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Covert and coercive psychological control



“Am I too sensitive?”, “I should just let it go”, “They must have a reason for talking to me like that. It’s my fault”. If you’ve ever found yourself thinking something along these lines during you relationship it might be time to seriously consider whether you are being ‘Gaslighted’. Gaslighting is hard to recognize and is so subtle that it can eat away at our inner selves without us even realizing it.

“It’s all in your head”, but is it really?

In the beginning there was a play

In 1938 British playwright Patrick Hamilton premiered a thriller play called ‘Gaslight’. From this play and subsequent films the term gaslighting was based.

The main characters of the story are a husband and wife, called Jack and Bella. Jack had murdered the woman living in the apartment upstairs, and was attempting to steal her priceless jewels. Unbeknownst to anyone Jack was sneaking upstairs and searching for the jewels each night.

To find the treasure in the dark of night Jack had to turn up the gaslight in the abandoned apartment, which lead to a problem. Set in the 1880’s, gas was shared throughout a single building, and increasing the gaslight upstairs causes the lights downstairs to dim.

Ignorant and innocent Bella has no idea that Jack is upstairs, and the dimming gaslight combined with the noises from above cause her to be on edge. Her overbearing husband tells her…

From then on Jack begins a deft psychological manipulation of Bella.

He makes Bella doubt herself, constantly telling her her senses and judgements are wrong and that she’s misunderstood. He even begins to frame her for things she didn’t do, making Bella and the people around her think she is going crazy.

By the end Bella’s self-trust and confidence are so low she defers all judgements to her husband Jack.

Dr Robin Stern, an American psychologist, coined the psychological term "Gaslight Effect" named after the play, referring to the mental abuse and psychological sadism that Bella suffered from Jack in the play.

In other words, the Gaslight Effect refers to controlling the actions or thoughts of another party under the guise of being for their own good. Without physical violence, the victim's judgment is blurred by the psychological abuse, making it difficult to even recognize whether he or she is gaslighted at all.

How do they try to keep control?

There is a key method that gaslighting perpetrators often use to manipulate their victims. They will confuse their judgement with sweet words by claiming that it is all for the victims benefit.

  • Withholding 😕“What are you talking about?”

They refuse to listen to the victim's claims or opinions, or say they don’t understand making it impossible for the victim to mention it again.

  • Countering 🤔“You just misheard it that’s all”

They constantly question and doubt the victims memory or cognitive abilities.

  • Deflecting 🤗“I don’t want to fight about this anymore. Let’s talk about something else”

They challenge the victims thoughts and change the subject so that they cannot express their opinions.

  • Trivialising 😩“Your too sensitive”

They dismiss the victims thoughts, feelings, and needs as insignificant or incorrect.

  • Distorting Reality 😒“I never did that”

They will pretend to forget the past, lie about what happened, or refuse to agree with the victims experience of events.

And at the core of all of these actions will be the assertion that ‘it’s all for the victims benefit’.

Sign’s that you are being misled by a Gaslighter

As mentioned earlier, gaslighting is very subtle and difficult to notice. In fact, the victims who are being gaslighted are often the last to know that that’s what they are experiencing. So what are some signs to help you see the truth? If you’re in doubt ask yourself these questions;

  • Do you constantly doubt yourself and have difficulty making decisions?
  • Do you spend a lot of time focusing on your personality flaws? (ex. Think you're too sensitive or not a good person)
  • Are you confused about your relationship with the gaslighting perpetrator? (ex. He's a nice person, but the more we’re together the less I feel like myself.)
  • Do you seem to have unintended arguments with the gaslighting perpetrator? Do you feel like you're repeating the same thing but you're not making progress in the debate and that you're not being accepted?
  • Do you feel vague and unclear about your thoughts, senses, and beliefs?
  • Do you find yourself always apologizing?
  • Are you constantly making excuses for the behavior of the gaslighting perpetrator to others?
  • Do you feel like something is wrong, but you don't know what it is?

See how many of the above conditions apply to you. You probably already have some red flags that are warning you.

How to escape a Gaslighting relationship

What should you do if you suspect you are being gaslighted, and you want to get out of that dreadful shadow?

  • Recognize the problem

It can be really difficult to recognize what’s happening to you, but it’s the most important first step.

  • Don’t doubt yourself

Creating self-doubt is the number one tool of a Gaslighter. Did I see it right? Am I mistaken? It can swiftly lead to constant self-criticism and self-censorship. Take a moment to catch your breath and stop thinking negative thoughts. And believe in yourself.

  • Keep a record

Judgements can be blurred by the emotions of a situation. Keep a record of what happened and the conversations that were had, and look back at it once you are calm. You might be able to find a truth you couldn’t see at the time.

  • Let go

One of the reasons it can be so difficult to escape from a gaslighting relationship is because the perpetrator makes you believe that they truly care for you, and are acting out of love for you. Are they an amazing, successful person? They could be. However, no matter how great and wonderful a person they are, if they cause you to lose confidence and faith in yourself they are not someone you can keep close to you.

  • Start with making small decisions

It’s a long road, but the best way to start is to make one small step. Practice judging and deciding things on your own, even if they seem small and trivial.

  • Seek the advice of people around you

The gaslighter will tell you that your opinions, and your senses are wrong. But does everyone else think so too? Seek advice from the people around you, people whose judgement you trust. They might have a clearer understanding of the situation.

The many faces of Gaslighting

Gaslighting is not just between lovers or partners. It can occur in various relationships, such as guardians and dependents, teachers and students, bosses and subordinates at work, and friends. This means it can happen between anyone who has a relationship with you

That doesn't mean that all those people are psychopaths or sociopaths trying to plunge you into the abyss. They may want to keep you in their grasp and manipulate you, but on the contrary, they may not have a malicious purpose. In fact, much gaslighting happens under the intention of affection.

But the other person's intentions don't matter. It's always you that counts. You have the right to fix or end any unhealthy relationship that tries to disparage your values, or control you and make yourself suspicious of your own thoughts, beliefs, and values.

It can be hard and difficult at first. Without the attention and recognition of the other person, it may feel like you have lost a piece of yourself. But take a good look again. Is that piece of your life really something that you needed? No, you’re perfect and whole in your own right.


  • If you are constantly censoring and doubting yourself in a relationship with someone, you might suspect Gaslighting.
  • Gaslighting doesn’t always have a malicious intent, but the victims experience is most important.
Expert Advice
“Someone can try to gaslight you and once you can identify what’s going on, you can begin to turn off the gaslighting and heal”.
(Dr Robin Stern, ⟪The Gaslight Effect⟫)
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