How To Respond To Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where someone purposely spreads false information in an attempt to control others.

Gaslighting is a type of psychological manipulation that makes you question your own reality. Gaslighting occurs when a person, multiple people, or an institution deliberately and systematically disseminates false information. The tactic causes the victims to doubt their own memory, perception, and sometimes even sanity.

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

How you respond to gaslighting can make a difference in how it impacts you. For example, gaslighting can leave you isolated and sapped of confidence and self-esteem.

So, how should you respond if you observe signs of gaslighting? Health reached out to experts to find out the steps you should take.

How To Recgonize Gaslighting

Typically thought of as a tactic used in unhealthy romantic relations, gaslighting can also occur in work, platonic, and family relationships. These people who gaslight may lie, deceive, and obfuscate, all 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," 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, told Health.

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 constantly 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 it's your mother, high school bestie, co-worker, or significant other—read on to learn how to respond to gaslighting.

Understanding What Drives Gaslighting

When you hear the words "emotional abuse," it's easy to think of people who gaslight as bad or evil and write off the possibility that you can work things out. But often, people who gaslight are wounded people, Dori Gatter, PsyD, a relationship expert and psychotherapist in Connecticut, told Health.

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

How To React To Gaslighting

Arguing with someone who is gaslighting you is a losing strategy. Defensive behavior is their fuel, and they will likely 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 you.

"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 person 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?'" said 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. That's important in all relationships, particularly with people who use gaslighting and 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 can help you determine your next steps, from working to repair the relationship to leaving it. 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 both parties must be open to it and prepared to dig into the issues and change. Couples therapy can be particularly challenging for individuals who gaslight since they 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 person gaslighting you hasn't made an effort to change. At this point, you may be looking to part ways with them.

Whether it's a romance, friendship, family member, or boss, an emotionally abusive relationship is an unhealthy one. But 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."

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, simply, clearly, and definitively state that you want to end the relationship.

After ending the relationship or quitting the job, Sarkis recommended complete radio silence: Block the person's phone number, ignore calls from unknown numbers, delete emails unread, and block them on social media.

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

A Quick Review

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where a person uses manipulation tactics that cause a victim to doubt themselves. It can occur in the context of a romantic relationship, friendships, families, the workplace, and even a healthcare provider's office.

People who gaslight are deceptive, deny the truth, and tell outright lies. They may invalidate your feelings, isolate you from your support system, dismiss your needs, and try to shift the blame. 

If you find yourself in a relationship with a person who is gaslighting you, avoid arguing with them and do your best to remain calm. Seek support from friends and family members who can validate your experience and help you sort through your feelings.

Speaking to a therapist as a couple or individually can also help. However, sometimes, the best course of action is to part ways, even though it may not be easy. You may need to cut off all contact, block their phone number and email, and block them and their friends on social media.

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Sources
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