Gaslighting: The Abuse Tactic You Need To Know About

Emotional abuse comes in many forms, including convincing you that you're going mad, writes Jeanne Sutton.

Doubting your memories of last Saturday night when you thought you saw texts on your partner’s phone from another woman? Believing that maybe you did overreact to that demeaning comment in work? Blaming yourself for negativity in your relationships after arguments over someone else’s problematic and odd behaviour? Chances are, you’re being gaslit.

Gaslighting’s a mental and emotional abuse tactic, wherein an abuser attempts to define their victim’s reality to them. The term comes from a 1930s play Gas Light – which became TV fodder in 1944, starring matinee favourite Ingrid Bergman and daytime TV queen Angela Lansbury – where the female protagonist is convinced she’s going mad. Every evening she witnesses changes in the gaslights in the house and hears footsteps upstairs. Her husband keeps telling her that it’s her nerves. Unbeknownst to her he’s actually a murderer and ransacking the attic in search of jewels belonging to her dead aunt.

The Blame Game

The whole process of gaslighting starts with small acts and culminates when you start to blame yourself for anything wrong in a relationship.

Siobhan* is one woman who saw her initially happy relationship descend into a nightmare. Her then-boyfriend Robert started his campaign of emotional abuse by offering to buy all her clothes. “He said I wasn’t making the most of myself, and that he could help me look better,” she says.

“Naturally, I told him thanks, but no thanks. This only seemed to frustrate him.” Robert then began to turn Siobhan against her friends and laughed at her opinions. “He put my job down, saying that what I did was worthless, and eventually convinced me to leave work and stay at home,” she remembers. One evening he drew a knife on her over an argument about a bill. He became increasingly violent and struck Siobhan on her birthday when she dropped the bottle of perfume he’d gifted her.

The next day, after much internal struggling, she rang Women’s Aid.“The woman on the end of the line just listened,” she says of the phonecall that changed her life. “And when I’d finished she said four simple words: ‘That’s what they do.’ She didn’t mean men. She meant abusers.” Siobhan left that day.

Robert used gaslighting to make her think she wasn’t in her right mind and manipulated her into pleasing him by leaving her job and falling out with friends. Linda Smith, Manager of the Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline, says they deal with 41 calls a day from women living in fear of their partners. It’s the role of volunteers, and society, to let these women know that, “your partner does not have the right to control and dominate you. You should not have to worry about how he will react to what you do. Domestic violence is a crime and no one deserves to be afraid, controlled, threatened, beaten or feel in fear for their lives.”

When work is woe

However, gaslighting doesn’t just occur in personal relationships. It can happen in the workplace too. Marie-Claire* found herself in the midst of a destructive pattern last year when she started her first job after college. This first rung on the career ladder descended into an awful situation where her manager, who was a peer, made her paranoid about her capability and her co-workers.

Marie-Claire’s boss used her inexperience and desire to please against her. “I was convinced I was the problem as it was my first retail job after college and I had no precedents set for me in terms of what was acceptable,” Marie-Claire says. Insane working hours and unpredictable rosters followed. She couldn’t make plans and stopped seeing her friends as much as she had. This heightened isolation made her start to doubt her reactions. Whenever she expressed a desire for different treatment she was made to feel as if she was overreacting.

Her toxic boss also held one-on-one meetings with staff, wherein she told different versions of the same story. “You had no idea what was true or not, and it created rifts between staff,” she remembers with a shudder.

Learn to leave

It wasn’t until Marie-Claire’s parents realised the extent of her unhappiness, and asked her would she let her younger siblings tolerate that kind of treatment, that she found the strength to leave. She also reached out to an ex-colleague for advice. “She was my work mum in a way and was really reassuring in convincing me I wasn’t crazy.”

Five months on and Marie-Claire’s still feeling vulnerable. She’s more wary of what jobs she applies for but is flourishing in the meantime with short-term and freelance gigs.

Remember, abuse is about power, and realising that there’s a problem and you deserve better is the first domino falling in getting yourself to a better place. Reach out to organisations like Women’s Aid, talk to friends – and take care of yourself. You can put out the flame.

This article first appeared in STELLAR’s January/February issue. Our March issue is on shelves now!


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