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Gaslighting & Mental Health: Are You Vulnerable?

"Gaslighting" was just chosen as the 2022 word of the year by dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster. Knowing more about gaslighting can be especially important for one's mental health since many people may be more vulnerable to it than they think.

Gaslighting takes it meaning from a Victorian-era play set in London about a marriage based on lies. In the story the husband tries to convince his wife that she is going insane. One way he does this is to tell her that she is imagining the dimming of the gas lights in their home. Hence the term, gaslighting. The term didn't become popular until the mid 2010s.

Gaslighting is defined as manipulating someone into questioning their own perceptions and reality usually for the benefit of the person doing the gaslighting. The process of gaslighting can cause the victim to doubt their own sanity and become disoriented and distressed.

Often gaslighting is done to people or groups who are vulnerable in situations where there is an unequal power relationship. In such a situation the victim can be fearful of challenging the false narratives due to fear of repercussions due to the unequal power relationship. A common example of such an unequal power relationship is between a boss and an employee in the workplace, but it can also happen in romantic relationships, parent/child relationships and other relationship types.

There are several different techniques that gaslighters may use against their victims:

- Pretending to not understand the victim or their perspective

- Calling into question and attacking the victim's memory

- Controlling the conversation and shifting focus to the victim's thoughts as the point of contention

- Minimizing the importance of the victim's thoughts and needs

- Pretending to forget or even deny events that really happened

Gaslighting usually occurs over an extended duration and not as a single interaction. The gaslighter slowly chips away at their victim's sense of reality. Gaslighters can target those they view as most vulnerable, e.g. people who are isolated or exhibit feelings of inadequacy.

Gaslighting can have a damaging circular relationship with respect to mental health - those with mental health challenges can be more vulnerable to gaslighting, and gaslighting can cause mental health challenges.

Here are common characteristics that may make you more vulnerable to gaslighting:

People pleaser: If you're driven by making others happy and getting their approval you may be more likely to go along with things that are distorted from reality to continue to receive approval.

Highly sensitive: If you're especially sensitive to the reaction of others you can be vulnerable to others using this as a way to manipulate you and shift your perceptions.

Conflict avoidant: If you are particularly uncomfortable with conflict you may be more likely to allow a gaslighting situation to continue longer without taking action. This is especially problematic because your perceptions (including about yourself) can get slowly shifted by gaslighting and before you know it you're a long way from where you started. This slow shifting without noticing is akin to the boiling frog metaphor.

Low self-esteem: If you view yourself as less valuable you may be more likely to tolerate gaslighting behavior.

Less belief in your memory: If you doubt your memory you can be more vulnerable to a gaslighter using your doubts to their advantage and telling you that you don't accurately remember the situation or remember what was said.

Less social support: Manipulators prey on others who have less support because they know that you have fewer people with which to share what's happening and from which to get well-grounded opinions and support.

Less alternatives to the situation: When you're in a situation where you have few alternatives, or feel like you have few alternatives, gaslighters are more likely to be brazen in their manipulation because they believe you have no where else to go.

Trauma history: If your psyche carries around past traumatic memories you may be more likely to put up with such situations again. Examples include abandonment, abuse, and neglect.

Abandonment history: If you have abandonment fears (often from childhood) you are more likely to stay in situations that aren't healthy in order to avoid the pain of feeling abandoned again.

Childhood gaslighting: If you grew up in a household where a parent used gaslighting techniques you may be more vulnerable to them being used against you again.

Low moods: If you're in a low mood such as depressed, your decision making capacity may be compromised resulting in you being less able to detect and resolve gaslighting situations.

So, what to do if you think you may be the victim of gaslighting?

First, remember that gaslighting can begin subtly. It can be a series of small little comments that normally might go unnoticed. It's the ongoing nature of these behaviors that differentiate gaslighting from one-time inappropriate comments.

Next, know that all gaslighting isn't necessarily conscious on the perpetrator's behalf. So, if confronted they may genuinely not even know they are doing it. It may be a pattern of behavior they have developed over time and that perhaps has been rewarded, e.g. as they climb the corporate ladder in an environment that turns a blind eye toward the behavior.

Here are specific things you can do:

Note triggers: Depending on the situation and your background the subtle signs of gaslighting may trigger your thinking and/or your body. You may detect the specific words or actions of someone, or you may simply get an uncomfortable feeling in your body. Both should be listened to and explored.

Collect evidence: It's too easy to keep telling yourself that what happened was a one-time thing when in fact it has been going on for some time. Write down who/what/where of the occurrences. This can help you not be the boiling frog who barely recognizes the current event and has lost sight of all the past events. It can also be helpful should you need the evidence, e.g. in the workplace.

Record conversations: Sometimes you need to literally hear a replay of what someone has said so it will sink in or so that others will believe you. Note that such recordings may not be admissible in a legal proceeding. Make sure it is not a violation of local laws to make the recordings.

Consult others: Ask trusted friends, co-workers and family about the events. They can provide a more objective opinion since they are outside the situation. But make sure you are asking people who can be trusted and who genuinely have your best interests in mind.

Don't question yourself: In such situations resist the urge to question yourself, to think, "Oh it must just be in my head." When a pattern emerges it's definitely not just in your head.

Take a break: When you're the victim of gaslighting you're incrementally getting pulled into a distorted reality. Taking a break from the situation can help you reset your reality such that when you come back to the gaslighting with a fresh perspective it may suddenly be far more obvious.

Professional support: If needed, seek professional support from a therapist who can help you unpack and process what you've experienced. They can also help you make a plan for next steps and how to undo any damage that has been done to your psyche so you don't carry it forward.

Unfortunately, gaslighting is a real thing with real effects on your mental health. So, please be aware and listen to any discomfort you're experiencing in your thinking or sensations in your body.


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