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Gaslighting: How abusive people create self-doubting victims

by Andrew Pain

This blog is adapted from the article published in Psychreg in January 2020

The wine was flowing, the dinner party in full swing and she was holding court (as usual). She was describing her experiences undertaking a PGCE, with a work placement in a nearby town and she referenced the local drug abuse issues:

95% of the people there are drug addicts.

He shuddered. She always did this. She’d start off with a great story then take things way too far. The people around the table looked at each other in disbelief. No one dared say a word (they never did) and she carried on regardless. Later that evening, he summoned the courage to challenge her:

Darling, you were in great form last night, but … are you sure about that 95% statistic? It doesn’t sound right to me.

She glared at him:

You pedantic t**t”!

His mouth went dry and his heart was beating fast. As expected, she’d not taken this well and it was going only one way: rage then violence (it always did). He nervously reasoned with her that she’d lost some of the people around the table when she mentioned the 95% statistic and that maybe, with statistics, it’s just worth being absolutely sure they’re correct before stating them as fact.

Why can’t you just enjoy the eveningYou do this with the kids, always f***g picking at them: now you want to have a go at me?

He could hear his young daughter crying upstairs, woken again by her mum’s shouting … it was all his fault!

His wife stormed out the house and he breathed a sigh of relief: at least, he didn’t get hit this time, but he’d been SO stupid for having been SO pedantic. She didn’t lose the people around the table and so what if the stat was wrong: it probably wasn’t that far wrong, right?

Gas lighting: in abusive relationships, abusers skilfully take control of your every thought by pouring doubt into your mind, about:

  • what he said/she said
  • what your mum said
  • what your friends think / thought
  • events in the past … “no it didn’t happen like that, it was like this”.
  • your traits and skills: “No, you’re not talented – you never were“ or: “Yes, you have some talent but you’re so damn arrogant about it.

Bit by bit, the onslaught wears you down and the stories your abuser spins in your mind have two purposes:

  1. To ensure that you doubt yourself.
  2. To ensure that you trust your abuser 100% and follow their every command.

Some days you’ll think you’re going insane as you become your partner’s greatest excuse-maker, justifying his/her behaviour to yourself and to others, friends, her family, your family: but deep down somewhere in side you, you know something is wrong, but who’s fault is it? The wrestling and churning over in your mind is a spinning wheel which never stops.

She’s tired”,

The kids are wearing her out”,

She’s working through some stuff “,

She’s under a lot of pressure”,

She’s amazing to have got where she is”.

I can’t go on like this

If I was a better person, she/her wouldn’t keep losing the plot!

As a survivor of an abusive marriage, I struggled to make decisions on anything in case it was the wrong one: holidays, activities, decisions about the home, which route to take on the day-trip, what do with the kids. I always held back on what I truly felt and simply followed the opinions/ideas which fitted in with her, whether I truly believed them or not.

I became a manipulative liar, focussed entirely on preventing my wife’s triggers from being pulled, hiding my own mistakes, the kids mistakes, forward planning in absurd detail to out-maneouvre anything which might go wrong. I had become a control freak, ruled by paranoia and panic and I no longer trusted my instincts or skills.

The term “gaslighting” originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, where a manipulative husband drove his wife to insanity by causing her to question what she experienced. Gas lighting takes many forms, from convincing the victim that he/she is in need of counselling, or has mental health issues/major personality issues, to deliberately planting seeds of doubt about the victim’s appearance, before blatantly flirting with other people, including inappropriate levels of physical affection with friends, colleagues, contacts, just so the victim can see it, and feel it, and then when the victim challenges it, he/she is over-reacting, is too sensitive, always imagining things.

When you’re on the receiving end of gaslighting, it’s hard to see beyond it because your abuser knows you: your strengths, weaknesses and motivations and will consistently work to keep you unsettled and unsure of yourself, convincing you that you’re overreacting, imaging things, making it all up. But you’re not – and it’s not your fault.

–       If in doubt, try to take a step back and see the situation with a clearer perspective. If it was a friend in your shoes, experiencing what you are experiencing, what would you say to them?

–       Find someone to talk to who you trust, and is outside the situation. Abusers will isolate their victims so their gaslighting goes unchallenged but when you talk to someone who can help you see things for what they are, the walls built by the gaslighting abuser become more shaky, eventually tumbling down, the more you come to your senses and the dominance of the abuser simply folds in on itself.

I am happily remarried and repaired with all family relationships restored. There are no mind games now. There is no fear in my life anymore, just straight forward living. If I were to break my wife’s favourite wine glass today, she’d be disappointed if it held particular sentimental value, but my stomach would not be churning in fear, nor would I be desperately thinking of a way of hiding the evidence. I’d tell her and it would be OK. She is a rational, measured and loving woman. Living without that fear today is liberating and wonderful.

There is life beyond abuse: the separating and moving forward takes time and can be hugely challenging, but there IS life after abuse.

Further reading

Stephanie A Sarkis writes a concise and easy-to-read article in Psychology Today, outlining 11 key tactics of gaslighters to help people spot the signs. Included in the 11 tactics is positive appraisal of the victim, which serves the purpose of confusing the victims, so the dynamic gets blurred and doesn’t just become an onslaught of negativity https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting

About the author

Andrew Pain is a TEDx speaker (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HgPICMQLls&t=9s) whose talk, ‘Domestic Abuse – not a gender issue’ is one of the only TEDx talks to explore female perpetrated abuse. He is a domestic abuse campaigner, blogger and following his own experiences of domestic abuse, he co-leads a pilot project to support male survivors. Andrew is also a leadership coach, helping business leaders to get more done but without getting busier or burnt out, working with diverse organisations including the NHS, The Institute of Leadership and Management, The Association of Project Management and a range of schools and colleges. In his spare time, he is a father of 5, including 3 boys under 7.

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