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What is gaslighting, and how do you deal with it?

Here is how to avoid this form of emotional abuse where the abuser makes the victim question their own reality

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight
Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (IMDB)

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A 27-year-old financial analyst confesses that she was made to believe that she is “not fit to be a manager” at her workplace, despite her putting a lot of effort towards it. “I had been a manager at my previous workplace, but in my current one, I was told that I wasn’t good enough and I lacked leadership qualities.” She believed that there was actually something wrong with her for a long time. Through therapy, she realised that she was more than capable and had been gaslit by her colleagues.

Gaslighting is touted to be a word for our time, with the Merriam-Webster dictionary naming it the word of the year: Interest in the term was apparently up by 1,740% over the previous year. So what is gaslighting, exactly?

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The term, which has its origins in the 1938 British stage play Gas Light, tells the story of a husband who tries to convince his wife that she is insane. As the play depicts, gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse, involves the abuser getting the victim to question their sense of perceptions, reality and memory.

It often starts with small, relatively harmless offences. Over time, however, it can result in immense self-doubt, anxiety and disorientation. Take the case of this 32-year-old banker. He confesses to feeling “confused” all the time about himself and his capabilities as a result of his ex-wife constantly telling him that he is “all over the place, incapable and not good enough.” Over time, it made him completely unfocused and unable to manage his daily life. He started doubting his own judgment and would confer with his wife for all important decisions, becoming completely dependent on her. “Whenever I confronted her about being manipulative, she would cry and deny it,” he says.

Experts say that gaslighting is a form of abuse which can emotionally and physiologically affect the victim, and in the long term, it can lead the victim to stop thinking for themselves and rely only on the abuser. It happens when the abuser tries to control a victim by twisting their sense of reality. It is closely associated with other types of emotional and physical abuse.

10 ways in which gaslighting can affect a victim

It can cause anxiety, depression, disorientation, lowered self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts

It can cause a constant, nagging fear of danger, known as hypervigilance.

It can lead to a loss of sense of self

It leads to doubts, impacting a person's self-worth and abilities, making it harder for a person to leave a relationship

Long-term gaslighting can often lead to substance misuse and chronic pain

It can cause physical health complications, including obesity, speech disorders, and sleep problems

It can also lead to physical violence

Often, a victim of gaslighting may start believing they are irrational or “crazy”. They may feel incompetent, unconfident, or worthless

As the victim may keep defending the abusive person’s behaviour to others, there is also the tendency to become withdrawn or isolated

People who have experienced abuse and gaslighting in childhood are at a higher risk of developing attachment disorders

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So, how do I deal with it?

Identify the problem

The first step is to identify the problem. Once you understand something, you can start to address it specifically. Sometimes writing down specific points from a conversation that you can look back on later can help in sorting the truth from distortion.

Allow yourself to feel

The next step is to allow yourself to feel what you feel. Part of the problem with gaslighting is it results in the victim constantly questioning his or her own thoughts, perceptions or values. Acknowledge your feelings and take whatever step you need to take to feel better.

Set boundaries with the abusive person

This can include standing up for yourself to ensure that the abuse does not continue in any manner, both physical and mental. If it requires cutting off all ties, it is also essential to do that.

Change priorities

Abusive people manipulate a person's sense of sympathy, often asking them to prioritise the abuser's feelings. It is essential to put your preferences and feelings first and always put your foot down when your emotions are being compromised

Get help

Talk to someone trustworthy. Confiding with a friend, family member, or counsellor may help someone gain perspective on their situation. The person can also act as a witness to events. Seeking long-term professional help through therapy and support groups is also highly recommended.

Keep evidence

Click pictures or have voice memos: Photographs can also help someone “fact check” their memories. This can also be done by keeping voice memos. A device that can record sound can work as a quick way for someone to describe events in their own words.

Create a safety net

Find safe ways to document events, create a safety plan, or leave a relationship, if you have to

Put yourself first

If the person who is gaslighting you is someone you care about, look up to or have a relationship with makes, it all the more difficult to let go of. However, it’s not worth it if it undermines your reality. And to again rebuild your sense of self that you have lost, you need to cut off that person completely.

Only you are responsible for your well-being. Be honest with yourself. Maybe tomorrow, your partner will turn out to be great but focus on yourself and what you are feeling at the moment.

(With inputs from Dr Kersi Chavda, Consultant Psychiatry, P.D. Hinduja Hospital & MRC, Mahim; Dr Parul Tank, Consultant Psychiatrist, Fortis Hospital Mulund; Dr Sneha Sharma, Consultant Psychiatrist, Aakash Healthcare and Dr Minakshi Manchanda, Associate Director - Psychiatry, Asian Hospital)

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist

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