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  • Dr Heather Dyson

“It was only a joke!” Signs of Gaslighting.

What is Gaslighting?


Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the “abuser” attempts to convince the “victim” that their (the abusers) behaviour is reasonable whilst the “victims” response is over-the-top or unwarranted, consequently sowing self-doubt and confusion in the victim’s mind. It can be understood as being a form of emotional abuse that can happen to anyone, especially in romantic relationships.

Abusers typically gaslight their victims in order to maintain control in the relationship, and make their victims question their own sanity. An example of gaslighting would be someone hiding their partner’s bank cards and when confronted, telling the victim that there was nothing wrong with this behaviour and that it was only a joke/an act of love. Gaslighters may try to convince their victims that they are mentally unwell or being over-sensitive.


Common types of gaslighting.

1. “That never happened.”

By instilling a sense of doubt, the victim starts to question their instincts related to the reality in which they find themselves. Maybe I did forget to pick up my bank cards? Maybe I didn’t put my bank cards in my bag? Subsequently, they become increasingly reliant on their partner (abuser) to tell them what their “reality” actually is, increasing their dependency on them.


2. “You’re just being sensitive.”

Gaslighters will attempt to make the victim question both their physical and their emotional reality. When the victim tries to express hurt or disappointment, the abuser may respond with “you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill” or “It was just a joke, why can’t you take a joke anymore?”. The abuser will invalidate and minimise the victims feelings in attempt to make them feel stupid for even trying to stand up for themselves.


3. “You have a terrible memory.”

We all experience trouble with recalling certain details but Gaslighters will create an environment in which the victim will doubt their memory as a whole, spanning various situations and experiences. Getting victims to question themselves is basis of all gaslighting and therefore essential for the abuser to maintain control. When the victim is unable to trust their memory or instincts, the abuser is in complete control.


4. “What are you talking about? You must be crazy”

Abusers will use the fear and stigma around mental health, not only to make their victims question their own sanity, but also shame them so that they are unable to tell friends or family what is happening within their relationship. They will attempt to discredit any claims that the victim makes, labelling them as being irrational and less in control of their emotions. Not only does this decrease the credibility of the victim, but it also disconnects and distances them from their support systems, making it almost impossible for the victim to leave the abusive relationship.


5. “Sorry that you think that I hurt you.”

This statement, and others like it, on the surface appear as an apology, but it is anything but. This type of statement is a way for the abuser to deflect any responsibility their have for their actions and blame the victim. This type of “apology” assumes that the emotional response of the victim is soley their responsibility and that if they had simply thought about the situation in a different way, then they wouldn’t be hurt. This leaves the individual wondering if they were overreacting, resulting in the victim relying on the abuser’s interpretation of events.


6. “You should have known how I would react.”

This type of response allows the abuser to deflect responsibility for their behaviour onto the victim. Most of us can think of examples of this type of situation “I only hit you because you made me angry”, or “If you hadn’t criticised me, then I wouldn’t have shouted at you”. These statements can made the victim feel guilty for a situation in which they had no control or responsibility for.


Gaslighting involves twisting facts so the abuser can avoid taking personal responsibility for their behaviours. By convincing the victim that they should have known how the abuser was going to react, the Gaslighter places the blame on the victim for not speaking up, but also the abuser’s response.


Signs you’ve experienced gaslighting

  • You have the urge to apologise all of the time.

  • You believe that you’re inept and can’t do anything right.

  • You have frequent feelings of anxiety or nervousness.

  • You’ve lost your confidence.

  • You’re constantly questioning whether you’re making things up in your mind or whether you’re just being “over-sensitive”.

  • You’re feeling increasingly disconnected from your friends and family, as well as from your sense of self.

  • You blame yourself for all the difficulties in your relationship, even when it may not actually be your fault.

  • You experience a lingering sense of hopelessness, emotional numbness, or frustration.

  • You find that you’re frequently having to make excuses for your partner’s behaviour to others.

  • You’re frequently questioning your words and behaviours to ensure that you’ve done everything right.

  • You find yourself increasingly isolated for friends, family, and activities you used to partake in.

Who can gaslight?

Anyone can gaslight another person (or group of people!). Politicians may attempt to deny events recorded on video. Doctors may gaslight when they suggest you’ve imagined your symptoms, or their severity. Family members, romantic partners, friends, work colleagues can all gaslight people around them. Indeed, gaslighting tends to work because we want to trust the other. We want to believe that our family/friends/partners/doctors/politicians have our best interests at heart. Furthermore, gaslighting is often extremely subtle and consequently hard to challenge.


Where to access support


Getting some outside perspective from trusted friends and/or family is always a good place to start. They may be able to offer their perspective and provide you with not only some clarity, but also emotional support.


Setting clear boundaries between you and the other can help to provide you with some emotional and physical space. During your next interaction try responding with “It seems that we remember things in a different way, so let’s move on”, “If you can me ‘crazy’, I’m going to leave the room”, or “We can talk about this, but if you shout at me, or are verbally abusive, then I’m going to end the conversation”. Sticking to the boundaries you set is essential. Following through on your words shows the abuser that they are unable to manipulate you.


Over time, gaslighting can affect our sense of self-worth, impact our confidence and self-esteem, as well as increase feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. Seeking support from a experienced psychologist or mental health professional can aid you in developing skills not only to recognise the signs of gaslighting, but strategies to escape these abusive relationships.


For more information, or places to access support, please feel free to email me at drheatherdyson@gmail.com.


Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash


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