How To Respond To Gaslighting

The right way to handle this powerful form of emotional abuse.

Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that makes you question your own reality. How you respond to gaslighting can make a difference in how it impacts you.

"Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse," said Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free.

That sounds serious—and it is. Gaslighting can leave you isolated and sapped of confidence and self-esteem. How should you respond if you observe signs of gaslighting? We reached out to experts to find out the exact steps you should take.

How To Recgonize Gaslighting

Gaslighting involves a person, multiple people, or institution deliberately and systematically disseminating false information. This causes the victims to doubt their own memory, perception, and sometimes even sanity.

Typically thought of as a tactic used in unhealthy romantic relations, gaslighting can also occur in work, platonic, and family relationships. These master manipulators lie, deceive, and obfuscate, all in an effort to gain power over you by making you doubt reality.

Trying to defend yourself against a gaslighter only makes their strategies more effective. If you express hurt or frustration, gaslighters pivot to phrases like "it's all in your head" or "you're just too sensitive," said Anthony P. DeMaria, PhD, a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and associate director of adult ambulatory psychiatry at Mount Sinai St. Luke's and Mount Sinai West Hospitals in New York City.

Be on the lookout for the following common signs of gaslighting:

* Accuses you of being paranoid
* Denies the truth or tells outright lies
* Forgets or pretends to have forgotten
* Frequently or contantly criticizes you
* Invalidates your feelings
* Isolates you or alienates you from support systems
* Minimizes or dismisses your needs
* Shifts blame to avoid accountability
* Uses "love" to justify their behavior
* Withholds information

If you see these signs in any relationships—whether its your mother, high school bestie, co-worker, or significant other—read on to learn how to respond to gaslighting.

Understand What Drives Gaslighting

When you hear the words "emotional abuse," it's easy to think of gaslighters as bad or evil and write off the possibility that you can work things out. But that's not a helpful framework.

Gaslighters are wounded people, said Dori Gatter, PsyD, a relationship expert and psychotherapist in Connecticut.

"They don't have a strong sense of self and have to feel 'right' all the time, or else they feel threatened," Gatter said. That makes a gaslighter uniquely challenging to deal with, but not impossible.

The Right Way To React To Gaslighting

Arguing with a gaslighter is a losing strategy. Defensive behavior is their fuel, and they'll respond to you by saying that you're being hysterical, acting crazy, or other inflaming, frustrating statements. The more you try to defend yourself, the more they gaslight.

"As soon as you are off balance and dysregulated, you look like the problem," noted Gatter. "Your goal—and it's not a maneuver and it's not a manipulation—is to keep yourself calm."

Instead of digging in your heels, tell the gaslighter that while you hear them, what they're saying is not your experience, said Gatter.

Or try opening up a conversation with a non-threatening phrase like, "We seem to see things differently—can we talk it out?" suggested DeMaria.

Don't Second-Guess Yourself

Gaslighting works in part by wearing you down. So be aware of when you begin to doubt what your gut tells you is true and real, recommended DeMaria.

"It can be helpful to ask yourself the question, What do I really believe is going on? as opposed to What am I being pressured to believe?" DeMaria said.

According to DeMaria, this reflection allows you to approach interactions with confidence. You may also find it helpful to jot down notes or keep a journal.

When gaslighting occurs in the context of a romantic relationship, people outside of your relationship can give you a third-party perspective, said DeMaria. This is important in all relationships, but particularly with gaslighters, who seek to make their victims feel isolated or insignificant.

If you're second-guessing what you know deep down is reality, check in with a friend who can back you up.

Seek Help if the Gaslighting Continues

Individual counseling will help you determine your next steps, from working to repair the relationship to leaving it. Individual therapy can also be a confidence builder.

"Gaslighters will erode your self-esteem; therapy can be very helpful in rebuilding it and also learning the warning signs of gaslighters in the future," said Sarkis.

When it occurs in a romantic relationship, couples therapy can work, too—but only if both parties are open to it and prepared to dig into the issues and change. However, therapy can be particularly challenging for gaslighters, who tend to think of themselves as fine and label everyone else as the problem, explained Sarkis.

"If you have someone who is open to going to therapy—even if they might not see what's going on—and willing to get some help, you're with someone with whom you can work on this relationship," said Gatter.

DeMaria added: "Can two imperfect people in a relationship make individual changes to make the relationship better? Absolutely. Does it always happen? No."

Get Out—and Don't Look Back

You tried to address the behavior, but the gaslighter hasn't made an effort to change. At this point, the only solution is to split.

Whether its a romance, friendship, family member, or boss, an emotionally abusive relationship is an unhealthy one. Unfortunately, calling it quits with a gaslighter is not easy.

"The breakup may provide fertile ground for more gaslighting," said DeMaria. "Often, gaslighters ramp up their behaviors when things come to an emotional head, as they so frequently do during a breakup," DeMaria said.

With that in mind, Gatter recommended skipping explanations and exhaustive conversations. "You're wasting your energy if you're looking for them to take responsibility or acknowledge or validate anything that you're saying," said Gatter. Instead, state simply, clearly, and definitively that you want to end the relationship.

After ending the relationship or quitting the job, Sarkis recommended complete radio silence: block your gaslighter's phone number, ignore calls from unknown numbers, and delete emails unread.

Be aware that the gaslighter may use other people—like common friends—to communicate. Clearly tell these people that you will not discuss the gaslighter, Sarkis advised, and use what you've learned to find a healthier relationship.

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