As a divorce lawyer of 25 years, and a former therapist with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology for several years before embarking on a career as an attorney, I have come across my fair share of personality-disordered opposing parties. As such, I have seen, first-hand, the abuse they have inflicted on my clients. In most of these cases, nearly every abuse matter I have ever litigated has included some degree of Gaslighting.
In the first segment of this four-part series, I defined “Gaslighting.” I pointed to the 1944 film, “Gaslight,” a heavy drama by director George Cukor (it’s where the term originated), and gave examples of the various types of Gaslighting “techniques”– mental cruelty at its worst – inflicted by an abuser. In this portion of the series, I will talk about the specific signs of Gaslighting, and illustrate what it feels like to the victim when they are subjected to it.
The Top 10 Signs of Gaslighting
1. You Doubt Your Feelings and Reality
Due to the various techniques the abuser has used, you may initially doubt that you are being abused at all. Instead, you may try to convince yourself that the treatment you are receiving “isn’t that bad,” or perhaps that you are simply “just too sensitive.” In so doing, you are likely to repeat phrases that have been fed to you, time and again, by the abuser. If you feel bad about the relationship, you will likely look for other reasons for it not going well, rather than focusing on the fact that the abuser is the one who is making things up and difficult.
2. You Begin to Question Your Judgment and Perceptions
You are probably afraid to speak up
. You are probably also afraid to express your feelings. Because of the way you have been routinely treated – where you are essentially punished for expressing any of your feelings or for questioning the abuser-- you are likely to remain silent and not speak up at all. Typically, the abuser sets up a dynamic so that if you voice your own opinions, or even express any of your emotions, you are made to feel even worse than if you had just kept your mouth shut.
3. You Are Genuinely Confused
The back-and-forth behavior of your abuser – at times acting like Dr. Jekyll and at other times acting like Mr. Hyde – will often make you feel confused. You begin to question which version of your partner is the real person. Do the appearances of the “nice” version of your partner make you question whether the “bad” version even exists? Or do you just minimize the “bad” version’s effect on you to keep the peace? For instance, all along, the abuser might be telling you that you
are “confused,” that you aren’t “thinking straight,” or perhaps that you are “always a little confused” (intoning that remark in a semi-humorous way).
4. You Feel Weak and Vulnerable, Alone and Helpless
Your abuser may convince you that everyone around you also thinks that you are acting crazy, or that you truly are “less than stable,” a conclusion the abuser draws and keeps re-enforcing. But, by closing you off from your family and friends, you don’t have trusted people you can ask. In the end, you feel alone and isolated
, and your lack of social support may cause you to feel helpless. So much so, that you fail to probe into the situation or change it. Moreover, you may feel like you need to constantly “walk on eggshells” whenever you’re around your abusive partner in order to avoid their angry and dismissive behavior. That behavior is usually displayed with a heavy sigh of annoyance, a disgusted look, the rolling of the eyes, or an outburst of impatience. Sometimes it is outright rage; an uncontrollable fit from your abuser that further causes you to be fearful and intimidated.
5. You Begin to Wonder if What the Abuser Is Saying Is True
Ultimately, the person who is gaslighting you will often repeat words that make you feel like you are wrong, insane, inadequate, and less than intelligent. They also can make you feel like you’re somehow “losing it.” Sometimes, after such repeated attacks, you may find yourself saying those same, awful things to yourself, about yourself. As time goes by, you begin to buy into your abuser’s statements, even though you never viewed yourself “that way” before.
6. You Find that You Are Constantly Frustrated with Yourself
As time passes, you will become even weaker and more passive, even if you were accustomed to feeling mentally strong and powerful before the gaslighting started. Also, over time, the underlying feeling of depression
and inadequacy will return more fully as the abuser continues to inflict mental distress on you. You may feel that you need to be stronger and more assertive, but every time you think about trying to do so, you choose instead to remain silent so as not to anger or irritate your partner. All this may leave you feeling frustrated with yourself, adding to your feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and defeat.
7. You Feel like Something Terrible Is About to Happen
After a long period of abuse, and acclimating to a perpetual feeling of hopelessness
(the feeling that things will never get better) and helplessness (the feeling that you have no way of making things feel better for yourself), you may feel like something terrible is about to happen whenever you are around the abusive partner. You may feel threatened, or on edge, without being able to point to any specific threatening behavior. The reason: the abuser is typically subtle and methodical when doling it out over time. So, while there are times that you should feel threatened, there are also times when an independent onlooker, with no history of your situation, would not expect you to feel threatened. But make no mistake: if you are feeling
threatened, it is because the abuser has been threatening you in some way. Again, the “attacks” are carefully measured out and meant to catch you off guard.
8. You Think that You May Be Too Sensitive
The gaslighter will often try to minimize their hurtful behavior with words by saying things like: “I was just joking; you need thicker skin.” By saying that it is your fault for being hyper-sensitive, the abuser creates his or her own excuse to continue doing what they have been doing. By placing all the blame on you
, you also start to feel that you are unworthy, incompetent, and unable to make decisions for yourself. It is a shame that people’s appropriate levels of sensitivity are denied or blunted by their abusers when it is this appropriate sensitivity is a blessing – one that should serve as an alarm system that the abuser is once again attacking.
9. You Spend Too Much Time Apologizing
Do you spend most of your time apologizing for your own behavior? Do you also end up apologizing for behaviors in which you did not engage? Do you apologize for things that weren’t even associated with you because it is just easier to apologize than to explain why you were not at fault? Do you feel you’re responsible for your abuser’s complaints? All your reactions can also indicate that you are being gaslighted. In truth, most of us know when it is appropriate to apologize for our own ill or inappropriate behavior, but that does not need to happen multiple times a day. No one is that “bad” that they should be made to feel they have to constantly apologize.
10. You Struggle to Make Decisions
Eventually, you tend to lose your sense of self-respect, which ultimately robs you of your feelings of self-confidence, self-esteem, and the ability to make simple decisions. Instead, you defer to others, most notably, your abuser for your decisions. After a while, when you have received no appreciation for your thoughts, emotions, and behavior, you begin to withdraw. You no longer feel safe or comfortable expressing yourself the way you used to. You purposely choose not
to make decisions so as to avoid the punishment that will soon follow for making what your abuser labels as “bad decisions.”
If you feel you are experiencing or subject to any of these red-flag signals of Gaslighting
, it is vitally important that you seek out a qualified mental health counselor or psychologist, immediately. If you leave Gaslighting unaddressed, and without seeking help for yourself, it will only further reduce your self-esteem and interfere with your overall mental well-being. A therapist can help you straighten out your thinking and also provide you the valuable feedback that your abusive partner has likely been trying to deny you.
To escape from this situation, the only thing that works is to disengage from the abuser. As the victim, you need to gain some distance, set boundaries, and get an outside perspective from a trusted, but uninvolved friend, family member, or professional mental health practitioner. Think of it this way: it is opposite to the way the state runs the lottery – “The Only Way to Win is Not
to Play.” My goal for any gaslighted victim is not to play the abuser’s game.