it’s always a serious problem, according to psychologists.

Recognised as a form of narcissistic abuse by sociopathic, psychopathic and narcissistic types of people, this is more about the psychological dysfunctionality of the ‘gaslighter’ than a sign of any shortcoming on the part of the victim. The ‘gaslighter’, of course, does not recognise or acknowledge this as a problem. Like all abuse, it is based on the need for power, control, and concealment.

So, what are some techniques ‘gaslighters’ use?

They try to convince the victim of some truth that is blatantly untrue, using some superficial evidence, or by believing that repeatedly saying something somehow makes it the truth. They tell lies, denying saying or doing something that has been said or done by them. This often results in the victim wondering if anything the ‘gaslighter’ says is true. Sometimes the victims end up questioning their own reality and accepting that of the ‘gaslighter’s’. But the ‘gaslighter’s’ actions don’t match their words either. What they say means nothing. It is just talk, and lying is a common trait. What they do is the issue.

Gaslighting
Gaslighters make the victim out to be the source and reason for any problem, no matter how unrelated to the problem they are.

They invalidate and minimise the victim’s feelings and perceptions and question the validity of any contradictory point of view. They systematically isolate the victims from other sources of information and validation. They encourage the victims to doubt their own memory or perception, faking concern for their mental health while playing mind games to convince them of their mental instability and vulnerability. They end up preying on the victims’ vulnerabilities and make them out to be not good enough, but occasionally throw in some positive reinforcement to confuse them, thereby weakening them. They project their own weaknesses and faults onto their victims so that the victims get busy in defending themselves and are distracted from focusing on the ‘gaslighter’s’ dysfunctional behaviour.

How does it affect you?

Now, that’s a lot for anyone to take. But the ‘gaslighting’ does not stop there. There is more they do:

* They make the victim out to be the source and reason for any problem, no matter how unrelated to the problem they are.

* They know people like stability and normalcy. Their goal is to uproot this and portray themselves as the only source of stability in the victim’s life, predicting that a break-up will wreak havoc for the victim, if that is what the victim proposes.

* They use children, and the victim’s sense of identity (both of which are very dear to the victim) as ammunition to attack the very core of their being.

* They try to align people against the victim, attributing comments to people who never made them, because, basically, they are liars. And they also try to tell others that the victim is crazy. They know that if they question the victim’s sanity, others will not believe what the victim has to say about them. They also tell the victim that everyone else who is close to the victim is a liar, which makes the victim question his/her reality and become more dependent on the ‘gaslighter’ as the source of truth!

* But, most importantly, they wear the victim down over time.

Recognising that you, or someone dear to you, is in a dance with a ‘gaslighter’ is not that straightforward for obvious reasons — it starts in very small ways and is between two people who seemingly care a lot for each other. It is important though, because ‘gaslighting’ promotes anxiety and depression, and can trigger nervous breakdowns. Most people have experienced some form of ‘gaslighting’ or the other. The problem is when their life is only about ‘gaslighting’ and little else.

Rebuilding yourself

The good news is that knowledge and awareness is the first step to healing your life and rebuilding the strong perceptive person you are. Think about your life and write down the ways you believe you are being ‘gaslighted’. After all, you must be able to confirm that you are being ‘gaslighted’ before you can begin to move on from there and start the healing process.

Decide whether it is worth your while to continue your relationship with the ‘gaslighter’.

Talk to trusted friends and family, maybe even a therapist, who may help you shift your perspective from being a victim to being a survivor and reclaiming your personal power; from being vulnerable and weak to being strong and having an impenetrable armour protecting your core, even if only in your imagination.

Know this...

Know that it is totally possible to get out of the situation. The thing to remember is that ‘gaslighting’ cannot happen unless you allow it to. And once you realise that you are allowing yourself to be manipulated consistently, away from your own thoughts, you can also decide that you don’t want to be a part of it anymore. A victim’s ability to resist manipulation depends on their ability to trust their own judgment. Be warned, though, that beginning to trust your judgment again is not going to be easy after many years of second-guessing yourself.

Accept that the ‘gaslighter’ will never take responsibility for his/her actions. Things are not going to change or be different. So, asserting oneself is often useless, harmful, and exhausting. Realise that logic and reason cannot be applied, so don’t waste your energy expecting that.

Know that the reason behind the ‘gaslighter’s’ opinions is not YOU. It is their own insecurities, fears, and issues. So don’t allow your view of the world to be altered and stick to the facts you know to be true. And finally, detach yourself. Detaching does not necessarily mean that you have to leave. It may just mean that you can feel happy and calm once you realise that this is not about you.

To soften the blow of the realisation that you are the victim of ‘gaslighting’, it is helpful to bear in mind that while it always happens in a power dynamic, it is not always intentional, conscious or even malicious. It might just be a result of how the person was raised. Maybe their parents had very cut-and-dry beliefs about the world so that is what the ‘gaslighter’ learnt. When someone saw things differently, they assumed something is wrong with them, according to Robin Stern, PhD, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect. “Having compassion for yourself is super important. You’re responsible to YOU. You need to be honest with yourself,” Stern notes.

In a nutshell, solace lies in giving yourself permission to feel what you feel. Have compassion for yourself. Take care of yourself. And get all the help you need to reach there.

(The author is a counsellor)

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