If a friend, colleague, or family member starts to change their behaviour, then it could be a sign that they’re being gaslighted. Gaslighting is a method of coercive control, most commonly seen in romantic relationships, but also in evidence in high-control groups and cults, and even linked to positions of authority such as employer-employee relationships for example. Distancing themselves, making excuses for their own behaviour, or the behaviour of others, and becoming withdrawn can all be symptomatic of an individual being coercive controlled through gaslighting.
What is gaslighting?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines gaslighting as: “the action or process of manipulating a person by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” It was one of their ‘words of the year’ for 2018, highlighting growing awareness of the issue. The definition gaslight derives from the 1944 film Gaslight (really worth a watch), which showcases the story of a wife going seemingly insane due to her husband methodically brainwashing her with his lies.
10 Signs of Gaslighting
Questioning the recollection of events
Whether it’s a small lie to make them feel like they’ve have imagined something, or being told their memory is entirely unreliable, Gaslighters often use statements like “are you sure that happened” or “I don’t remember doing that”, or potentially even deflect with phrases like “have you been talking to your sister again? She always puts stupid ideas in your head”. If you weren’t there when it happened, it can be difficult to spot, so look for consistent application of event denial as a means of controlling their narrative, or evidence of them misremembering events that you were both at, or significantly changing their story between separate recounting.
Placing the blame on them
Often a key sign of someone gaslighting is that an individual starts to apologise for small, often inconsequential things. What’s more, the abuser will often turn a mistake that they made into something they were made to do, with the victim at fault for the events. These accusations lead to issues like overthinking and anxiety, with individuals expecting backlash from a partner, with the victim often becoming more hesitant, withdrawn, or indecisive.
Isolation from others is part of gaslighting, but it also makes it easier for gaslighting to become more entrenched. From complaining that it’s a bad idea to go to a family Christmas dinner to claiming that a new job is taking up too much time and they should quit, gaslighters will encourage constantly changing plans or not making plans in the first place. Make sure to check up on your friends if they regularly miss meeting up with you, or they stop agreeing to meet in the first place.
Buying their love
Gaslighting relies on an individual feeling off balance, insecure and vulnerable. The abuser will often be seen to tear someone down, before apologising and/or showering their victim with gifts. Survivors often describe their abuser as having two distinct personalities, and feeling on edge, not knowing which trait to expect at any given time. Watch out for an individual become more reserved or insecure, and displaying or attaching meaning to new material gifts.
Diminishing the feelings
From “why are you being so sensitive” to “you never use to be like this”, a gaslighter will often use claims like these to diminish an individual’s feelings and opinions. It is a way of developing insecurity and undermining an individual’s sense of self, in order to create additional reliance on the relationship for security. Victims will often start to defend their abuser, discount their own feelings, or withdraw from sharing their opinions with you. Note, this can also be referred to as trivializing.
If you believe you have started to identify the signs and confront an individual with the evidence, they may express anger or hastily deny that events are true. Naturally, this could be because your assumptions are incorrect, but your friend should be able to evidence why they believe it to be untrue. Confrontation is rarely the answer as it will often have the opposite effect to the one you desire, with your friend withdrawing further or entirely eliminating contact with you, leaving you unable to offer help and support.
Everyone is wrong except for them
A gaslighter is often a narcissist, and will claim that the people around them are the liars or the problem. They can use this persuasively to assert additional reliance on the relationship, by calling into question the actions of others.
Their Actions do not match their words
Many gaslighters make claims that they love their partner even though they are not doing what is best for them. If you stand back and look at what they are really saying a lot of what they are doing may not completely add up.
Methodically gaslighters use guilt as a technique to make another responsible for their anger and reactions to small problems. Making an individual feel like they are constantly in the wrong is a strong coercive control technique.
Creating a power imbalance
A key characteristic of a gaslighter is someone who constantly wishes to have power over someone else. From their physical size to claims against your actions, power imbalances come in various shapes and sizes. Using many of the techniques that we have already outlined, (blame, isolation, diminishing feelings, denial etc.), a victim will start to consciously or subconsciously defer to their attacker, or assume their attacker’s opinions, in order to avoid conflict. Extreme cases will see victims entirely give up their independence, which may include closing their bank account, deferring their income to their partner or group, or asking permission before participating in events outside of the relationship.
My friend is being gaslighted. What can I do?
Unfortunately, while many would like to take direct action and rescue an individual from a coercive control situation, this is not likely possible, and may in fact drive the person further into their coercive control relationship. To have the best chance of recovery, an individual must recognise the signs themselves, and choose to seek help on their own terms. The best thing you can do is be a supportive friend or colleague, equip yourself with knowledge, and continue to build trust. You can:
- Learn: seek out credible sources of information, learn about coercive control techniques and recovery, and identify charities, support groups, and support systems in your area that can help an individual. When they are ready, you can spring into action and deliver effective management of the situation, helping them get to the safe space they need to be at. Importantly, it will need to be on their terms, so pushing your agenda for recovery too early, may have the opposite effect to what you desire.
- Build trust: we naturally want to point out the lies and manipulations, but doing so may do nothing but undermine your relationship with your friend. Instead, express understanding at changed plans, seek to maintain contact and dates, find new ways to communicate, and ultimately, keep the lines of communication open while being a person they can trust. Becoming their safe space increases the likelihood that they will reach out to you for support, and may also provide the counterbalance to the claims being made by their abuser.
- Counter claims: you will need to strike a fine balance between rebuilding their confidence and not pushing them back towards their abuser, but when the opportunity presents itself, you can help them to question events. For example, if you were all at an event together, or you know something to be true, but they express doubts, you can remind them that you were there and this is what happened. Having an independent third party to validate their own recollection of events, can help undermine the actions of their narcissistic abuser.
- Express understanding: the actions of a coercively controlled individual are often not their own. Instead of writing them off for missing plans, express understanding and present the opportunity for meeting at another time. Be specific and suggests a time and place, as this can help to prevent their withdrawal from your relationship.
- Seek professional help: while you are a willing friend, there are plenty of people who are qualified in helping an emotionally abused individual to recover. Reach out to someone local and ask them for advice and support in a particular scenario. They will be able to listen to particular events and experiences, and advise on the best approach and course of action.
- Accept your limits: even if you are willing to help and have the trust of the person that you are trying to support, you have to accept that you cannot force them to do anything, and that the time might not be right for them to change. Frustrating as that is, accept that there are limits to what you can do, and just keep trying to offer the right advice at the right time.