How to spot gaslighting and what to do when it happens

You have most likely heard of the term gaslighting. Storylines involving this have played out in ITV's Coronation Street as well as on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. Originally derived from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play 'Gaslight', the term has become very well-known as a form of emotional abuse that causes the victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, while accelerating the perpetrator to a position of power.


How do I spot a gaslighter?

People are complex beings, and therefore, it is hard to give a definitive list of ways to identify an individual who uses this as their abusive tool of choice, however, there are common traits of a gaslighter that I have outlined below. Please note, this is not a definitive list. 

Denying what they have said and done

You may question or confront the perpetrator with something that has upset you. Instead of owning this and enabling you both to have an open discussion, the gaslighter will deny all knowledge. Quite often, they will deny saying or doing something. A simple example of this would be that they backtrack on plans they made with you; they may have agreed that you can be their plus one to a wedding, or made plans to go on holiday with you, only to then refuse that these plans were made. This leaves those on the receiving end of this to question their memory and eventually, their sanity.

Blame you for the upset they cause

Often, a gaslighter will hurt their victim and then blame them for their reaction. For example, when the victim displays hurt or anger as the result of the abuser’s actions, the perpetrator will disregard any role they have had in causing these feelings and instead, lay blame on their victim. Commonly, they will respond with statements such as, “You’re overreacting,” “You are too sensitive,” “What is your problem?”. There is absolutely no room for your thoughts or feelings. 

Targeting sensitive topics

Often, in order to chip away at your identity and sense of self, the gaslighter will target things close to home. For example, if you have strong relationships with family and friends, they may criticise the way they are towards you, highlighting negative attributes or behaviours that they have, which in turn, isolates you from those close to you and makes you more dependent on the abuser.

Another example could be targeting insecurities. So, if you are insecure about how you look the gaslighter will target this, possibly by suggesting a diet you should try, or by talking about how beautiful they found their ex-partner. This lessens your self-esteem and can work to make you more reliant on the abuser. 

Accusing you of things they have done

A common tactic of the gaslighter is to project the feelings they know about themselves to be true on to their victim. For example, if they're cheating, they will accuse you of this. This way they can deflect from their own actions, which enables them to lay the blame on the person they are gaslighting. Within a workplace, a colleague may accuse you of being lazy, or not working to a good standard, while, in reality, it is the accuser that is the one who is doing this. 

Projecting their insecurities and shortcomings

A common tactic of the gaslighter that many of my clients have experienced, is to project an insecurity about themselves onto the other person. For example, they may not be happy in their career, and will therefore repeatedly criticise your line of work, speaking about it in an inferior manner. I have a number of highly successful clients (e.g. lawyers, doctors, professors) who have been criticised for their career choice and made to feel insignificant and inferior by their gaslighting partners/friends/family members.

Suddenly showing kindness and love

When the gaslighter starts to feel that their victim may be wising up to the awful treatment and behaviour they are receiving, it's common for them to suddenly show affection. This is called 'love bombing' and you most likely experienced similar when you first met them. Love bombing; masses of compliments and seemingly sudden appreciation. You may start to think, “maybe I shouldn’t leave… or “maybe they are not that bad."

I think I may be experiencing gaslighting. What now? 

Before actioning any of the below steps, it is important for me to point out that if you feel unsafe, please do call the police to ask for help and advice. 

Celebrate the fact you are aware of what was/is happening

I often say to my clients that nothing can be changed until you notice the problem. While this sounds incredibly simple, recognising the problem is the first step towards change. You're now aware of what you're going through or have been going through; now is the opportunity for you to take steps towards change. 

Talk to a trusted friend or family member

It's likely that you've been isolated from your friends and family by your abuser, meaning you have not shared your feelings and worries around what you were (or are) experiencing. If you have a person you feel comfortable enough to open up to, this may help; you will be reminded that you are not alone, and may be able to reconnect with loved ones that you previously felt isolated from. 

Seek professional help

What you experienced was a form of abuse. While friends and family may be understanding, they may not recognise the extent to which you suffered. It may be useful for you to seek professional help, when ready, where you can gently explore and process your experience, and work out ways in which you can move on. If you are still in this relationship, a professional can support you in coming up with a plan in order to support you to leave. You won’t be alone.  

Accept it's going to take time to move past this

What you went through, or are going through, is a trauma. There may be an urge to rush to get "back to normal" but try not to rush this process. Many people don’t understand the significance of going through emotional abuse, and even you may not know the extent of the damage it's caused. Please don’t let other people’s attitudes deter you from recognising the magnitude of what you experienced.

If you need help with leaving someone you feel is an abuser, you can call the Freephone 24-Hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Barnet, N12
Written by Victoria Jeffries, MBACP (Accred) MSc
London, Barnet, N12

Victoria Jeffries is a BACP registered Psychotherapeutic Counsellor with a Master of Science in Therapeutic Counselling. Victoria has a special interest in working with people who have experienced emotional abuse, particularly gaslighting and bullying, as well as complex bereavement.

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