Disclaimer: I am not a mental health specialist. This post is based on my own experiences and my opinion.
Honestly, I had no idea what gaslighting is, what it means and what it does to you until recently. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of the term or that what I was being subjected to was toxic until after I got out of a long term toxic relationship. By the time I got out of the relationship, the damage had already been done.
Seven years of being gaslighted had eroded my self confidence, my trust in myself, my faith in who I was. Seven years in the relationship plus three years since I decided to separate from him and I am still dealing with the residual effects of my time with him.
So what is gaslighting?
Certain personality types commonly resort to gaslighting their partners. Sociopaths and narcissists frequently use gaslighting tactics to control their partners.
It is important to understand that gaslighting can occur in any type of relationship, even friendships, between siblings, between a parent and child, etc, and not just in romantic relationships.
How do they do it?
They do it by telling blatant lies confidently with a straight face to the point that you start questioning yourself. About what you’d heard or done or said or seen.
Of course they’ll always deny having done anything wrong. They’ll have a zillion excuses for any transgressions, which is of course never their fault. They’ll usually not acknowledge any wrongdoings.
They do it by blaming you for everything. It starts small and you respond by trying to reason it out with them. But they keep blame-shifting and then one day you start to believe that it is your fault. If you had done things differently, things would’ve turned out better. Even when they spoil your birthday, they’ll blame you for it.
They’ll mix in some compassion and affection once in a while to confuse you into believing they care about you.
They’ll tell you that you’re over-reacting or being overly sensitive. They won’t acknowledge your feelings, or your thoughts until you start wondering if your reasonable expectations are unreasonable, unwarranted and burdensome.
And then there’s “putting words in your mouth” or misrepresenting what you’d said or simply conveniently misinterpreting what you’d said.
They do it in subtle ways at first. In my case, my partner was also a close friend of many years. While we were friends, he was always polite and gentle. So at first, those small arguments didn’t seem like reasons to break-up over since an important friendship was at stake for me. But the longer I stayed, the more opportunities I’d given him to gaslight me and after a while, I had started to believe I was the problem.
Emotional abuse, which gaslighting is a part of, is not as easy to identify as physical abuse. In fact, if you’re unaware of the fact that this kind of behaviour, when it becomes a consistent pattern is unhealthy, it might be hard to pick up on it.
Many of us have lied or denied doing something wrong or participated in one or the other of the above mentioned behaviours at some point in our lives. Hence we tend to forgive easily and overlook these patterns. But it becomes problematic when it becomes a pattern and not a one off. When such behaviour becomes repetitive.
It is important to distinguish between gaslighting and genuine disagreements. Disagreements are common in any relationship. No two people can constantly have exactly the same opinions or points of view all the time. Sometimes disagreements can give us an opportunity to get to know and learn more about each other. And there are healthy ways of resolving disagreements. It involves both partners listening to each other without invalidating anyone’s opinions, thoughts or feelings.
Signs of gaslighting
By the time I got out of the relationship, my sense of who I am was shaken. So much so that I started to doubt every decision I was making. I kept feeling that everything that went wrong to someone in my life, was my fault. In fact, I told my best friend that I felt like I was a bad omen to people around me, that everyone around me seemed to be having problems. I am lucky I have an amazing group of friends. My best friend patiently explained to me that everyone has problems and that we only know the details of what’s happening in the lives of those closest to us and not the rest of the world. It’s not something I don’t know. It’s definitely something I know. It’s something I’ve explained to other friends at other times in my life. And yet I had this unfounded feeling that I was the reason for everyone’s problems.
I also at times keep wondering if I had misunderstood an incident, if I remembered things differently than what had actually happened.
In fact, I had developed a habit of saying things like – “I think I remember you saying xyz to me but I’m not sure if I remember it correctly” or “I remember we’d gone to/done xyz sometime back or do I remember this incorrectly”. I had started to say things like that to my childhood friends, my parents, my colleagues. I came across as someone who had no self-confidence, who was unsure of herself. And that is because I have become this person now.
A friend recently told me that in the time that I was in the relationship, I went from being a carefree, fun loving person to someone who was constantly worried about doing something that would upset my partner.
I became so exhausted of being anxious all the time, of fights over every little thing, of accusations all the time, of every disagreement blowing out of proportion that I started to literally agree to everything, even when it wasn’t something I believed in or agreed with. Slowly but surely, I lost myself. I lost my confidence. I lost my ability to be assertive. I started to question my value systems, my beliefs. Does the way I dress come off as provocative? Am I really doing things the wrong way? Does the way I talk to other men seem flirtatious? Did I really say something like that although that just doesn’t sound like something I would say?
Perhaps the people who gaslight are not aware of what they’re doing and then there are some whose primary job is to gaslight (like politicians). But it is important for people to be aware of what gaslighting is.
I often hear from people, even some who are close to me, and of course the neighborhood aunties, and even his mother, about how you don’t end a seven years relationship over nothing.
Yes, I’m attending therapy to sort all of this out. I’m lucky that I’ve met a wonderful compassionate Clinical Psychotherapist. If there is anyone like me out there, please don’t let anyone tell you that emotional abuse is a small thing. That “things like these happen in every relationship”. No! They don’t. And if they do, it needs to be UN-NORMALISED, not normalised. If you find that you’re loosing yourself, please get the hell out of it.