You & Your Family

Are you being gaslighted?

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The client reported that she was being gaslighted! She had been trying to clarify her husband’s relationship with another woman. Instead of a straight denial or admission, he turned on her and told her she was “overthinking”. He then went on to run her down by accusing her of having “a suspicious mind”, being “small minded” and “overly conservative”. The torrent of insults and attacks left her feeling hurt and regretting having raised the subject at all. Her initial doubt of her husband’s fidelity turned to doubts about herself.

Gaslighting is a word which has grown in usage in recent years. The American Psychological Association describes gaslighting as a process whereby someone attempts to manipulate another person to question their own understanding and perception of self, others and events. Continuous gaslighting causes the victim to stop making any personal opinions and taking individual action. In the long term, self-doubt can grow and result in diminishing the self. The relationship between the person being gaslighted and the person doing it generally becomes one- sided—one feels dominated by the other.

Thus, the effects of continuously being subjected to this type of interaction is destructive both personally and interpersonally. Who then are more at risk of such hurt? And what can victims do?

Individuals most vulnerable to being gaslighted are those in relationships with a person who is harsh, domineering and self-centred. We all have encounters with grumpy colleagues or neighbours but we can usually shake off their unkind comments. But when they come from a family member or a spouse—someone with whom we are meant to have a close and mutually supportive relationship—gaslighting statements strike deep.

What makes their verbal barbs especially venomous is when one’s view of self is also shaky. When confronted with unfair and unkind comments, those with a strong sense of self will feel indignant and will mount a strong protest. When such a reaction is not allowed or possible, they may bide their time and take the earliest opportunity to leave such oppressive relationships. A strong sense of self or self- identity functions like an armour to protect us from the harshness that life throws at us.

For everyone who is gaslighted, there is someone with an agenda to do it. In my opening case example, it was a husband who had something to cover up. His harsh response was his attempt to deny and deflect attention away from his adultery. Likewise, in many other cases, the gaslighters may themselves be nursing a sense of insecurity; they attack others as a way of compensating for it.

How can you deal effectively with gaslighting?

First of all, it would be helpful to talk with others about your experience as well as get their feedback to check if your perception of yourself and the other is accurate.

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Second, before confronting the behaviour, ensure that you have armoured yourself.

Remember, your armour is your sense of self. Make sure that your self-esteem is in good shape. This may mean taking stock of your abilities and qualities. It may be helpful to enlist some of your friends who know you well. Ask them for honest feedback about your strengths and weaknesses. Remember, too, that your self- identity should include the very important fact that you are a child of God and are precious in his eyes.

Third, work out and rehearse with someone what you are going to say to rebuff future attempts to gaslight you. Practise responses like, “That is your opinion which I don’t agree with” or “You might think that I am overly sensitive but I don’t think so”. Ultimately, your feelings and thoughts count too.

When we have differences with others, we should avoid gaslighting them. Instead of stubbornly pushing our own ideas through, listen to understand the other’s point of view first. And when we are convinced that we have a valid point, do state it as clearly as possible without attacking the person. This way, we can avoid being in any antagonistic relationship.

Benny Bong has over 40 years of experience as a therapist, counsellor and trainer. He also conducts regular talks and webinars. Benny has helmed the You & Your Family column for more than 16 years and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

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