Gaslighting is a pernicious form of abuse. It’s an attempt to make someone doubt their memory or perception of events, to wonder if what just happened really happened like that.
It often takes the form of simply denying that you remember right.
For instance, if the waiter in a restaurant brings you your steak well done and insists you asked for it to be cooked that way, when you know you asked for it to be rare, they are gaslighting you.
They made a mistake, but rather than admit it and put it right, they will blindly lie to your face and absolutely insist that you ordered it well done.
In this trivial instance you’ll know it’s bullshit and you’d simply call the manager.
But in a relationship when the person questioning your memory is very dear to you and very trusted by you it becomes easy over time to start to doubt your own recollection. You might start accepting their version of events to avoid hurting their feelings, even though you know your memory is right. After all, there’s no reason why someone who cares for you would constantly question you, surely? It must be an honest mistake on their part.
But as it goes on, over time you might start to doubt your own recollection, start to doubt your sanity. The abuse may mean the abuser simply doesn’t ever have to take responsibility for anything, or it may be intended to make you dependent.
It’s particularly galling when you have evidence of what really did happen, what you really said!
A few years ago a girl (who subsequently turned out to be crazy, not in the pejorative crazy-ex sense, but actually requiring quite strong medication) started trying to convince me that I had made promises that I hadn’t, done things that I hadn’t, not done things that I had.
This ultimately had potentially very serious consequences (which a couple of you know about). Fortunately for me, by then I had become an avid archivist of my conversations (well, the ones that can be archived!) so I was able to show her story was twaddle.
But it had been sophisticated, drawing in her friends and family to her bizarre alternative history, isolating me as the one person who reported the truth. Without those archives, I’d have been stuffed!
In fairness to her, it has subsequently transpired that she was ill and may have believed her own story.
True gaslighting – deliberate undermining of confidence in ones self – is a hallmark of someone who can comfortably exploit others, but will often be charming and convincing liars who consistently deny wrongdoing.
But how can you tell if you’re being gaslighted? Part of the point is to undermine your confidence in your own perception. Indeed sophisticated gaslighting can include accusations that you are the gaslighter!
Here are the signs:
- You are constantly second-guessing yourself because you feel you have to express yourself exactly right, to avoid misinterpretation?
- You keep questioning whether you’re “too sensitive?”
- You often feel confused about events or why someone could reach the conclusion that have.
- You’re always apologising to calm a situation, even though you’re sure you’ve done nothing wrong (even when you’ve re-read things)
- You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
- You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior.
- You find yourself not telling friends and family things, so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
- You know something is wrong, but you can never quite express what it is.
- You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
- You have trouble making simple decisions.
- You have the sense that you used to be more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
- You feel hopeless and joyless.
- You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
- You wonder if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/employee/friend…
- When you ask questions or express your feelings, you are often put on the defensive about something else (often a straw man).
- Difficult conversations or rows often descend into emotional manipulation “I guess I’m just not good enough for you…”, “Sorry I’m only doing my best…”
The good news is there’s something you can do about it. The way to resist it is to have confidence in your own recollection, and to reinforce that by routinely checking.
I’m lucky. I learned to archive, so if anyone ever questions or denies my memory of events, I’m in the happy position of being able to go back and check what was really said and done.
I hope I never find myself in the position again when I have to.
© Charles Rochester 2015