Underhanded at its core, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that happens more frequently than we often understand or recognize. By definition, emotional abuse is about controlling another person by criticizing, embarrassing, shaming, blaming, discounting, dismissing, depriving, or denying their rights, needs, wants, thoughts, feelings and equality in the relationship. Gaslighting is when someone else wants to tell you what your reality is: what you think, what you want, what you need, what your plans are, and who you are. In sum, they want to take control of your identity and they do it in a broad sense of gaslighting.
While I am not formally educated in gaslighting, I do have first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be in an abusive relationship in which gaslighting was used regularly for nearly three years. I know first-hand the damage it does to one both short-term and long-term. Though the term gaslighting is common, the understanding of this abusive act is far from easily recognized. I have spent endless days researching and understanding gaslighting so that I could understand my place in the abusive cycle I was stuck in.
What I came to understand is that there are ten common forms of gaslighting, all of which I have reflected on and have been able to identify first-hand. My hope is that this post will give a clearer insight into what gaslighting truly is and help you recognize the abuse if it applies to you currently, in the past, or in the future.
The number one way that abusers gaslight is by blatantly lying. They downright lie about things to the extent that it could be viewed as pathological lying. Abusers constantly have a need to win in every scenario in order to feel as if they are in control of things and to feel that they are directing things. This is why they lie, to make sure that they will come out on top in every moment. That need to win is also why they will tell you one thing and then they will say the complete opposite at another time. When you try to confront the discrepancy, responsibility will not be taken by the abuser and more lies will unfold. They will tell you that you don’t listen very well, that you don’t pay attention, or that they have the right to change their mind.
Lying knows no bounds. They will lie about small, senseless things, though they will also lie about important matters. Likely, it will be the small, petty lies that will be exposed first. Lying is a large factor in how they will gaslight you. Because they are not telling the truth, you will not have a sense of what reality truly is: this will leave you in a constant state of confusion.
The second form of gaslighting is plausible lies. Abusers will give you just enough to have you think to yourself, well, that could be the truth. Even though they told you the sketchy version of the truth, they hope that you will err in favor that the plausible lie is the whole truth. Sketchy truth and weaponized ambiguity go hand in hand: the abuser will intentionally give you a broad and vague answer so they can later use it as a weapon against you. For example, they might say the following: “I said that I would like to go there on a date sometime, but I did not say I wanted to go in the next week,” or, “yes, I said I wanted marriage very soon, but I did not mean in the next six months.” They use this technique to give the impression that what you want is going to happen while giving themself enough room to withdraw from any commitment. Plausible lies are a form of gaslighting because they know they are not making a commitment: they know they are not securing anything down and they know that you are believing that they are. They give you the impression that something is true or will happen while never internally committing to it and have no intention of following through. This is purposefully meant to cloud one’s vision while keeping the abuser in control. Clouding one’s judgment, leaving one in a complete state of confusion, is at the very core of how an abuser utilizes gaslighting to gain and maintain control.
The third form of gaslighting is changing the truth. Each time the abuser tells their side of the story, they will continuously drift further and further away from the truth. This form of gaslighting is meant to test how far the abuser can drift from the truth before they can no longer get away with it. Sadly, the abuser often gets away with using this technique as they won’t be corrected for these inconsistencies. The victim knows that correcting the falsities will result in an argument – or worse. This form of gaslighting is often done in front of an audience so the victim will be less likely to call the abuser out. The abuser will alter stories in private too. All too common, the victim will find themself trying to save the peace and not call the abuser out due to the inevitable consequences of doing so.
In the fourth form of gaslighting, the abuser will not allow your side of the story to be correct. Here, the abuser will gaslight you should you try to revert back to the truth by denying their version and contradicting their lies. They will tell you that you are wrong, that your memories, your recollection, your thoughts, and your feelings are all wrong. They are gaslighting you by continuously telling you that the truth is what they want you to believe happened rather than what the truth actually is. Despite knowing deep down in your heart and mind that their version is wrong, you will ultimately begin to second guess yourself and question your sanity. This is what they want to happen, this is their goal.
Once the abuser is able to get the victim to question their sanity, they have a much deeper level of control over the victim. This technique allows the abuser to push you further and further from your ability to refute them. They diminish your willingness to say, no, that’s not how I remember it. Suffice to say, it is pretty clear how gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse!!
Blame shifting is the fifth form. Blame shifting is commonly seen when you want to speak to the abuser. Often, the victim will go to the abuser openly and honestly and the abuser will then turn the conversation around and start shifting blame for their own issues onto the victim. They do this so that they stay in control of the situation. Blame shifting is passive-aggressive because they don’t want you on their back: they have no intention of owning up to the truth. Blame shifting goes hand in hand with trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is a very dark, methodical form of psychological abuse where victims become biologically attached to their abusers. This was first introduced to me by my therapist after I had the strength to leave the abusive relationship I was in. Trauma bonds occur in very toxic relationships and tend to be strengthened by inconsistent positive reinforcement. The abuser meets and treats the victim better than she has previously been treated, gaining her trust. Eventually, she changes her life to be near him after which he starts slowly treating her worse over time. The abuser will refuse to see her in public, lie about most things (including familial situations and other relationships), accuse her of what he himself is doing: projecting, constantly changing stories, blaming, wearing down, and creating narratives to align others against her as a way to demonstrate that she is the one with the problem. Instead of seeing him for what he is, she is constantly second-guessing herself, viewing herself as “crazy” like he repeatedly suggests she was. The modus operandi is to push her to the brink so that she reacts “badly” and he can then say, “See, you are abusive, and I am the victim. You are lucky I am with you, and you need to apologize.” This pattern of blame-shifting was evident during couple’s sessions and the abuser appeared to the counselor as a Master Manipulator.
The abuser wants to define your reality for you. They will come after you and attack your sense of reality rather than lie about their own. This is the sixth form of gaslighting. Here, they want to erode your mental health by having you constantly second-guessing yourself. You will question your sanity and wonder if you can trust your own senses and judgment. Your head starts spinning and you start constantly questioning yourself. As a result, your self-confidence and self-esteem begin to erode. It is in this sort of trap you start to believe that someone you normally would not deem trustworthy to be the one you are trusting. This is because the abuser has caught you in this strange emotional trap where you believe their constant lies. This attack on your sense of reality will continue, possibly leading to further mental and physical erosions. At this point, the victim has generally put more trust and belief into their abuser than into themself.
In the seventh form of gaslighting, you become a scapegoat. By the time this form of gaslighting is heightened, the victim will have been extremely worn down emotionally and physically by the abuse. The constant aggressive blaming and fault-finding will become relentless. Scapegoating is “the act or practice of assigning blame or failure to another to deflect attention or responsibility from oneself.” It is meant to twist you, turn you, and warp you so that somehow you become responsible for the abuser’s poor behavior choices. It is very common for the victim to take ownership of the blame and even apologize to the abuser. This is yet another way the abuser maintains control and leaves their victim in a complete state of confusion composed of crippling lies.
Charm, the eighth form of gaslighting is meant to deflect or cover something up. Abusers are the kings and queens of seduction if they want something from you. If they do not think that you are giving them something that they want, the love-bombing will start. When they want something, they will be in your corner: they will be pouring on the charm and doing all the things you appreciate and adore to try and win you over to their way of thinking. This charm will, of course, be withdrawn once they either get their way or reach a dead end. At this point, they will turn on the nastiness and anger that oppose their charm. When you see this display of charm, you need to question what it is that they want so that you can keep your equilibrium. As difficult as it will be, try to step back and look at the situation from outside the emotional state. This way, you can see clearly what their charm is motivated by. Once you can identify the motivation of the love bombing, you will likely understand it is hidden by control or lies.
After one hint that you do not agree with the abuser, the bullying will begin. This is the ninth form of gaslighting. You will be bullied by your abuser with intense pressure to agree with them. If you hold your own, the bulling will ensue with rapid aggression. You will be belittled, demeaned, discounted, and dismissed: you will also be subjected to demands and silent treatment. If you are not affected by their silent treatment, the abuser will feel displaced. They want you to plea, to beg, to ask, or to offer: they want you to do anything to cater to them. The constant pressure to think their way, to do things their way, is bullying, and having to change your reality to match theirs is gaslighting. If you give in to it, there is less of you and more of them in the relationship: this is another form of control that they are exuding.
Lastly, manipulation is the tenth form of gaslighting. This is a combination of lying, blaming, fault finding, bullying, dismissing, and degrading that serves to repress, suppress, and eventually depress you. This is the form in which they further diminish you by telling you who you are. Through manipulation, they gaslight you into losing your reality and force you to take on theirs.
Emotional and psychological abuse is insidious, and it doesn’t occur overnight. It occurs over time like an IV drip of poision entering your veins. This type of abusive relationship is like a rollercoaster, with punishments followed by intermittent reinforcements of kindness when you behave. This means that your body and mind are going through actual turmoil, with high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, paired with dopamine, the primary happiness hormone, when given affection as a reward. People tend to stay in emotionally abusive relationships partly because they are trying to win back the abuser’s affection. This happens because abusive people are great at pretending to be everything one is looking for in a partner, and most victims can’t identify the love bombing. Victims tend to believe that this is the abuser’s real self: when the abuser’s mask starts to slip more and more, the victim believes it’s out of character for the abuser rather than recognize that the abuser is showing their true colors.
It becomes this back and forth where the body becomes addicted when looking for something one wants, something they once had, which is often the initial connection they had with their abuser, and as the cat and mouse game plays out, over and over again, the body truly becomes dependent on having the abuser’s approval.
Through gaslighting, control, manipulation, and intermittent love, the abuser has their victim backed into a corner of confusion, self-blame, and desperation of trying to win back the approval and love of their abuser. Therefore, victims stay in these relationships despite the aggressive stress on their bodies because the victim often doesn’t clearly see what the problems are.
Understanding this cycle of abuse is the first step to gaining your power back. Gaslighting is a covert form of abuse used with slow and methodical steps. It is often not seen in the beginning as victims will be groomed to self-blame rather than be allowed to access the truth as they once knew it. Most victims are discarded after the abuser has nothing left to gain from the abuse. I was lucky enough to be the one to end my relationship of abuse. This, of course, is far less satisfying for the abuser. Either way, the important thing is to be out of the relationship, to be free of the abuse, and to begin to find the person you were prior to the abuse. This is not a battle that can typically be fought alone. I was in therapy for well over a year while the abuse was present: even at its darkest stages, I stayed. I personally believe that this form of abuse is only seen and accepted when the victim can detach from the abuser emotionally and see them for what they truly are: a liar, a manipulator, a bully, a person who is too weak to take ownership, and a selfish person who is the definition of an abuser.
Please understand that most physical abuse starts with emotional abuse and gaslighting is a pernicious and debilitating form of abuse. If you have been touched by this type of abuse, I urge you to get help.