Person staring into nature. How to respond to gaslighting

Being gaslighted by someone you trust will wear down your self-esteem, make you doubt yourself, and generally throw you off balance. That’s why it’s so important that you know how to respond to gaslighting effectively — it can save you from getting involved in some deeply toxic relationship dynamics.

“Gaslighting” is a term that originated from an old movie, where a woman lived with a man in a home with old-fashioned gas lights. The man was trying to drive the woman crazy.

He would consistently turn the lights dimmer in their home but denied that it was dimmer and pretended that the light was normal — and the woman began to doubt her own senses. Over time, she went insane.

Learning how to stop gaslighting behavior might take time. Individual therapy can help you work on your emotional intelligence, learn to trust yourself and validate yourself, and recognize signs of abuse in your relationship. 

What Does Gaslighting Mean?

Gaslighting happens when someone causes you to question your feelings, thoughts, intuition, and judgment when they are, in fact, reliable sources of information that you should trust.

The classic example is in the case of infidelity. One partner will become suspicious of their spouse’s late nights working, unavailability during work trips, or odd calls to their phone.

However, when they confront the unfaithful spouse, their responses were things like, “You’re insecure,” or “You’re crazy,” or, “Just because your father cheated on your mother, you think all men are dogs.”

Or my favorite, the righteously indignant, “How dare you suggest something so horrible, I’m trying to earn a living for our family and working my tail off, and now you come at me with this?!” 

The net result is that the betrayed partner is made to feel not just that they’re wrong, but also ridiculous for even suspecting that something was wrong. This leads people who are being gaslit not just to doubt themselves but to feel ashamed of how “crazy” they are. (When, in fact, their own judgment is actually a more reliable source of trustworthy information than their partner is.)

What Is an Example of Gaslighting?

In today’s modern world, gaslighting can often be difficult to recognize. Gaslighting behaviors can start subtle and gradually grow into something more severe. Here are a few examples of gaslighting in a relationship:

  1. Lying and exaggerating about confrontations (saying, “You screamed at me!” when you confronted them in a calm, respectful way).
  2. Escalating disputes when the gaslighter is challenged.
  3. The gaslighter questions someone’s memories.
  4. Withholding behavior.
  5. Denial and diverting.
  6. Stereotyping negative traits to manipulate others (“Wow, you still thinking I’m cheating on you? I guess you’re just a jealous person.“)

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3 Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship

The first step to learning how to respond to gaslighting is to recognize the signs so you’ll know when it’s happening. If you’ve asked yourself, “am I being gaslighted?” Do a quick audit of your relationship and see if you recognize any of these signs:

1. Feeling Like You’re Always Wrong

The ringer for gaslighting is when you attempt to check something out (i.e., “Were you drinking tonight?” or “You’re home three hours late, where were you?”) or express your concerns about something. Your partner gets very angry with you and turns things back on you so that you feel ashamed and inappropriate for having asked.

2. The Sudden Onset of Really Bad Feelings

If you begin feeling uncharacteristically anxious, depressed, ashamed, or stupid after starting a new-ish relationship, it’s a big red flag that emotional abuse is happening.

Feeling increasingly bad about yourself or more doubtful of your own judgment is a sign that you’re in a toxic relationship where gaslighting is happening. Many times, people in these situations feel increasingly anxious and even become depressed.

They begin to believe that their own mental health issues are the source of the relationship problems instead of the toxic relationship that they have bad feelings about. (Pointing out your oh-so-many-and-very-serious “mental health issues” is a go-to weapon of many gaslighters). 

However, once these “mentally unstable” people leave these manipulative relationships, they often discover that they’re just fine. It was the relationship that was making them feel anxious and terrible about themselves.

3. You’re Defending Your Partner – A Lot

Another meaningful sign that your partner is gaslighting you is when you tell your friends or family about something that you’ve been made to feel is “abnormal” for being concerned about. Still, they react in the same way that you did initially, before you were led to believe your feelings were invalid or disordered in some way.

If this is happening and you find yourself frequently defending your partner from family and friends and explaining to them that no, really, you were the one in the wrong (again)… you may be the victim of gaslighting.

Gaslighting Is a Form of Emotional Abuse

Gaslighting is not a quirk; it’s abusive behavior that cannot continue if the goal is a healthy, sustainable relationship. For example, to the incredible frustration of domestic violence counselors, victims of domestic violence have a tough time leaving their abusers. Many times, they go back.

The reason for this is that, as a rule, the victims blame themselves for the abuse they are experiencing because their abuser has made them believe they are at fault. Their own feelings and judgment about their worth, what love should look like, and how they should be treated have been gaslighted out of existence by their abuser.

Many times, the victims have either an avoidant or anxious attachment style in the relationship. These attachment styles are associated with childhood abuse and neglect and they can lead to more complex relationships as adults. 

Furthermore, the hallmark of abusive relationships is isolation. The reason abusers must isolate their victims is that effective gaslighting requires that the person being made to doubt themselves is looking to their abuser for “the truth.” If independent third parties start weighing in to support the perspective of the gaslight-ee, the abuser loses power and control over their victim.

Gaslighting often happens when one partner is actively abusing a substance or has a behavioral addiction. In addition to hiding and lying about their attachment to unhealthy substances or behaviors, addicts will often counter-attack when confronted. They blame their questioning partner for being out of line to question them or their “lifestyle choices.” 

This leads their partners to doubt their own judgment and start believing they are “too controlling” or “too uptight,” etc., which allows the addict more freedom.

How to Respond to Gaslighting

So what should you do if you’re in a being gaslit in a relationship? Here are a few tips on how to respond to gaslighting that will help you maintain your sense of reality and your emotional wellness:

  1. Get support

If you’re in a relationship where you’re being gaslighted, you must get the support of other people. A great therapist, a supportive friend, or even better, a good support group can help you get the outside perspective you need to reinforce your own good judgment.

The experience of gaslighting is doubting yourself (when you’re spot-on). The antidote is to have other people around you who can look at the situation and say, “No, you’re right, it is dark in here.” 

2. Trust yourself

Even if you can’t get that outside perspective, you can begin to trust yourself again and view your partner’s manipulations for what they are: Efforts to mislead and control you by making you mistrust your own judgment. It’s especially important that you learn to validate yourself and not rely too heavily on external validation, because sometimes gaslighters very deliberately manipulate others to further isolate you. Understanding that “smear campaigns” are another tool in the gaslighters tool belt (especially if you’re dealing with a narcissist) will help you feel clear and sure of yourself, no matter what they throw at you.

3. Stay objective

Responding to a gaslighter is a balancing act. You don’t want to call them out directly — they’ll only deny it, and it will open up new avenues for gaslighting. But you can and should assert your own reality in objective terms. If your partner says, “I have not been coming home late, what are you talking about? You’re paranoid,” it would be much more effective for you to respond with objective information (such as a list of different times that they’ve arrived home over the past week), rather than getting into an argument about either one of your judgements or perceptions. Don’t take the bait and start defending your sanity — stick to the facts and you’ll be much harder to gaslight.

And what should you do when they deny the facts? Just let them. The truth is still the truth, whether they agree with it or not.

4. Document, document, document

If you suspect you’re being gaslighted, but you are in that foggy space where you’re half believing your partner is manipulating you, and half doubting that could be happening, start keeping a journal. What have they said to you that didn’t add up? What were the signals coming from your emotional guidance system? How did they respond to your concerns?

When you have a “paper trail” that establishes all the little data points of lying and manipulation, the pattern will be much easier to see. Then you’ll feel more confident in yourself and you’ll be less likely to fall victim to their attempts at making you doubt your perceptions.

5. Set healthy boundaries

When you learn that you can’t trust someone, don’t.

Limit your exposure to the gaslighter as much as possible. Decide whether or not you want to stay in this relationship, and if you do, how you’re willing to engage with them. Most of all, begin taking responsibility for what you think and how you feel, and validating your instincts when something doesn’t feel right. Here’s a little external validation to get you started: If you felt compelled to read this article, there’s probably a reason for that. Now what are you going to do to protect yourself from someone who doesn’t seem to have your best interests at heart?

The answer is not couples counseling. The path forward is not changing your partner; it’s strengthening yourself.

Trust yourself, and do not make excuses for other people’s bad behavior. Your love and patience will not heal anyone — only they can do that. If you’re in a relationship and feeling bad about what’s happening, but being made to feel that you’re wrong for feeling that way, learn how to respond to gaslighting and prioritize your own wellbeing.

Remember that you deserve to be treated with love and respect and to surround yourself with people who make you feel better about yourself — not worse.

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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