What is gaslighting?

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  • In recent years, the term ‘gaslighting’ has come out of textbooks and into the mainstream – but what does it actually mean?

    Last year, Coronation Street aired a storyline where husband Geoff Metcalfe controlled his wife, Yasmeen Nazir, using many traditional elements of gaslighting.

    Thousands of viewers found it hard to sit through and tuned out of the series, too uncomfortable to watch this particularly sinister type of emotional abuse play out on screen. 

    But gaslighting isn’t just something that’s confined to soap operas. It’s a very real form of coercive control. And with more awareness around it, reported incidents of gaslighting are shooting up.

    What is gaslighting?

    “Gaslighting is a term that’s used when a person tries to convince the victim that they are wrong about something when in fact they’re not.” Emma Davey, relationship and narcissistic abuse expert at MyTraumaTherapy, says. “The perpetrator knows what they’re doing. They get enjoyment from watching the victim essentially ‘lose their mind’. It gives them the gratification and power they need to make themselves feel powerful.” 

    Gaslighting is a form of coercive control, a very dangerous type of emotional abuse. Evan Stark, a sociologist and leading expert on coercive control, describes it as a pattern of behaviour where “the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.” 

    The phrase was coined from a 1938 play called Gaslight. In the play, a woman becomes isolated and increasingly disorientated as items disappear and move around the house. It’s slowly revealed that it is the woman’s husband who is creating these disturbances, in a bid to convince her that she is going insane and unable to leave the house. 

    Gaslighting is one of the most dangerous forms of emotional abuse, as it’s all done with words. Emma told GoodtoKnow: “It’s done in such a way to make the person feel like they are losing a sense of reality.” 

    Examples of gaslighting

    Sometimes, gaslighting can be identified by what your partner or family member says to you. Other times, it’s visible in their actions. 

    Accusing someone of being too sensitive

    “They will use terms such as ‘you’re too sensitive’. That’s basically saying, ‘you’re not allowed to feel the way you’re feeling, you can’t feel upset about this, you can’t feel angry about this situation’,” Emma explains. “It’s about making you doubt yourself and think, ‘well, maybe I’m not feeling angry, maybe I’m feeling something else instead.’

    Someone feels they have to record conversations to prove they happened

    “When people start to feel like they have to start recording conversations with somebody, that’s a huge red flag that you’re being gaslighted. You’re starting to notice a pattern that you’re sure you’ve had the conversation and now they’re telling you it never happened. You’re starting to write things down, record conversations because you need the proof that you are not losing your mind. [People who are being gaslighted] need to prove to themselves that they are not ‘crazy’.” 

    Woman looking at her phone, researching what is gaslighting

    Credit: Getty

    Deflection

    “Deflection is another gaslighting technique,” Emma says. “So if a victim starts talking about something that [the perpetrator] has done, they’ll deflect and start talking about something the victim has done. ‘Do you remember when you did XYZ?’, for example. 

    “The victim is left defending themselves. They are then wrapped up in the attention being turned on themselves that they forget what they’re talking about. This happens a lot. As soon as the gaslighter doesn’t want to talk about something, they completely deflect it onto the other person.” 

    Leaving the victim for long or short periods of time

    Another common thing people who gaslight do is leave the victim for long or short periods of time with no contact, Emma says. “That’s making the victim feel very confused as to what they have done, so when the perpetrator comes back, the victim forgets what they have done. They are just so desperate for them to come back, they’ll just take anything.”

    Someone feels they have to constantly make excuses for their partner/family member’s behaviour

    “A lot of people who are being gaslighted go into a state into making excuses for their abuser’s behaviour. There are different stages, the first one being denial – it’s not happening, it’s not happening to me, they’re not nasty all the time, they’re actually really nice sometimes. But that’s how an abuser covers up the abuse. They’re 80% abuse is covered up by a 20% niceness – otherwise it would become very apparent what they were doing.” 

    Couple looking out of a window in the house

    Credit: Getty

    While gaslighting can happen to anyone – from family members to friends and even employees of the perpetrator – it does tend to occur in romantic relationships.  

    Gaslighting in relationships

    Research suggests gaslighting in relationships is most common. Victims tend to feel very confused about their relationship when they’re being gaslit over a long period of time. 

    “They constantly second guess themselves. They also struggle making decisions for themselves because they are so fearful that they are making the wrong decision. It doesn’t matter what decision they make, it will always be the wrong one,” Emma says. 

    “This is when the perpetrator has taken away the person’s power and control of them being able to have their own voice, have their own feelings, have their own thoughts. They will shift that onto them and make them feel incapable of making a decision because it will always be wrong. That’s when a victim starts to walk around on eggshells and think it’s best they don’t do anything and let [the perpetrator] make the decisions because then they’ll never get in trouble.

    To reflect the seriousness of the behaviour and rising occurrences, the Serious Crime Act was updated in 2015 to include “behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse.”

    Woman in grey tshirt looking out of the window with back to the camera

    Credit: Getty

    Coercive control, which includes cases of gaslighting, carries a prison sentence of up to five years or a financial penalty. But it is difficult to prove. 

    According to the law, controlling and coercive behaviour is only illegal if it occurs within an “intimate or family relationship”. The perpetrator’s behaviour also has to have had a “serious effect” on the victim. This means they have feared violence would be used against them. It can also mean they experienced distress to the point where it had a “substantial adverse effect” on their usual day-to-day activities. 

    The perpetrator’s behaviour must have also been ongoing or in repeated patterns, and deliberate.

    While the majority of criminal cases with a coercive control charge have been dropped since the law first came into effect in 2015, a government review into the law means that people who use coercive control to abuse their partners or family members could face up to 10 years in prison – instead of five. 

    It follows multiple high profile cases of coercive control, including one involving ITV Weather presenter Ruth Dodsworth. Ruth was subject to a campaign of controlling behaviour, harassment and stalking by her husband over a nine year period. 

    Jonathan Wignall was jailed for three years for coercive behaviour. This included isolating his wife from her friends and family, accusing her of having extramarital affairs and using her fingerprint to access her phone while she was asleep. 

     

    Cases of coercive control have doubled year on year from 2015. However, the number of cases being prosecuted has decreased. 11% of offences recorded in 2017/18 went onto be prosecuted, compared to just 6% of cases the following year.

    Since the first lockdown in March last year, reported incidents of coercive and controlling behaviour have risen dramatically. A survey conducted by domestic abuse charity, Women’s Aid, found that 72% of respondents said their abuser now had more control over their life and 62% said that their abuser was using the pandemic as a form of control. 10% said that the entire household was being forced to live under unnecessarily strict measures. 

    Signs someone is gaslighting you

    According to Solace Women’s Aid, a domestic abuse charity working in London, these are the signs someone is gaslighting you:

    • You’re constantly second-guessing yourself. 
    • You’re asking yourself ‘am I too sensitive?’ multiple times a day.
    • Often you’re left feeling confused or like you’re going crazy
    • You’re always apologising to your partner/family member
    • Even though so many apparently good things are happening in your life, you can’t understand why you aren’t happier 
    • You make excuses for your partner’s behaviour to your friends and family members
    • You’re finding yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses
    • You know something is very wrong, but you can’t quite figure out what it is 
    • You start lying to avoid put-downs and twists of reality by your partner 
    • You’re having difficulty making simple decisions 
    • You feel like you used to be more confident, more fun-loving and more relaxed than you are now 
    • You’re feeling like hopeless and without joy
    • You feel like you can’t do anything right 
    • You’re wondering if you’re “good enough” for your partner 

    There are many signs of gaslighting and this list is not definitive. If in doubt, worried or concerned you or someone you know is being gaslighted, seek help and advice from specialist domestic abuse agencies.

    How to stop it happening to you

    “If you identify in a conversation that you’re being gaslighted, the best thing to do is end the conversation,” Emma advises. “Because you’re just never going to win.”

    In the longer term she says: “I would recommend someone [who has experienced gaslighting] starts writing a journal to recognise the behaviour pattern. Look at how this behaviour has changed you – how is it making you feel? 

    “Reach out for advice about the best way to leave the relationship. And if it’s not a relationship [but rather an employer, acquaintance etc], we use a term called ‘grey rock’, which is basically not giving any emotion to that person. You become very boring to them because you’re not giving anything back.

    “I would recommend that someone who is gaslighted over a long period of time needs to get back their identity. Because that’s what a gaslighter does, they break down that identity.”

    Importantly, remember that it’s not your fault. “They are doing it so they are the one in power. They feel very insecure and know the person they are with is generally better than them. So, they have to break the person down into believing that they are nothing without the gaslighter.

    “The victim feels like they are not the person they used to be. They are so confused now about who they really are, because they’ve been wrapped up in this web of confusion where they don’t really know how to make a decision for themselves anymore.”

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