When someone constantly questions your judgment, invalidates your feelings, and makes you doubt yourself by saying things like: “You’re overreacting,” “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” “You’re imagining things again,” or “That’s now what happened at all!” how would it make you feel?
You might think it’s not that big of a deal when it happens to you for the first few times, but that’s actually a very common form of emotional abuse and manipulation known as “gaslighting.” A very tell-tale sign that you are dealing with an emotionally manipulative person or trapped in a toxic relationship with one, it’s important to recognize gaslighting when it happens and understand the psychological toll it can take on a person.
According to psychologist Robert Stern (2009), there are three (3) phases of gaslighting: disbelief, defense, and depression. And while not necessarily linear, each of these phases are associated with negative outcomes like the ones we will be talking about below. With that said, here are 6 things that happen when you are gaslighted:
1. You excuse the gaslighting.
There’s a reason why they say the first step to overcoming any personal problem is to first acknowledge that it exists. And indeed, when many of us experience gaslighting for the first time, our tendency is not to confront the other person, but to simply excuse their behavior. We say things like, “Oh, maybe I just misheard” or “Guess I must be misremembering” to try and convince ourselves that we’re not being gaslighted, because even though we can sense that something is wrong, we’re not quite sure what or if it’s even worth making a big deal out of. Which brings us to our next point…
2. You try to minimize the abuse.
When we feel confused and disoriented, as gaslighting tends to do to a person, we often respond by minimizing the abuse as a way to de-escalate the situation (Portknow, 1996). We think to ourselves that maybe we’re just having an off-day, that there’s no need to get upset about a problem we’re not even sure is really a problem. And that’s exactly how gaslighters get away with emotionally abusing and manipulating others. Because when their victims speak up and try to confront them about it, it’s all too easy to twist the narrative and make them feel like they’re the ones to blame: “What are you talking about? I never said that. Can you even hear yourself right now? You sound crazy! Get a grip, will you?”
3. You start to lose your sense of reality.
As we enter the defense phase of gaslighting, victims will start to feel more and more disconnected from themselves, their own mind, and those around them. They will feel like they are spiraling out of control, losing their grip on reality. They don’t know which way is up or down, left or right anymore, because they are starting to believe the lies being fed to them more than they believe themselves. Everything is unclear, and they just don’t know what to think, how to feel, or who to trust, which brings us to…
4. You stop trusting yourself.
When someone gaslights you, they try to trick you into thinking whatever they want you to think by preying on your insecurities and attacking them, so you start to feel like you can’t trust yourself anymore. Victims of gaslighting will often struggle with a lot of feelings of guilt, confusion, helplessness, and vulnerability (Hightower, 2017), so each time they are gaslighted is a serious blow to their sense of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and personal competence. They will start to hyperfixate on their — often perceived — character flaws and overgeneralize their mistakes.
5. You experience feelings of depression.
The third phase of gaslighting, depression starts to take hold once someone has been gaslighted so much they no longer have a grasp on their reality and the person they used to be. They struggle with a lot of anxiety, guilt, paranoia, and hopelessness. They become prone to over apologizing because they have already internalized the abuse and have now started to think that everything that goes wrong is somehow their fault. They stop feeling like themselves and start to self-isolate, detaching from their friends and family (Stark, 2019).
6. You find it hard to stand up for yourself.
Once you go through all the things we’ve mentioned here — denial, self-blame, confusion, disorientation, losing trust in yourself, and spiraling into depression — it feels almost impossible to stand up to your abuser and confront them about the way they’ve been treating you. Not only because it seems too daunting to do, but also because you start to think it might not do you any good anyway. People who continually and consciously gaslight others are often ruthless, manipulative, and not at all empathetic to the struggles of those around them. So arguing with them would feel a lot like arguing with a brick wall; you don’t think it’s going to get you anywhere, and you’ll just feel frustrated about your feelings being dismissed and invalidated.
But no matter what happens or how bad it gets, know that there is always hope. And that all the abuse and hurt you’ve been through was not your fault in any way whatsoever. Nobody deserves to be abused or manipulated, especially not by someone they once trusted and cared about. If you or anyone you know is being mentally and/or emotionally abused, do not hesitate to seek help and reach out to a mental healthcare professional today.
- Hightower, E. (2017). An exploratory study of personality factors related to psychological abuse and gaslighting (Doctoral dissertation, William James College).
- Portnow, K. E. (1996). Dialogues of doubt: The psychology of self-doubt and emotional gaslighting in adult women and men. Harvard University.
- Stark, C. A. (2019). Gaslighting, misogyny, and psychological oppression. The Monist, 102(2), 221-235.
- Stern, R. (2007). The gaslight effect. Nova Iorque: Morgan Road Books.