Written by Ellet Durbin, LCSW.
Art by Rachel Feinstein.
Gaslighting is being discussed more frequently online, after breakups, and in therapy sessions around the globe. Gaslighting refers to tactics such as deception, denial, emotional abuse and memory-altering intended to destabilize the victim(s), leaving them disoriented, distrustful, and unsure of their ability to perceive reality. Common gaslighting strategies include:
- Lying and denying evidence, making victims feel “crazy” for attempting to establish the truth, altering facts of the situation to make the victim look bad.
- Using guilt, shame, bullying, and public humiliation.
- Overplaying emotions, be it extreme admiration, rage, or hurt.
In the media, gaslighting is almost exclusively portrayed through bad-breakups. In 2019, Snow Tha Product released the song “Gaslight,” and this year, The Chicks released their title track, “Gaslighter.” Both songs call to hold psychological-abusers accountable and portray the common depiction of “bad-ex” gaslighting. Yet, the same psychological manipulation occurs on much larger platforms. We see it in communities, institutions and media representations, but we don’t often identify these behaviors as gaslighting.
Gaslighting in the political realm is nothing new. The U.S. has only recently begun to acknowledge that the story of Columbus was a massive act of gaslighting, fueled with denial and fact-altering passed down from generation to generation. Our history books are filled with cooperative denial, leaving out manipulation, abuse and genocide, yet gaslighting remains rampant and will live on as leaders continue to gaslight us over and over again.
From the onset of the pandemic, Trump repeatedly lied about statistics and evidence. He attempted to control the COVID19 narrative, intentionally misleading the public with claims such as, “We’ve got it totally under control,” and, “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” Trump later admitted downplaying the severity to not cause a panic. Trump often employs shame and guilt as weapons, publicly making fun of Biden for wearing a mask and ridiculing national health experts, calling them “idiots.” These tactics of control, denial and shame are gaslighting trademarks.
Any trans person or person with a uterus can account for the gaslighting that occurs around bodies.
We often see bullying and shame in politics. Any trans person or person with a uterus can account for the gaslighting that occurs around bodies. We remember when flocks rushed to call Dr. Blasey Ford a liar when she testified about Brett Kavanaugh’s abuse. When sexual assault surviviors speak up, a gaslighting is so expected that victims prepare for these attacks. Gaslighting is frequently employed when perpetrators feel threatened or under attack. (Cue: Trump’s election loss.)
When human rights violations are brought to attention, those exposed routinely engage in collective gaslighting. With #BlackLivesMatter shed light on racially-motivated police violence, a gaslighting response came from #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. We saw educators provide analogy after analogy (I like the house on fire analogy.) for why #AllLivesMatter represents a denial and dismissal of violence against black people, yet #AllLivesMatter supporters continue to shift focus away from the abuser and override the victim’s truth.
What are some ways we can process our experiences being gaslit? How can we combat the widespread gaslighting around us?
After the 2020 dumpster fire fueled by gaslighting, it’s important that we bring awareness to the deceptive messages we are filtering through each day. We’re often told what gaslighting looks like but rarely told how to combat it outside of therapy. What are some ways we can process our experiences being gaslit? How can we combat the widespread gaslighting around us?[i]
1. Acknowledge it. If you’ve been gaslit, it’s important to acknowledge and label the abusive behavior. By familiarizing ourselves with gaslighting warning signs, we can find language to define our experiences. The things that hurt us lose power when we name them. When we recognize gaslighting as someone else’s toxic actions toward us, we begin to see that the psychological effects (self-doubt, insecurity, paranoia) we carry around as the result of manipulation do not define who we are. Awareness is the first step in healing. Find your outlets to state your truth, whether it be a journal, online support group, therapy, or a trusted friend.
2. Reality-Check. Victims of gaslighting often feel confused and unable to trust their own judgment. It is important to strengthen one’s sense of perception to feel stabilized in reality. We can develop “reality-checks,” with prompts such as, “What do I know to be true here and now?” and “What evidence do I have for my perception of the situation?” If you feel insecure about your judgement, pull in a trusted confidant. Find a safe person who you can ask for objective feedback.
I’ve encouraged clients to create what I’ve dubbed, “realistic affirmations.” If you’re like me, you might cringe when you think of affirmations such as, “I am loved,” or, “I am kind.” Realistic affirmations are grounded in reality and balance. We acknowledge the effects of gaslighting and recognize our strengths and ability to move forward. Instead of, “I trust myself,” it might be more helpful to say, “I know I struggle to trust myself and I’m learning skills to trust myself more fully.” or “I know I tend to think negatively of myself, and I am working on changing these negative thoughts.” Using this “yes/and” framework affirms our experiences and keeps us forward-focused on healing and growth.
3. Accept Uncertainty. Guilt and shame tactics often leave victims asking, “What if I was bad?” or “What if I don’t know what I contributed?” People spend a lot of time rehashing these events in search of the truth. We can question everything we did, but we probably can’t replay these scenarios and find the evidence we’re looking for. At a certain point, we have to ask ourselves if this quest for truth is helpful or holding us back. Leaning into uncertainty is no easy process, but I think it’s especially helpful in healing from psychological abuse. We miss opportunities to move forward when we get stuck trying to figure out every little fact. Instead of searching for self-blame, search for opportunities for self-growth. A realistic affirmation such as, “I have learned what poor boundaries look like and I am learning to have healthy boundaries now,” might prove beneficial to accepting uncertainty.
Gaslighting is a de-stabilizing weapon and victims of gaslighting are largely unacknowledged. Psychological abuse is rarely prosecuted in domestic violence or child abuse cases due to lack of tangible evidence or imminent threat of physical danger. When we learn to identify, label, and acknowledge the abuse, we can work collectively to end the perpetual cycles of silence and confusion. Processing our experiences with psychological abuse can open space to establish a solid foundation, rooted in self-awareness, healthy boundaries and positive choices moving forward.
[i] It is important to note- if you suspect you are being psychologically abused right now, seek safety first. Reach out to a trusted friend, loved one, therapist, domestic violence support group, or local safe organizations and shelters.
About The Author
Ellet Durbin (he/him) is a queer trans man living in Western North Carolina. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker providing telehealth therapy during the pandemic. Ellet lives with his dog, Robot, and creates stained glass work in his free time.