The Gaslighting Survival Guide
What is Gaslighting?
to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
Gaslighting is a set of behaviours and lies by a person or group that support a system in which another person or group is mentally destabilized, blamed, invalidated, and manipulated to the benefit of the person or group creating the system, allowing the perpetrator to avoid responsibility for their behaviours and maintain their socially dominant power position.
Here are some common examples of gaslighting
Gaslighting can be when an individual or group:
Assigns meaning: Dictating to you what you’re thinking, how you are feeling, or what you are motivated by.
Does not believe your perceptions: Makes you feel like your feelings or thoughts are not real, or they are wrong or inaccurate.
Insists that they never said things you clearly remember them saying.
Expresses that there is something wrong with you, or that you are inadequate or not good enough.
Recounts previous situations to use as evidence for their current analysis of you.
Misdirects your attempts to point out things that are bothering you with blame.
Sabotages other relationships: claiming these other relationships or people are against you or not supportive for various reasons you have not witnessed or experienced.
What is it like to be gaslit?
I have been gaslit numerous times, and by people of varying gender identities.
I know the feeling.
I know it so well that I can watch it descend on my brain, like a fog settling around my experience and ideas, distorting their clarity.
I know how I feel, and how things affect me, and I know the subsequent feeling of being told that I am wrong.
In my experience, the gaslighting script usually goes something like this:
Them: You are too sensitive and overreacting.
Me: I'm just trying to express how I am feeling! (I have spent my life being trained to react with measure and care and that's still too much?)
Them: You’re misunderstanding and obviously you need therapy.
Me: (I mean, maybe I missed the point?)
I mean, I do need therapy, but like, this is an interaction between two people, isn't it? (Can it just be that my problems are in the spotlight here?)
Them: Obviously you have work to do if you can't handle yourself and your emotions in regards to my perspective.
Me: (Maybe they're right, maybe I am overreacting…)
Them: The problem is you.
Me: I know, if I just had more self esteem, I wouldn't be so needy…
Them: Your issues are making it impossible to resolve our conflict.
Me: (Oh god, maybe I am crazy…)
See how quickly that devolved? I, and others like me who are gaslit, go from having a valid emotional response to questioning their sanity, just like that.
Why gaslighting smells like the patriarchy
Gaslighting is so normalized, so prevalent, that it often goes unchecked and unquestioned as a valid way of communicating (especially to and about women).
If you want examples of gaslighting in action, all you need to do is reflect on how women are minimized, disbelieved, and invalidated in every level of society, including when it comes to:
Gaslighting is an extremely effective communication tool that keeps women destabilized, insecure, weak, and subordinate.
Unfortunately, this happens to women most commonly at the hands of men. (Though, of course, anyone can gaslight anyone.)
But it is often misunderstood by men because they have been told their whole lives (by our patriarchal society and culture) that they are right: their perspective is the truth.
Trying on the idea that someone else could know better what you are thinking or feeling than you do seems ludicrous, doesn’t it?
As the vocabulary is becoming more accessible and certain voices are finally reaching the mainstream, this culture of patriarchy-fueled gaslighting has started to unravel.
And I'm sure it doesn't feel great.
It doesn't feel good to think you know how things are, and then find out that you were gravely mistaken. What’s worse is finding out that the perspective you have always had and regarded as the Truth™ is contributing to the oppression of people you love.
Cool, so, what do I do about it?
If you are lighting up some gas:
Gaslighting is so rampant and embedded in our culture that from time to time (or maybe even more frequently) we may find ourselves using gaslighting against our friends, lovers, family, colleagues, or even strangers on the internet.
This is a deflection. A defense mechanism learned from our culture and our community to stop us from having to listen, evaluate our own beliefs, honor other peoples experiences, take responsibility for our actions, all while reinforcing our positions of power and stopping any threat to The Way Things Are™ in their tracks.
But don’t worry, you can change. Take it from me.
Yup, even I have been a gas-lighter.
And I have still managed to change how I communicate in order to prevent myself from behaving this way. So I believe you can too.
How to stop gaslighting people
Here are some things I have done, as well as some things I would love to see other people who have been gaslighting folx take up in order to own and be accountable for their behavior; apologize for the damage done; and repair the damage and relationships where possible.
Stop it. If you are certain that you know better than another person what they are thinking or feeling, take a step back and take note of what they have actually said to you to support this belief you have. Get more information. Ask them what they think about what they said.
Own your experience. Think about how their behaviour is affecting you, and talk about that: your observations (without assignment of their intent), thoughts, and feelings.
Apologize. Validate the experience of the person you have gaslit. Tell them you're working on stopping, and honouring their reality as equal to your own. Make sure that is true.
Talk to people. Your dearest friends will tell you if you're being a jerk. Be specific about whether you are venting about the other person, or whether you want feedback about your behaviour towards them. Ask for the latter.
Talk to a therapist. Figure out, in a setting with a professional, why this behaviour has a stranglehold on your interactions with others. Learn a new and more egalitarian way to communicate.
Write it down. Journaling as you progress through changing behaviour is a marvellous tool you can use to reflect on the work you’ve done and establish what more there is to do.
Make space for yourself to be wrong. You might be abusing privileges right now. Don't steamroll the other person's perspective in an attempt to retain righteousness. It sucks. There is a middle way, and it involves allowing yourself to have made mistakes and be held accountable.
Forgive yourself. This one is for later, once the rest have been executed and your behaviour has changed. Be self-compassionate. You are not responsible for what happened to you at the hands of others that got you here, but you are responsible for your behaviour towards others, and for your own healing.
How to stop being gaslit
As a survivor, I have sorted out some ways to recover myself and my perception, and to maintain it's clarity in my mind. Some of these strategies work in the face of continuous gaslighting. Some of them will only suffice once the person has stopped gaslighting you and is seeking their own help.
If your gas is being lit:
Confront your gaslighter. This one is admittedly risky. Having done this on several occasions with mixed results, it has only been worth it in the few instances when boundaries I had laid down for the confrontation were respected.
[There is more advice on how to confront your gaslighter below.]
Note: This is not for the faint of heart, and can be skipped if you are too tired and done with the dynamic, and that is okay.
Get out. If your gaslighter continues to light up your gas in the face of a direct confrontation, make moves towards distancing yourself from them.
They are not going to concede without an escalation, and that may mean you ending the relationship.
Do this, if you must. I have had to do this quite a few times: once they hold fast to their lies, I make space between us, and am better for it. Not once have I ever regretted this space-making.
Talk to people. Figure out who your close support network is, and ask them to listen to what is happening and validate your experience.
Good friends will listen to you repeat yourself, if you need to do that.
Remember, silence perpetuates trauma.
Talk to a therapist. If you have the means, counselling will be beneficial not only while you are still experiencing the gaslighting, but also once it has ceased.
Therapists are great for helping you figure out what your strengths are, and understanding yourself and how you behave. They can help you manage how your mind acts and reacts.
Write it down. Keep a journal of your interactions with people you feel anxious or inadequate around, or people you feel weakened by. This will allow you to keep track of your own progress, positive or negative, and make decisions about your proximity to those people.
Be compassionate towards yourself. You are the expert on what you think and feel.
If you are not feeling very expert-y, starting learning about yourself. You are always going to be the best at knowing yourself. And it’s never a bad time to start learning about yourself. Read books, talk to friends or talk to a therapist.
Meanwhile, be kind to yourself. This is a lifelong project.
How to confront your gaslighter and put out the fire
As I mentioned before, you don't have to confront your gaslighter.
If it has been going on for a long time, it probably won’t go great.
It is effortful, and if your energy levels are low anyway, cutting off ties may be the best option for you.
Don't beat yourself up if this is the best path for you. It is a legitimate one.
Sadly, if you do confront your gaslighter, the likelihood of being subject to more gaslighting is pretty high. Be prepared to face this and call it out as it happens.
Lit gas is best put out as soon as it is lit, and there will surely be attempts to re-light it. Don't allow the conversation to continue if this is the case. A few things you can say to stop them from continuing to gaslight you are:
"Don't tell me what I am thinking. Unless I have clearly conveyed my thoughts, you don't know."
"Don't tell me what my brain is doing. That is really messed up, and you have no idea."
"Don't tell me what I am feeling. I know what my feelings are, and unless I have clearly conveyed them, you don't know."
"Stop gaslighting me. My reality and experiences are real and can be different from yours."
"I will not tolerate your undermining my perspective. Stop."
"I am sure that is what it looks like to you, but that is your perception and is not true for me, nor does it have to be."
Some of these will work better than others, and the likelihood of needing to repeating yourself is high, especially if the gaslighting behavior has gone on for a long time. Do so as much or as little as you feel necessary.
Stopping at anytime, after one confrontation or many, and never engaging again, is a perfectly reasonable response and course of action.
Why is gaslighting bad and why do we need to stop it?
Gaslighting as a pattern of communication is prevalent, normal, and engrained in social hierarchies of class, race, ability, and gender.
It runs through our personal lives, and our civic and public experiences. It is coursing through the veins of media and politics, as well as business industry.
It is the ground on which privilege is built and oppression thrives.
If we can dismantle a system in which people’s experiences are erased, we have a better chance at achieving social equity for marginalized groups, and a better opportunity for overall human decency.
With information about the destructive functions of gaslighting readily available there are no excuses for continued ignorance on its social functions and effects.