Holding a Candle to Gaslighting and How to Blow Out the Flame

Have you ever left an interaction with a friend, partner, co-worker or boss feeling confused or exasperated, possibly even asking yourself: am I taking crazy pills?

If you answered Yes to the question above and can think back to multiple instances where interactions with this same person has caused you to feel strong feelings of self-doubt, confusion, anxiety, or a lack of self-worth, you could be/have been a target of gaslighting.

What is Gaslighting?

The term gaslighting derived from a movie in 1944 American film (adapted from a 1938 play) entitled Gaslight. In the movie, categorized as a psychological thriller, a husband slowly manipulates his wife into questioning her sanity. Gaslighting is a pervasive manipulation tool that is wielded by partners, parents, friends, bosses, co-workers (even organizations, corporations, political parties, and dominant cultures) to establish power over an individual or group of people for personal, professional, political or financial gain. Gaslighting is often defined as a form of psychological control where the perpetrator systematically behaves in a way that causes the target(s) to doubt their own memories, question their perception of events, feel confused and anxious, feel a loss of self-worth and, in severe cases, question their own sanity.

While the conventional understanding of gaslighting was based on interpersonal relationships, such as the marriage seen in the 1944 film, more psychologists, researchers and sociologists (to name a few fields) are studying gaslighting tactics in the workplace, online media, and on larger cultural scales such as governments weaponizing this type of manipulation to uphold systemic racism. For the purpose of this blog post, I want to focus on gaslighting mainly through the scope of interpersonal and workplace relationships and how these relationships impact personal well-being.

According to various professionals and doctors, such as author and doctor Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, gaslighting in the workplace in often underreported as the victims are manipulated into believing the abuse they face is a their own fault. The type of person who perpetuates these types of manipulation tactics is often someone of intellect, who holds a position of power within a business or is the owner of the business, and who is strongly opposed to negative feedback on themselves or their behavior. Many of these people, whether they extend these abuses onto their partners, employees, or friends are textbook narcissists.

More often than not, the gaslighter is intentionally carrying-out the abuse and gains personal satisfaction from the suffering that they are inflicting upon their targets. However, a perpetuator may be subconsciously or unintentionally using these tactics for control if they were subjected to these abuses as children or they receive positive reinforcement for applying such tactics (i.e. they receiving promotions or personal benefits because their behavior has not been flagged as problematic and addressed). Regardless of intention, these abusive tactics are dangerous, absolutely unacceptable and should be dismantled within any personal or professional relationships.

Signs You’re Being Targeted

Gaslighting can be hard to recognize as it usually systematic and perpetuated over a long span of time. Think of a lobster being slowly boiled alive. The perpetuators of gaslighting will oftentimes slowly poison you against yourself and against believing in your own lived experiences. Sometimes, they will intentionally be kind, offer gifts, or show false signs of endearment in order to create a deep sense of confusion within their target.

As an example from my own personal experience, a former employer would insist that I engage in fitness practices that were contraindicative for my health, causing me chronic physical pain. They would then offer to pay for isolated and temporary interventions to relieve some of the pain. Rather than confronting their own perceptions on my body and how their beliefs and practices were causing me harm, I was made to feel as if my body was the issue and that they were benevolent in helping me fund temporary solutions to the pain I was experiencing. After leaving this workplace and discontinuing their protocols, the chronic pain I faced subsided and became almost non-existent. Gaslighting comes in many forms and is implemented in various ways.

Here are some signs that you could be a target of gaslighting:

  • You leave interactions with this person feeling deeply confused and less confident about yourself. For example, you may ask yourself if you are truly capable of performing well in your job despite having education and experience or you are constantly made to feel as if your partner is superior.

  • You avoid disclosing this person’s behaviors to others because you have been made to think your feelings are invalid. For example, this person tells you that you are “overreacting” to their abusive words and you question whether other people will judge you the same way or you feel ashamed for “being dramatic”.

  • You feel that everything you do is wrong and are made to feel that the gaslighter’s opinion is the correct, even when it is not substantiated by data or it seems counter-intuitive to things you know to be true. For example, this person micromanages your every action, tells you that you are wrong, only provides their opinion as proof, and then uses shame/guilt to demean you.

  • They give you backhanded compliments that can seem to be kind from the surface but ultimately undercut your qualifications, capabilities or performance. For example, they say that they are impressed with your performance because they did not think you were capable of such positive results or your partner exclaims that you look good on a date despite being generally mediocre in appearance.

  • They convince you that others are gossiping about you or create co-dependency by instilling their implicit biases into the company culture. For example, a partner will try and isolate you from friends by telling lies about gossip so that you will become more dependent on your relationship to them or a boss will ingrain how their company is superior to a competitor in a way that would lead you to believe that leaving their employment would make you somehow less successful.

  • They lie about their own words/behaviors and cause you to question your own memories about the occurrences or they feed you conflicting information overtime that causes you to question your mental faculties. For example, they say one thing is fact and a few months later tell you conflicting information is fact and then they blame you for “misremembering” or for not being properly informed or if you confront them about inconsistencies in their words and actions, they deflect blame and become passive-aggressive.

While this is a small list of some potential signs and examples of gaslighting as a form of manipulation and abuse, it is a personal experience and there are many other valid examples experienced by every type of person in a variety of circumstances and relationships. Just because your experiences weren’t explicitly expressed here, that does not mean your experiences are invalid and that you have not been a target of gaslighting. If interactions you have with another individual in the workplace or in your personal life leave you consistently feeling anxious, confused, depressed, worthless or cause you to question your lived experiences, I would implore you to seek the help of a neutral party such as a trusted friend, your HR department, or a licensed mental health professional.

The Darkness Caused by Gaslighting

As much as gaslighting can have personal and professional benefits for the perpetrator, these abuses have dark consequences for those who are targeted. Because this type of abuse is intentionally composed of smaller micro-aggressions over a longer span of time (than say, for example, a partner being physically abusive), many people are not aware that they are being subjected to gaslighting until they are suffering from the symptoms such as panic attacks, anxiety, depression, trauma, a deteriorating sense of identity or even suicidal thoughts. All of these health conditions have serious physical, mental and emotional implications that can lead to long-term issues for an individual’s well-being.

One of the most dangerous aspects of such a sophisticated form of manipulation is that it evades physical distance. A gaslighter does not have to be in the same physical location as their target in order to carry out their abuse. If you are working from home or you are in a long-distance relationship or you are on social media, you can still be subjected to this type of abuse. Additionally, because the intention behind these tactics is to ultimately breakdown a person’s sense of self or identity, destroying their internal locus of control, and fostering co-dependency that serves the perpetrator the symptoms of abuse are not isolated to specific interactions. These feelings of anxiety, depression, worthlessness or questioning of one’s sanity become all-encompassing and pervasive.

People who find themselves in a relationship with these master manipulators may suffer from poor or interrupted sleep and bouts of acute or chronic anxiety or exhaustion as a side-effect of chronic stress. Some may lose interest in things that foster joy or promote feeling good about oneself. Some people will feel “out of control” of their own life and develop a deep sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Others will be coerced into behaving in ways that are counter-intuitive to personal goals or well-being. Some people will feel a deep sense of isolation and lose connections to others that they once valued.

The physical, social, mental, and emotional consequences of being under the influence of a gaslighter can take many forms as each situation is dependent on individualized relationships and circumstances. One type of symptom is not better or worse than another and it is important to recognize the validity of each individual’s lived experience when it comes to personal well-being. One’s body, mind, and emotional health are interdependent systems that must coexist in balance for any individual to achieve or maintain a state of general well-being and optimal health. Which brings me to an important question:

How does one break free from this type of manipulation and begin healing?

Blowing Out Their (gas)Light & Getting Help

Recognizing the patterns, signs and symptoms of gaslighting is the first step to breaking free from living in the shadows of an abusive gaslighter. If anything from this post resonated with you or brought a friend to mind who you feel may be a target of abuse, please reach out to someone for help. Because it can feel very isolating to be in such a co-dependent relationship that could literally cause you to question your relationships with others, with the world around you and with yourself, reaching out to a trusted third party is critical.

Speaking from personal experience, distancing myself physically and mentally was a critical first step in my recognition that I was suffering from this type of abuse. In my research, I found many other people (through firsthand accounts or the advice from professionals) said that removing yourself from the gaslighter’s sphere of influence is a critical first-step. However, I recognize that some people may live with the abuser or be financially dependent via employment on the abuser, in which case reaching out to a trusted party can be a critical first step in helping to validate someone’s experiences as abuse and then by developing a strategy to end the relationship/seek the appropriate physical, mental and emotional help to begin the healing process.

If you think you are in a relationship with a gaslighter, begin to document your interactions with them and the instances of abuse which can be helpful to bring into perspective that you are in fact not crazy and also can be helpful when you discuss the abuse with another person. Organizing events and keeping track of what is occurring and when can begin validating your lived experiences to yourself. I read some articles in my research that suggested having open-dialogue with the gaslighter in order to confront their behavior if, for example, they are your manager, you would like to continue working for that company and you will have the opportunity to bring their behavior to the attention of their superiors. I also read information implicating that a featured characteristic of gaslighter’s personality is an inability to face negative feedback or criticism, so having an open-dialogue may not be realistic. Personally, I feel that if you plan to attempt an open-dialogue it would be beneficial to first discuss the situation with a trusted third party. Getting help can lead you to the first steps of healing and then establishing boundaries that will help you recognize patterns and ultimately could help protect you in the future.

Mental and emotional health are critical pieces of everyone’s holistic wellness and should be considered as important to total well-being as exercising for a healthy heart or eating nourishing foods to keep one’s body balanced. It is just as critical at times to seek help from a licensed mental health counsellor, therapist, psychologist or other professional in the same manner that one sees a doctor when sick with a cold. Research therapists in your area and find someone who makes you feel comfortable. Additionally, there are online therapy platforms such as Talkspace and MDLive.

At the end of the day, you deserve to feel safe, sane and validated in your lived experiences whether you are at home, at work, online, or in a public place. You deserve to feel in control of your life, of your body, and of your experiences. Personally, I believe that we live in a culture that oftentimes rewards manipulative behavior and shames victims for not “being stronger” or “taking responsibility” for “putting themselves” in abusive situations. I have found myself in a couple of professional relationships where I suffered from gaslighting. It is not your fault if you are targeted and subjected to the abuse of a gaslighter. It is the perpetrators fault for not seeking the help they need and it is oftentimes a larger system or institutions fault for favoring manipulators rather than protecting those at their whim.

If you or a friend is currently subjected to gaslighting or has previously suffered from gaslighting, there is hope and there is help. You can break free, blow out their light, and rekindle your life. You are seen. You are heard. You are valid.

Best and Be Well.

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