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Gaslighting! Could You Be a Victim?

Here's what it means, and exactly what it feels like to be 'gaslighted' by someone.

The Girl On The Train follows the story of Rachel Watson, a woman tormented by her addiction to alcohol and her inability to move on from a failed marriage to a seemingly perfect man. It’s gripping. Who hasn’t struggled to move on from a past love? The thing about Rachel, though, is that she’s an unlikeable character—a mess. You almost can’t blame her husband for leaving her. 

After all, she once got so drunk and caused such a scene at his work event that he got fired. She was physically violent when they argued. She was a pretty crap wife in many ways.

Except she wasn’t—because she didn’t actually do any of these things. She only thought she did. According to South Africa-based counselling psychologist Lindiwe Nhlapo, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where false information is given to the victim with the intention of making them doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. Rachel’s husband told her she did such despicable things while intoxicated that he had no choice but to leave her.

The thing about IRL gaslighting is that it doesn’t always happen in such a dramatic way. It could be something as basic as you catching your man double-tapping an Insta post of a semi-nude woman you’ve never met before, then being made to feel genuinely crazy, possessive, or clingy when you verbalise that it makes you uncomfortable.

Identifying the gaslighter 

Why gaslight in the first place? Stefanie Bove, a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, South Africa, says that it has everything to do with the abuser. “Gaslighting is usually perpetrated by narcissistic personalities,” she says. “They require—and prey on—the insecurity of their partner, on whom they project their innermost fears and anxieties.” She says a gaslighter can be identified based on other characteristics, too.

“They have a need for dominance and control, and look for someone who’ll submit to them. Their sense of entitlement has them violating rules and boundaries, asserting that these do not apply to them.” Just think of Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass manipulating Blair Waldorf into having sex with another man in exchange for a piece
of property. 

Understanding your feels 

We’ve all heard the words ‘You’re driving me insane’ escape from our own lips (and others’)—usually in jest. However, Lindiwe says, abusers who gaslight their victims strive for this outcome through a method known as ‘countering’. “This is when the abuser questions the victim’s recollection of events even though they both know it’s accurate,” she says. “They make comments such as, ‘You always forget things’.” 

And it’s not only your memory a gaslighter would have you doubt, it’s your perception of events, too. Perhaps they won’t deny that they’ve been messaging their ex for two months, for example—but they’ll never admit that it’s hurtful behaviour. Rather, they’ll tell you the only reason they hid it from you is because you are too jealous and would have ‘blown it out of proportion’. 

This can result in the victim feeling confused, indecisive, anxious, and depressed, says Stefanie. “A person who ‘gaslights’ repeatedly manipulates the victim into doubting their abilities, opinions, and recollections, and eventually their sanity,” she says. 

Even scarier than simply contemplating what gaslighting would look like in a romantic relationship is taking into account that it can occur in any relationship, says Stefanie. And because both men and women can resort to it as a form of psychological abuse, you need to look at your own patterns of behaviour to identify whether you’ve abused those you love or work with through these techniques. 

 Identifying when someone is gaslighting you is the first step to taking back control. It can be scary to stand up for yourself, but if you know in your gut that something is wrong, take action. 

Dealing with it

When your colleague says, ‘You made me look bad in that meeting, interrupting me the way you did’. 

Say, ‘That was not my intention. Let me speak to [another colleague’s name] for confirmation that my behaviour was out of line, because I don’t believe it was’. 

When your colleague says, ‘You seemed unprepared in your last three presentations. Are you struggling as much in this position as you seem to be?’. 

Say, ‘I worked very long and hard to get this role, and I work very hard to keep it. Until my superior raises concerns, I’ll keep doing me’.

When your partner says, ‘You made a fool of yourself last night when you told that dumb joke that no-one thinks is funny’. 

Say, ‘My friends and I really love that joke, and I don’t expect to please everyone all the time’. 

When your partner says, ‘It’s unattractive when you talk to so many men while we’re out. It makes you look desperate’. 

Say, ‘I’ve always been friendly. Maybe you should address why it makes you uncomfortable, because I enjoy the way I engage with people’. 

When your bestie says, ‘All the other girls say you’re a terrible friend, but I know you’re not’.

Say, ‘I don’t believe they’d speak like that behind my back, so I’ll talk to them about it directly’.

When your bestie says, ‘You shouldn’t talk about things you don’t understand; it makes you look stupid’.

Say, ‘Only stupid people don’t ask questions about things they don’t know. I love learning new things’.

Moving on 

So you’ve identified the abuser and their form of abuse, and you’re learning to clap back and stand up for yourself. Now what? Stick to the facts, says Lindiwe: “You need to stay in touch with reality”. Cut the abuser out of your life and surround yourself with people who reinforce your self-worth. By clearing away what you no longer have use for, you make room for those who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated.

The term ‘gaslighting’ can be traced back to the 1938 play Gas Light by British dramatist Patrick Hamilton, in which a husband uses the flicker of lights to manipulate his wife to question her sanity. The plot twist is that the husband is the one controlling the lights—and his wife’s sense
of reality.