Gaslighting: (verb) manipulate someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity. The term comes from the 1930’s play ‘Gaslight’ in which the husband convinces his wife that she’s crazy by dimming the gaslights and telling her she is imagining it.
This is only blog post 3, so I am still working out my style, however, I feel the mental health blog post format worked: sharing a deeply personal story and then sharing my findings and tips so you come away from this learning something. This one is not a pleasant one, I find it embarrassing to talk about (I’ll explain why later), however having experienced it and speaking with friends and therapists, I feel I need to share to prevent it happening to other people. If you want the tips and findings keep scrolling to the last few paragraphs!
I have always loved charisma and perhaps this is my undoing. I was working at a speed dating event. I was very flirty with everyone, it was a lot of fun. This one guy had an air about him. Physically he was not my usual type but there was just something, intense eye contact, confidence, little flirty exchanges. I guess that’s what charisma does, it entices and intrigues and it worked. I had an initial gut feeling that he was either charismatic or cocky and I couldn’t work out which. But I went along with it, we went on dates, we became exclusive very quickly. He sent me a letter, or rather an outpouring of his emotions, everything he liked about me, how much I intimidated him. He was very adoring to start with, he enjoyed talking about the importance of consent and sharing emotions and he loved to cuddle. Sounds great, sign me up.
Soon there were little things that snuck in: he didn’t like the restaurant I took him to; he didn’t like the location of my flat; he didn’t like how I’d arranged my flat; he didn’t like my bed; he didn’t like my taste in music. He then proceeded to tell me why my taste in music was bad. I stopped sharing my likes with him. We listened to his music instead.
He would eat cooked chicken on his way round the supermarket and not pay for it; he would talk down to his lovely flatmates, he said I was just okay in bed, because he wanted to fuck something hard (I have vaginismus so that’s not possible straight away, although I have made so much progress and am now able to have penetrative sex - something I’m incredibly proud of). He told me he wasn’t as excited about me as anyone else he’d dated. He was constantly telling me about his exes, reminding me how he never had a problem with girls - he was right, women flocked to him or were repulsed by him, there was no middle ground. He lamented over not being able to “fuck loads of big titty goth girls” at this music festival he was going to, because I came along and he was now in a relationship.
He would make me feel pretty bad about myself and use this radical honesty, which he prided himself in, as a guise to put me down in a seemingly acceptable way - because honesty is a good trait, right? Maybe you read that list and think why didn’t I run - well it happened slowly and bit by bit and there were nice moment too which softened it all somehow. I was also too embarrassed to admit to myself and my friends that I was dating someone that wasn’t a nice person. I convinced myself that at least he was honest and charming and he bought me flowers that one time.
Anyway, he ended it with me and told me he wasn’t sexually attracted to me, that there was something missing. It was actually very civil and we’d decided to stay friends. I felt really happy, we weren’t right for each other and we could instead maintain a friendship. How very adult.
Then one day he tried to turn things sexual again, proposing one last time together. I flirted along for a while but ultimately said no because I could not wrap my head round the idea that someone could want to have sex with someone they weren’t sexually attracted to, unless they wanted an object or were trying to be hurtful. Things turned sour very quickly. He retracted and said that he thought it was a bad idea. “Ultimately, it seems like you couldn’t really handle the emotional aspect of it.” I confronted him. “Why have sex with someone you’re not attracted to? That doesn’t make me feel great.” And then he said something, a theme which had run throughout the entire thing. “I bet all your ex boyfriends “made” you feel like that. You’re responsible for your own emotions.” I didn’t know what to say. I kept typing things and deleting because what he said seemed so rational. Of course I’m responsible for my own emotions, right? But I implore you to find someone that could be perfectly happy and unphased when someone that they had been sleeping with says “I’m not sexually attracted to you.”
He blocked me and I felt incredibly guilty, like I’d overreacted and done something wrong. At that moment I looked up the word ‘gaslighting’, I can’t explain why and I realised I wasn’t sure what it meant. I read through the symptoms and then I thought ‘Wow, this is what had been happening.’ I decided to tell friends and my therapist what had happened and they were all shocked and angry, it was only through their reactions that I could see how bad the situation had been. I thought about other things he’d done, e.g. been on the phone with me whilst in the supermarket, blatantly flirted with the checkout woman whilst on the phone, and said it was all in my head when I confronted him. I even re-read some of his old blog posts, all about marketing schmooze and one was titled ‘how to convince people you’re good at everything’. It finally clicked.
As I said at the start, I felt embarrassed that this had happened to me, as someone who identifies as a strong feminist. However, I’ve since learnt gaslighting is an art of manipulation. It can be so subtle you can miss it. I have worked with several abuse charities and thought I was quite aware of what abuse looked like, yet I realised I didn’t understand gaslighting.
I know my story is a quick 2 month job, bish bash bosh binned. I don’t like to think where I’d have found myself further down the line. I experienced some nastiness but I am coming out relatively unscathed. I fear for his future victims and am sad for those currently still in abusive relationships.
I’m still digesting the situation, I wrote the first draft of this immediately after when emotions were still high. This edit comes a little later, with a little less emotion imbued into the post. I’ve been researching and talking to others that have a bit more knowledge on this. So here are my thoughts and findings:
1. The symptoms:
When I randomly googled the term ‘gaslighting’, I discovered this list that made everything clear for me (1). See if you recognise feeling any of these:
no longer feeling like the person you used to be.
being more anxious and less confident than you used to be.
often wondering if you're being too sensitive.
feeling like everything you do is wrong.
always thinking it's your fault when things go wrong.
You make excuses to justify their actions
You withhold information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain yourself
2. The actions:
No support for your personal growth
Lying and denying
Turning your upset around on you
Telling you you’re imagining things/ that you’re crazy
Degrading comments followed by positive reinforcement
3. The gaslighter: A gaslighter’s personality can be charistmatic, charming, mysterious, and they are highly manipulative. Some know they’re doing it, some believe they’re doing nothing wrong. Stephanie A. Sarkis delved deeper into different personalities of gaslighters in her article ‘Are Gaslighters Aware of what they do?’ It is important to note that the gaslighter can take the form of anyone, your romantic partner, family member, friend, coworker or world leader.
4. The victim: It can happen to anyone. It’s not about being vulnerable. In fact, one article (2) talks about how there are two traits that people who are prone to gaslighting share: ‘One is conscientiousness. People who have a conscience, people who generally do the right thing and are trusting, because they are trustworthy in nature. The other is agreeableness. You want to treat people well and get along. You don't want to unnecessarily rock the boat in your relationships.’ They interviewed a self-confessed gaslight who added a third trait: The victims ‘were all intelligent and successful - this was a key factor in how receptive they were to being gaslighted
5. The support network: Talk to others. When I talked through the experience to friends and professionals they helped me realise I was not overreacting or crazy or guilty.
6. The learnings: Learn how to recognise this, once you understand what gaslighting is and how gaslighters work it should be easier to spot the patterns in the future. If you have a gut feeling about a relationship, listen to it, but if that’s not present for you, check in with yourself and ask how you really feel.
Looking back, all the signs were there. But whilst you’re in the midst of something, it can be difficult to have an objective grasp of the situation. I spoke to a close client, my therapist, my flatmate, my yoga teacher, my friend about this and what is scary is how many have experienced this. Yet the same story keeps cropping up again and again - they didn’t understand that they were being gaslit until after leaving the relationship and learning what it was. I hope this is helpful in some way to someone, somewhere.
https://www.healthline.com/health/gaslighting - How to recognise gaslighting and get help
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-42460315 - Cheating and manipulation: Confessions of a Gaslighter
https://www.northpointrecovery.com/blog/gaslighting-examples-effects-confront-abuse/ - Gaslighting: Examples, effects and how to confront the abuse
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/are-gaslighters-aware-what-they-do - Are Gaslighters aware of what they do?
https://blogs.psychcentral.com/recovering-narcissist/2019/03/7-gaslighting-phrases-malignant-narcissists-sociopaths-and-psychopaths-use-translated/ 7 Gaslighting phrases used to silence you, translated