You've likely heard the word "gaslighting." It's when someone tries to mess with your mind by changing or denying what really happened. It's like they're trying to twist your reality. As a therapist, I see it often, especially in toxic relationships where one person denies things that happened in the past to avoid responsibility.
Support through in-person or online therapy can help you recognize the signs of gaslighting and give you tools to break free from the cycle of abuse. This is important because, over time, gaslighting behavior can eat away at your self-esteem and cause confusion, insecurity, and a sense of helplessness. It can also spark bouts of depression and anxiety.
So, let me walk you through how to recognize and break the cycle of gaslighting.
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How to Recognize Gaslighting
Gaslighting behavior can sometimes be obscure. The less common relationship red flags can be especially tricky to recognize. This might include light-hearted denial of your memories, often disguised as jokes. It can also concern your well-being, making you question your mental state without real reason.
Look out for the following signs:
- Frequent insults, blaming, or being called “crazy” or “paranoid”
- Manipulative actions like controlling your finances or social life
- A social power imbalance
- Unpredictable behavior (e.g., going from extreme affection, like love-bombing, to indifference)
Gaslighting: A Real-Life Story
I was working with a man—we'll call him J—an outgoing and confident person until he fell for D, who initially showered him with affection. However, D cheated on J multiple times. And instead of owning up, D convinced J that he was being possessive and paranoid. D also isolated J from his friends and family.
J began questioning his sanity, experiencing panic attacks and feeling like he had nowhere to turn as he was cut off from friends and family. Once he realized he was dealing with gaslighting, he reconnected with a family member who encouraged him to leave.
He was able to move out of D’s apartment without sharing his location—but it took him over a year to rebuild his life, confidence, and sense of sanity.
The Impact of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can have a severe impact on your mental and emotional health. It can make you doubt your sanity, leading to anxiety. You might feel ashamed and pull away from relationships that could help you identify the gaslighting. This can trigger feelings of depression and make it difficult to trust others.
Over time, gaslighting can also lower your self-esteem and self-worth. Being constantly questioned about your reality can make you question your own reliability. Accusations and belittling can make your self-worth dwindle as you believe the gaslighter's harmful statements.
Victims of gaslighting often develop coping mechanisms like blaming themselves. Other unhealthy coping mechanisms might include self-harm, substance use, or eating disorders to escape or control intense emotions.
Steps to Breaking the Gaslighting Cycle
Breaking free from gaslighting involves recognizing the behavior, setting boundaries, and seeking support. Here are some steps that I've recommended to my clients:
- Maintain contact with a loved one: Keep in touch with someone who validates your experiences and helps you identify when your reality is being denied. This could be a friend, family member, or coworker.
- Set boundaries: Limit your interactions with the gaslighter. This could involve changing your phone number, blocking them on social media, or withholding personal information.
- Document evidence: Record instances of manipulation as proof, especially if you need it for legal purposes.
- Have a safety plan: Have a plan in place in case the gaslighter becomes physically abusive. This could involve having a safe place to go and extra financial resources.
- Rebuild your self-esteem: Spend time with people who respect you and engage in activities that help you reconnect with your body, such as yoga or hiking. Making sense of a past abusive relationship can foster post-traumatic growth.
- Regain trust: Journal about your internal experience and share it with others who won’t belittle what you’re saying.
- Promote self-empowerment: Take self-defense classes or learn a new skill to feel more empowered. Practice loving-kindness meditation daily, repeating affirmations like “May you feel worthy” or “May you feel loved.”
I can’t stress enough how important it is to maintain contact with supportive people who validate your experience and perspective. Seek a counselor who specializes in emotionally abusive relationships or a support group for this and related topics, especially if you want guidance from an expert.
Get Professional Support
Therapy is a safe space for victims of gaslighting to process their experiences and feel heard and understood. We help victims recognize signs of gaslighting, practice assertiveness skills, set boundaries, and provide resources to support their transition from abusive relationships.
Online therapy can be extremely helpful for those experiencing emotional abuse. Services like BetterHelp offer flexible communication methods and have a library of support material, including self-esteem-building worksheets.
ReGain's therapists specialize in relationship concerns, which can be particularly helpful when dealing with gaslighting. If you're hoping to cover therapy with insurance, Talkspace accepts some private insurance providers, and its therapists have approximately nine years of experience in the field.
There are several resources and organizations available for individuals in gaslighting situations, including:
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)
- Love is respect
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Additionally, websites like WomensLaw.org provide a database of advocates, shelters, and a directory of lawyers.
Build Confidence and Break Free From Gaslighting
Gaslighting can be subtle, so it's essential to trust your instincts when you feel something is off. Reach out to professionals or trusted individuals who can help you make sense of your experiences.
Online therapy is a crucial resource that provides a safe space to process your experiences, learn strategies to set boundaries, and move towards a healthier future. I also recommend engaging in activities that increase your sense of competence and practicing daily affirmations to help rebuild your self-esteem.
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