A toxic form of mental and emotional abuse, Gaslighting is a process of sheer, blatant and deliberate manipulation that takes apart everything you believe in. It can happen to anyone, and it makes you suspect yourself and your very reality. It entails a consistent, manipulative process of brainwashing which gradually wears you out and overwhelms you with self-doubt. To sum it up – it is a process of psychological warfare and you are left unable to validate yourself anymore. A lie told repeatedly, and for long enough, gradually becomes the truth.
Let us consider two scenarios here:
Nishant is in charge of supervising his junior Divya’s work. She starts performing really well and Nishant gets jealous. Divya’s boss gives her one set of instructions and Nishant starts to give her instructions that are slightly different. As a result, there are minor errors in her work. When her boss reprimands her, she approaches Nishant. He denies giving her incorrect instructions, insisting that he said the same things the boss had told Divya, points out the work guidelines to her and then reprimands her for not checking pre-existing guidelines if she wasn’t sure. Divya then starts off on this internal downward path of self-doubt and her work suffers.
Sushant is a very possessive boyfriend who resents his girlfriend Trisha’s popularity. While it was normal for her to catch up with her friends on a regular basis, Sushant started accusing her of abandoning him, though she always prioritised him. Sushant’s accusations took on a daily pattern. When she stood up for herself, he asks if it is too much to ask for a girlfriend to spend time with her boyfriend. Trisha starts to believe that she is a negligent girlfriend and gradually stops meeting her friends altogether.
Even while we are discussing the news and during engagement on social media, Gaslighting is as prevalent as the oxygen around us. When there is a social media storm regarding the lynching of a Muslim person, a Dalit student who was forced to commit suicide or a woman subject to assault, there is an immediate retaliation by people who are forced to examine their social privileges. Those never-ending tags such as #NotAllMen, #TalkToABrahman and #AllLivesMatter are examples of vicious Gaslighting, which takes away from the severity of the situation. It refuses to acknowledge how vulnerable specific communities and people are.
Gaslighting happens most often in homes, workspaces and interpersonal relationships. There’s one person who manipulates and the other person who starts to doubt their perceptions. The gaslighter could be a public personality as well, convincing the hordes of people who look up to him that he’s not as bad as he seems. It is a dangerous habit that is practised to perfection by narcissistic, insecure, egoist and abusive people. Or someone who constantly has something to hide – where he has to resort to constantly alter somebody else’s reality.
What are the warning signs of Gaslighting?
Be alert the moment there is even the tiniest seed of doubt sowed into whatever you were a 100% sure of – something you saw, heard, read, experienced, etc. The latter is followed by subtle and/or subtle denial. Gaslighting manifests predominantly in the form of lies, denial and the twisting of what happened. Get your guard up when you feel the other person is making you reconsider your thoughts, narratives and decisions.
Gaslighting starts to affect you when you start getting confused about your own truth. The other person is projecting onto you. Another way that Gaslighting occurs is when the other person constantly shifts back and forth between positive and negative gestures and statements – again, sowing the seeds of doubt and confusion in you. Something that you are sure is not right or false – they will assert with absolute confidence and assertion.
They may claim to be very fond of you, but when you’re not looking, they will talk trash about you and malign you. This is a tactic to ensure that you are isolated and alienated from your loved ones and well-wishers. You are convinced you are being mistreated, but this person is being extremely persuasive and undercutting that surety. He will throw in lots of justification and temporary reassurance. Also, remember to be cautious when you are frequently shamed and made to feel guilty for every action you take. Your self-esteem and confidence will start to decline.
Gaslighting has a prominent place in patriarchy’s toolkit. If one needed a 101 on Gaslighting, they should observe the process of victim-blaming – be it courts, media, one-on-one communication, etc. People targeting the victim/survivor will constantly try to undercut her reality. She will be besieged with different narratives that could disorient her. Gaslighting is a means to demand complete submission and for the perpetrator to assert complete control, without resorting to physically aggressive means.
The effects that Gaslighting can have on us
You begin to doubt everything about yourself – your perception, insight, decisions, judgement, etc. This can be devastating because Gaslighting is only possible when a relationship of trust and love has been established. Gaslighting can turn into punishment, bullying and abuse after the perpetrator has convinced you to completely mistrust yourself.
Gaslighting destroys our self-esteem and self-confidence and pushes us into internalising abuse. We then get entangled into an anxiety-riddled way of being where we are constantly second-guessing ourselves and feel the need to apologise all the time. That mind frame pushes us into a very lonely existence and one where we are afraid to speak up at all times. From a more clinical perspective, Gaslighting further paves the way for depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicidal tendencies.
What we can do when we are subject to it?
First of all, we have to make space for ourselves to accommodate various narratives in our head. We have to allow ourselves that we may not have all the facts all the time, and that’s perfectly alright – we are only human, after all. We then have to allow ourselves the right to assertion. We do not deserve to be silenced, and our expressions, perceptions, insights and narratives are valid too. As established above, Gaslighting happens everywhere – so take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone in this, and reach out to the people around you. Do not demand absolute perfection from yourself and set realistic goals and expectations for yourself.
All of the above is a sign that you are on your own team. Then start paying careful attention to the signs mentioned above. Reach out to an unbiased third party and present both sides of the situation. Perhaps they will have a rational and neutral explanation as to what is happening. When we are in the mindset where we are absolutely sure of ourselves, we will then be in a position to firmly stand by our choices and decisions, and confront the person threatening to disrupt that surety.
It is not selfish to put yourself first. Self-care does NOT mean self-centred or selfish. No shame in wanting to look out for yourself. Gaslighting wears us out completely, so give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling. In addition, frequently resorting to catharsis can help in the long run. It could be anything, ranging from pacing back and forth, to crying or scribbling in a piece of paper.
The Exchange has a handy primer for self-care. It can be downloaded here.
While our being our own best friend is extremely important, we also have to confront the threat. Or eliminate it. Remember that the gaslighter is always trying to isolate and alienate you – so keep your loved ones nearby if you find yourself unable to take on a confrontation on your own. There is nothing wrong in asking help from someone who cares. If the latter is up for it, ask them to help intervene as well. If you have the time and resources, do get a professional help as Gaslighting takes a terrible toll on us. Since Gaslighting happens predominantly in one-on-one interactions (home, workspace, classrooms, etc.), decide if the relationship with the perpetrator is worth it – both in the short and long run. Having made your decision, and if there is no salvaging that relationship, eliminate that parasite from your life.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: SeenShot