The “Gaslighting” Effect

“He just makes me feel stupid by the comments he makes about me.  He’ll say I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I’m too emotional, too negative.  He does this in front of his family so that they’re on his side and believe what he says. And the worst of it is, my 5-year-old son is listening to this and he’s starting to take his side.  My dear boy, who I love more than anything, is repeating his father’s words.  I don’t know what to do.  At times I’ll get angry, really defensive, like how dare he say these things to me?  But then I think about how I can’t do anything.  I don’t have a career, nothing to fall back on.  I have no money of my own…I can’t leave”.

Tears welled up in Anna’s eyes as she relayed this to me.  We began the hard work of building back up her self-esteem so that she could take back control of her life direction.  It wasn’t easy.  Her current day situation was triggering past emotional hurts.  Growing up, she was made to feel unworthy and insignificant by her father.  She had been carrying the emotional baggage of not being good enough her whole life.

Her husband was re-enacting the role of her father.  His words were like knives, stabbing into her and reminding her that she was worthless.  Like her father, her husband’s comments made her feel small, made her believe that she was flawed and in need of fixing.  Her old emotional wounds would surface, and she would believe that inner critical voice, the voice that said there was something wrong with her.  Her husband was engaging in “gaslighting”.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse.  A person who gaslights, be that a spouse, a friend, a co-worker, or some other person, may use some of the following tactics to confuse you so that you question your sense of reality and self-worth:

  • Distorting the truth by denying facts of a situation. Instead, they put the blame on your faulty memory e.g., “that never happened, you’re making things up”.
  • Influencing others to believe there’s something wrong with you.
  • Minimizing your thoughts and feelings e.g., “you’re just being too sensitive”.

When you are the victim of gaslighting, you may doubt your feelings and reality and be afraid of speaking up.  You might also feel like you need to “walk on eggshells” or apologize frequently since you’re feeling vulnerable and insecure.  You might begin to question your sense of self and believe that you are somehow deficient or flawed, which can lead to feelings of depression or create feelings of anxiousness.

The anger that Anna sometimes felt when her husband gaslighted was a good thing.  It meant that a part of her knew that her boundaries were being crossed.  Speaking about her experiences in therapy helped her recognize the facts of the situation, and that she wasn’t crazy.  It also allowed her to recognize why she couldn’t speak up.  A part of her was being triggered by past emotional hurts instilled by her father.  As a child, she had no control.  As an adult, she felt the same powerlessness.

Through therapy, she was able to separate and realize where her feelings of inadequacy were coming from.  When she got triggered, she learned to leave the situation and practice skills of mindfulness.  She did research to understand her rights.  She went back to school to re-gain a sense of purpose and began to make plans for a future that might or might not include her husband.

If you think you are a victim of gaslighting, speaking with a professional can help you sort out what the right action is for you.  You are not alone!