When Alyssa,* a jewelry designer in New York City, was first trying to get her business off the ground, her then-husband would constantly tell her she was being extravagant by spending money to make samples. “He even told me I was wasting money by paying for a babysitter so I could work,” she says. When she asked for funds to buy their daughters new shoes or clothes, he would blame her spending for their lack of cash, Alyssa recalls. “It wasn’t until years later that I discovered he had a gambling addiction, and that’s where all the money had gone.”
What Alyssa went through is classic gaslighting behavior, says Robin Stern, Ph.D., co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect. “I've talked to so many women who are confident and decisive in their jobs, or with their friends and family, yet, in their romantic relationship, they are constantly second-guessing themselves.”
Though the phrase “gaslighting” has been in the news a lot recently, the term actually goes back to a 1944 film. In Gaslight, a young bride is driven to the brink by her husband, who removes things from her purse, rearranges items in the house, and dims the gaslights, then accuses her of imagining it all when she notices. But gaslighting can happen in any relationship where one person tries to emotionally undermine the other by convincing them that they’re misinterpreting, misremembering, or misunderstanding situations, making them question their own perception of reality. This could mean a boss who “forgets” to invite you to important meetings, then suggests you’re being overly sensitive when you bring it up at your annual review; or, the parent who always blames the child for being late to school when, in fact, it is the parent who has a chaotic morning routine; or, the friend who constantly makes fun of how you dress, then denies saying it or complains that you can't take a joke.
“When you’re being gaslighted, you have this vague sense that something is wrong,” says Stern. “You don't feel confident in who you are, but it's hard to point your finger at someone else, so you end up pointing your finger at yourself.” Stern says there are a few surefire signs that you are being gaslighted. These include:
- Your questions and concerns get turned back around to you. “Gaslighters deflect responsibility by making it your problem,” Stern says. She gives the example of being annoyed that your partner is always late, yet, when you ask why he didn’t call or show up on time, he asks why you are so hung up on time—maybe it’s something you learned from your crazy family. “You start thinking, ‘Why am I always asking that question? Maybe it is my problem,’” Stern says.
- You know something's wrong, but can’t quite put your finger on it. When you’re being gaslighted, you often lose your sense of self—you don’t feel like the same confident, fun, happy person you once were, but you can’t quite figure out why. You may even wonder why you feel so unhappy, when your job or relationship looks perfect from the outside. “It’s a thousand different little paper cuts,” says Alyssa. “You think you can get through each one, but they all add up.”
- You're caught in a power struggle you just can’t get out of. The gaslighter needs you to align with his or her world view, no matter what, says Stern. “You become exhausted and depleted from ruminating out loud, trying to convince them that you have a point,” she says.
How to Turn the Lights Back On
It is possible to repair a relationship in which you’ve been gaslighted, points out Stern, but that requires the other person to be willing to take responsibility and change their behavior—and you must be willing to walk away if they don’t do the work. “If you're not really willing to give up the relationship, if things don't change, you're giving away your own leverage and integrity,” she says.
Stern says the first step to salvaging the relationship is to refuse to get drawn into the power struggle. If, say, your mother remarks that you have “always been a selfish person” because you choose to spend your vacation with your kids instead of with her, instead of apologizing or being drawn into an argument, just say, “I am not going to have this conversation.” Whether you feel like you’re being gaslighted at work or in the home, Stern advises you to take a deep breath, put your emotions aside, and calmly point out that you would like to get your questions answered directly, without letting the conversation get off track. Stern also recommends writing down what you remember of any drawn-out discussion, so you can look back and see exactly where the other person tried to turn the tables.
If your gaslighter refuses to acknowledge what’s going on, or your attempts to change the dynamic of the relationship are going nowhere, the best thing you can do is get out. That might mean dropping a friendship, distancing yourself from a family member, quitting a job; or, as in Alyssa's case, ending a relationship. But getting out takes courage and work. Whenever Alyssa threatened to walk, her husband gaslighted her into believing that she would be solely responsible for ripping the family apart. When she finally left him, she says it was the best thing she ever did for her two daughters. “When children see their father constantly undermining their mother and trying to convince her she’s wrong, it affects their own sense of self-confidence,” she says. “I’m so proud that I showed them how to stand up for yourself.”
*Name changed to protect the family's identity
Originally published on Happify Daily