Written by Karl Perera, MA, DipLC
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What is gaslighting?
The word comes from a play called “Gas Light” which came out in 1938. In this play a man tries to persuade his wife that she is going crazy by dimming the gas lights (old fashioned lights that didn’t use electricity) and pretending the lights were on full. He was therefore making his wife start to doubt her sanity and mental health.
The interesting thing from the play is that she starts to convince herself that her husband is not deceiving her and begins to accept what he tells her is real. This describes the tactics of gaslighting perfectly (source: Knapp 2019, Albany Law Review).
Although the play Gas Light is from 1938, according to Fuchsman, (in his article for the Journal of Psychohistory), the term gaslighting started to be used in the 1960s and became popular after Donald Trump started campaigning to become President of the United States.
A gaslighter seeks to manipulate another or others into thinking that their own perceptions of reality are mistaken, and for the gaslightee to believe what the manipulator claims instead.Ken Fuchsman. The Journal of Psychohistory, 2019
Being gaslighted for an extended period of time can make you feel worthless, unloved, and unwanted. Gaslighting is toxic and manipulative behavior, and sometimes recovery can take some time. Learning how to deal with gaslighting isn’t easy, but it is doable.
Building up your self-esteem will take some time and effort, but if you stay positive and keep at it, you’ll learn how to deal with gaslighting. You’ll find a completely different person looking back at you in the mirror. Let’s go over some of the steps to take to build up your self-esteem after being a victim of gaslighting.
The early stages of recovery are probably the most difficult. It’s hard to trust people once you realize you’ve been gaslighted. It can be complicated to learn how to deal with gaslighting because of the trauma you have suffered. This can make you question people’s motives and wonder if you’re being gaslighted even when you’re not.
While it’s important to memorize warning signs and be aware of potential gaslighting, it’s important to understand that gaslighting isn’t something mentally healthy and loving people do to each other.
To gaslight someone is a devious act with nothing but the worst of intentions in mind. Most gaslighters suffer from some kind of mental health condition (narcissistic personality disorder being a good example) and some gaslighters just want to control other people. Either way, it’s emotional manipulation and nothing less. One of the first steps in learning how to deal with gaslighting is to free yourself of this manipulation. But how?
What follows are steps you can follow to help yourself but please also seek professional guidance and support from a psychotherapist.
Take things slow in the beginning. Take some time to yourself to reflect on the situation, the relationship, and where you want to go from here. It’s ok to step back from other relationships for a bit to self-analyze and formulate a plan. Just don’t let the fact that you’ve been mistreated consume you. Yes, it hurts, but you’ve made it through, and now it’s time to work towards recovery.
Support groups exist for all kinds of recovery; from alcoholism and trauma and even gaslighting. If you’re not comfortable sharing your story with a support group, you can try personal therapy or confide in a trusted friend or family member.
None of us has the strength to make it through all of life’s challenges completely alone. Being human means making mistakes, slipping up, and facing the consequences of our mistakes; but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. A support group can let you know not only that you’re not alone in your struggle, but also that there’s a future on the other side of your trauma.
A support group doesn’t have to be full of strangers or even host in-person meetings. There are online support resources available for a number of conditions and traumas, and online support groups are becoming more popular as we’re sheltering in place from COVID-19.
Digital support groups are usually free, so you don’t have to worry about paying a hosting fee or anything of the sort. There are even online counselors you can talk to (these will charge a fee, however).
Although group therapy works for many, you might prefer one to one counselling or therapy sessions. These days, you can get support from a professional from the comfort of your own home. One service that is one of my best choices is BetterHelp. This link is a helpful guide as to whether or not therapy may be covered by your medical insurance.
Understand That The Maltreatment Was Not Your Fault
Gaslighters have a way of making their victims feel like everything is their fault. That’s part of the control; if you’re questioning everything you do all the time, your abuser never seems to be in the wrong. You start blaming yourself, and in combination with your abuser’s efforts, you start thinking rather poorly about yourself as a person.
First thing’s first: it’s not your fault you were abused and manipulated. There are people in this world that simply want to hurt and control others. The fact that these people exist is beyond your control. Even getting involved with someone of that caliber is out of your control if you don’t know what to look for.
Manipulators are usually very good at not only hiding their true intentions, but also keeping their true selves hidden until they’ve gained the level of control they wanted. And once you’re under their spell, it can take some serious effort and thinking on your part to break out.
It wasn’t your fault, but you are responsible for taking steps towards a better future now that you’ve made it through. You owe it not only to you, but also to any future relationships you might develop.
Guard Yourself Against Future Manipulation
Building your self-esteem takes some time, but it’s important that you don’t allow any more gaslighters into your life during the healing process (or after it!). All of your work can disappear with one misstep! Take time to identify red flags and look for them in new people. Don’t let anyone into your life during recovery who displays any kind of gaslight-like behaviors or attitudes.
Spotting those red flags is no easy task. Some manipulators are excellent at hiding their true intentions until you truly know them. A good rule of thumb is to never move in with someone right away, because the old rule “you never know someone until you live together” is absolutely true.
Things you never even noticed before become profound when you’re sharing the same living space. Behaviors you wrote off or ignored can become suddenly alarming, and now you’re stuck in the same living space as a manipulative and cruel gaslighter.
Track Your Progress and Be Proud
Part of the recovery process is looking at how far you’ve come and taking pride in your efforts. You’ve made it through something traumatic, and here you are, on the other side, still kicking. That deserves some recognition!
Building self-esteem is a brick-by-brick process. Every step you take is another brick, and the mortar that holds it all together is how you look at your journey. You’ve come far, you’ve done something great, and you know you deserve better treatment than you have had. Be proud of yourself! Some people don’t ever get that far.
It’s also ok to have an accountability partner; someone you trust to help warn you if you’re falling back into old behaviors (or with toxic people).
Abuse doesn’t have to be the end of your story, nor does it have to rule your future. When you take steps towards recovery, you’re telling both your trauma and the person that caused it that you are strong enough to come out on the other side and live a healthy, fulfilling life with supportive relationships.
As you move forward in life, you may face triggers, or places/events/people that trigger certain traumatic memories and remind you of your abuse. Learning to cope with triggers starts with identifying them. Do certain songs, places, or statements take you back to an uncomfortable place? Are your memories or thoughts invasive and seemingly out of your control?
Once you recognize the signs of your emotional triggers, you can start to manage them more effectively. Pay close attention to how you react to triggers, and focus on changing that reaction. Do you withdraw/break down/panic? Focus on your breathing, take a step forward, and move away from the trigger.
You can make it through abuse and live a fulfilling life on the other side if you learn how to deal with gaslighting and get professional help. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a gaslighter is the only kind of person you’ll attract to your life! This is programming on the part of the abuser and not the truth. You’ll be OK; just keep pushing forward and utilize your support resources when you can.
- Knapp, D. R. (2019). Fanning the Flames: Gaslighting as a Tactic of Psychological Abuse and Criminal Prosecution. Alb. L. Rev., 83, 313.
- Fuchsman, K. 2019, “Gaslighting”, The Journal of Psychohistory, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 74-78.
Website Author and Your Guide
Karl Perera is a fully qualified Life Coach (DipLC), Teacher (MA), and author of the book Self Esteem Secrets. He has taught at various universities including Durham, Leicester and Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge. He has run More-SelfEsteem.com since 1997 since suffering from low self esteem for more than 25 years overcoming it in his thirties.