It's not just romantic relationships that can become toxic and manipulative. Victoria Stokes looks at gaslighting among friends
“When Lisa* and I first met, I thought she was fantastic,” Naomi*, 28, tells me. “She was all the things I thought I wasn’t: outgoing, confident, charismatic… we became close incredibly fast but it wasn’t long before the cracks started to show. She started making snide remarks to try and put me down, she said things about me in front of other people to try and embarrass me and she’d tell me I was oversensitive and stupid for getting upset about it. If I couldn’t meet up with her she’d make me feel guilty about it and tell me that all my friends were bitching about what a terrible friend I was when they were doing nothing of the sort. If I ever tried to confront her about her behaviour she’d somehow shift the blame on to me and undermine how I was feeling. She continually chipped away at my confidence and made me doubt the authenticity of the relationships in my life but it wasn’t until I talked to a friend about her behaviour that I realised the extent of it: I was being gaslit.
If you’re unfamiliar, the verb ‘gaslight’ originated from a 1938 mystery thriller about a man who was manipulating his wife to convince her she had gone mad. In one crucial scene, he dims the gaslights in their home from the attic, but when she asks about it he insists it was all in her head. Since then the word gaslight has often been used to describe relationships in which one partner is being manipulated and controlled by the other, but rarely to describe emotionally abusive behaviour inside of a friendship.
In recent times, the term has been popularised. Oxford Dictionary even named it one of the most popular words of 2018. If you watched last year’s Love Island you might remember contestant Adam Collard was accused of gaslighting love interest Rosie Williams after an argument where he appeared to undermine her emotions and refute her perception of events. Donald Trump has even been accused of gaslighting thanks to his tumultuous relationship with the press and recently Ros na Rún has tackled the issue in a storyline about two sisters whose relationship has turned emotionally abusive.
But as with any term that suddenly becomes popular, it’s important not to water down its true meaning.
It would be easy to point the finger at that mate who cancelled on you or that colleague who spoke out of turn and label any kind of negative behaviour that makes you feel a bit shit as gaslighting when it isn’t necessarily, so where is the line between bitchy friend and an abusive one?
I put that question to Stephanie Sarkis PhD (stephaniesarkis.com) who has written a book on that very topic: Gaslighting: How To Recognise Manipulative And Emotionally Abusive People – And Break Free. What’s the difference between bad gal pal and one who is gaslighting us, I ask her?
“With gaslighting, there is a motivation to control another person or get away with something,” she clarifies. “When the issue is just poor communication, it may be you or your friend have difficulty expressing and listening to each other. Gaslighters, however, are sometimes referred to as a frenemy. It’s the friend that you would be better off without.”
What’s more, gaslighters have a multitude of tactics, all with the explicit intention of isolating you and making you question reality, Stephanie notes.
“They want you to become so dependent on them that your entire focus is on them. They often expect you to jump up and help them whenever they ask – but when you need assistance, they are never available.
She add: “Gaslighters tell you that you’re a bad person or you’re given a guilt trip when you say no to them. Gaslighters don’t respect boundaries. They ask you intensely personal questions, but they don’t share any of their personal details. They’re saving up your vulnerable information as ammunition for rumours or a fight. At some point your gaslighting friend will turn on you. This usually happens after the gaslighter thinks that you have been ‘disloyal’ to them, or when you have told the gaslighter ‘no’ to a request.”
Actress Brídín Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh, who plays Ros na Rún’s Katy Daly sums up the distinction. Speaking about playing her character Katy who is being gaslit by her sister Dee, Brídín explains “It’s a particularly dark mindset you have to tap into. You fear yourself, you question yourself and you don’t know who you are anymore, something that is deeply unnerving.”
That’s something Naomi recalls from her friendship with Lisa. “She planted a seed of doubt in my life that took a long time to shift,” she explains. “I’ve had bad friends in my life before but the difference with Lisa was the way she’d criticise me, isolate me from my friends and wear me down. She was systematic in the way she’d manipulate me.”
If that sounds calculated and nasty, it is, but here’s the uncomfortable bit, all of us have it within us to be a gaslighter or to use gaslighting tactics on the people around us. Often it’s when we feel insecure, lost or trapped that we’ll try and scrape back control, often at the expense of others. So what should you do to stop a gaslighter or indeed if you spot those tendencies within yourself?
If you suspect you’re being gaslit the first step is to identify the behaviour and then “the best option is to cut off all contact – block phone numbers and emails,” Stephanie instructs. “Tell your friends that you have ended your friendship with the gaslighter, and that you’re not interested in talking about it or hearing messages passed from the gaslighter through them. Gaslighters are notorious for using other people to get to their former friends.”
But what if you’re in a situation where you can’t feasibly cut all contact with a gaslighter? If this is the case, and you’re in a social or work setting with them, “either reconsider your involvement in that setting or keep a healthy distance from the gaslighter,” Stephanie says. “It may not be fair that you have to leave the organisation, but consider the stress involved in staying. If you stay, the gaslighter almost certainly will make your life difficult.” If it’s a work setting, “you can also talk to the head of the organisation about the gaslighter’s behaviour,” Stephanie advises. “This can have mixed results though,” she warns. “Keep in mind that many gaslighters look like outstanding members of the community.”
When Naomi cut the chord it took a while for her to feel herself again. “I really had to build myself back up again when I cut contact with Lisa but it was worth it. I’d advise rebuilding those relationships with your real friends. Their support will be invaluable in helping you feel yourself again.”
And if you notice it is you who is deploying gaslighting tactics? Self-awareness is key. It’s only when you really look at your behaviour and the motivations behind it that you can suss out if you’re being strategic and manipulative and decide to change.