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How to deal with gaslighting, if you are in any emotionally abusive close relationship, not just a romantic one. How do you help yourself as a survivor?
Gaslighting is now a psychological term used to define a particular kind of abuse that emerged from an expression in the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play called ‘Gaslight’. The play is a narrative about how a husband systematically attempts to drive his wife mad by dimming the gas powered lights in their home and then denying completely that the lights change when she asks him about it; making her question her own sanity, and eventually making her a victim of emotional abuse.
When dealing with gaslighting, recognition of the fact that you have been a victim in an intimate relationship is the first significant step towards seeking help.
An essential point: It must be recognised that it can happen not just in a romantic relationship, only but any other close relationship – siblings, parent-child, friends,… any relationship that brings two people close. It can even happen in the larger social context as well; sometimes people close to you can try to override your opinions and feelings about social injustice issues like racism and sexism etc.
Here are a few steps you can take to extinguish the gaslighting and recover your self.
The survivor or someone close to them needs to recognize the pattern of undermining behaviour towards them.
Gaslighting sustains well when a survivor isn’t aware of what’s being done to them and how. Once they become aware of the pattern of emotional abuse, they may be able to engage consciously and not be manipulated by the abuser. For instance body shaming being passed off as jokes and humour, often something like a partner saying, “You’re clearly exaggerating – that never happened” if you mention to them that they’ve hurt you.
The survivor needs to reinforce to themselves that this isn’t about them. It’s about the gaslighter being insecure and hence their hunger for control and power. They crave to feel superior and safe, and hence need to be at a position where they can dictate the terms of the relationship. Often survivors/victims blame themselves- “I irritate him.” “She gets annoyed always because of me.”
A survivor needs to learn to trust their own version of their reality. An abuser’s attempts to alter facts and experiences must be thwarted, and countered by being defiant and resilient.
Survivors need to be sure that the gaslighter cannot be changed by their perseverance and patience and would never volunteer for this change. The abuser is highly unlikely to respond to logical reasons to make amends in their conduct and behaviour. It usually requires intensive therapy to heal, in which the abuser needs to participate honestly and willingly to change patterns of behaviour. They often impress on the survivor that these are sporadic incidents and that they are not being habitually abusive.
The survivor needs to introspect and evaluate, because the constant attempts to work alone at sustaining such a relationship singlehandedly could hugely dent their self-esteem, and exhaust them mentally and emotionally. If the gaslighter is your boss or senior colleague, you can consider making a job change. If the abuser is from the family or is a close friend, you must try to put some safe distance between you and them. If the gaslighting is being done by a spouse/partner it is imperative to insist on couple’s counselling in order to save the relationship.
Detaching from the gaslighting does not always necessarily mean that a survivor has to leave physically. If physical distance can be maintained it is good, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Someone can keep gaslighting even from constant but irregular contact, like a visiting parent. The survivor must find ways to maintain their calm, and watch and analyse the situation by “mentally” distancing themselves from the abuser and hence developing an objective insight. Don’t let them isolate you from the world rather isolate yourselves from the abuser.
The survivor must develop a strong support system and must find other people in their life who boost their worth. The abusers in such situation often try to isolate their victims to maintain control. They mustn’t believe when the abuser tells them that only he/she loves and values them. You can start one small step at a time, by building your self-confidence and recognizing that even in routine everyday choices if you trust yourself you are in the process of recovery already.
Surviving is all about rebuilding your notion of self-worth and self-esteem. They must not let the opinion of the gaslighter influence their self-love negatively. Activities like writing a private journal can be used to record/reaffirm positive experiences and affirmations of self-worth.
An insidious thing about gaslighting is the denial of your reality by the abuser. There is constant denial of the survivor’s sense of reality and what they know to be true. It can make the person constantly walk on egg shells and begin to question their own sanity. But they need to reassert-“I am not crazy, I can own my reality.”
A survivor/victim, as well as someone who wants to cease being an abuser/gaslighter must get professional help.
Survivors often lose confidence and sink into anxiety and/or depression sometimes, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are also common. Only a trained therapist can provide practical advice and support for recovery by helping you develop several effective coping skills.
Therapy offers a victim/survivor or even a willing perpetrator wanting to heal a safe place where they can express their feelings and memories without being judged. A professional therapist can help in recognizing the minor difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors. They can also teach skills to help resist any further psychological manipulation and sometimes even assist in creating a safety plan while recovery from the abusive relationship.
If you are a gaslighting survivor, you can check out some suggested further reading: here, and here.
If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, here are some of the helplines available in India. Please call.
Aasra, Mumbai: 022-27546669
Sneha, Chennai: 044-2464 0050
Lifeline, Kolkata: 033-2474 4704
Sahai, Bangalore: 080–25497777
Roshni, Hyderabad: 040-66202000, 040-66202001
Image is a still from the movie English Vinglish
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Pooja Priyamvada is a columnist, professional translator and an online content and Social Media consultant.
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