Lying, denying, intimidating – mentally ill through gaslighting

Almost everyone has been manipulated consciously or unconsciously in the course of his or her life. From these, mostly small, manipulations a phenomenon is to be distinguished, which carries the following name since some years: Gaslighting. This particularly strong and ongoing manipulation, which is a form of emotional abuse, is unfortunately not uncommon and without intervention often leads to severe mental illness.

A typical case of gaslighting

“There was the point where I thought I was losing my mind!” Sabine, 34, recalls her long-term relationship with her partner Steffen. Throughout the relationship, he tried to convince her she was emotionally unstable, imagined various things, and no one else would want to be with her. Statements like: “I think you need help urgently!”, “You are so sensitive!” or “What do you look like? You’re way too fat!” came sporadically at first, but then over time began to dominate everyday life. It was a gradual process, so that Sabine initially did not recognize how manipulative Steffen was behaving. At some point, she began to doubt herself and to question whether she was in her right mind when money disappeared from her purse that she had not spent or when the hotplate was inexplicably not turned off. Steffen assured her of his support despite her supposedly unstable condition. Sabine was ashamed of her inexplicable behavior and withdrew more and more from her family, since apparently only Steffen knew what was good for her.

How do perpetrators and victims act?

As can be observed in the above example, in gaslighting people are manipulated in such a way that they doubt their own perception and accept a distorted representation of reality. They become increasingly insecure, feel helpless and isolate themselves from their social environment. The perpetrators not infrequently have a narcissistic personality and try to increase their own self-worth through their actions as well as to gain confirmation through the other person’s dependence on them. Only rarely are the perpetrators unaware of their manipulative actions.Important: Gaslighting happens not only in partnerships, but also in friendships, the family or even at work.

Who is affected?

In short, anyone can be affected, any age group and any gender! Statistically, women are more often victims of this emotional violence, but the number of male sufferers is increasing. Children can also become the target of gaslighting and be made to feel worthless and not right by their parents. Basically, it can be said that relationships with a high level of trust provide the most target for attack. It is also important to emphasize that being affected has nothing to do with intelligence or naivety and is therefore definitely not a sign of weakness.

CAUTION for the following signs!

The following characteristics again summarize the most important characterisics of Gaslighting:

1. lies

Gaslighters often spread untruths to the victims as well as to the environment. Affected persons often get into a justification attitude and find it difficult to put things right. This makes them appear insincere and often gives the impression that something is wrong with them.

2. changed reality

Perpetrators repeat their lies so often that those affected eventually believe them and take them for reality, as well as aligning their future actions accordingly. It is not uncommon for people to think about every word for fear of being misunderstood (as always) or to apologize without knowing exactly what was done wrong.

3. escalations

Gaslighters often attack their victims when they question their lies. Subsequently, they are exposed all the more or it is insinuated that they are crazy and just imagined everything. This results in new insecurities for the victims – a vicious circle!

4. dependence

The perpetrators lead their target persons into an emotional dependence by making them insecure again and again and suggesting to them that they can only get the support and security they need through them.

5. resignation

At the beginning, the victims of Gaslighting often still resist and go into confrontation with the perpetrators. However, due to the continuity of manipulation, they resign over time and are full of fear, pessimism and doubt.

6. false hopes

The tactic of gaslighters is to constantly alternate between affection and blame. The former moments always make the victims feel secure and believe in the relationship – until the next attack follows.

7. power and control

A position of power and domination are the goal of the perpetrators and are satisfied by insecurities and fears of the victims. It is the growing dependency relationship that gives Gaslighters a sense of grandiosity.

Typical sayings used in “gaslighting” include.

Gaslighters’ manipulation always follows the same principles, as mentioned above: Lying, denial, intimidation. Affected persons, but also relatives, should be particularly alert to the following statements:

  • “I never said that.”
  • “You always twist any facts!”
  • “You sound crazy, you do realize that, don’t you?”
  • “Calm down. You’re always so dramatic!”
  • “You also always take everything directly so personally.”
  • “If you really cared about me, you’d act differently.”
  • “I remember you agreeing.”
  • “I think you need help really badly.”
  • “The problem is definitely not me. Start with yourself!”
  • “You’re totally paranoid!”
  • “Of course I mentioned that, you forgot again.”

Frightening consequences for sufferers

The permanent doubts about one’s own perception often result in serious mental illnesses. In addition to depression, victims can also develop anxiety disorders or even suicidal thoughts. In the case of long-term manipulation, it is even possible for post-traumatic stress disorders, dissociative disorders or even self-unconfident-avoidant personality disorders to develop as a result of the ongoing favored self-doubt. In most cases, those affected have the feeling of having completely lost control over their own lives. The above-mentioned disorders may be followed by psychosomatic or physical complaints.

There is always a way out

Gaslighting is so dangerous because it is difficult to recognize, both by those affected and their environment, and the longer the condition lasts, the more difficult it becomes to break free from the toxic relationship with the perpetrator. In order to break free from such manipulation patterns or even to stop them, a lot of courage and, if necessary, professional support is necessary. The sooner the affected person has the insight in the process, the shorter the suffering and the smaller the long-term consequences. For this very reason, it is very important to become attentive to the first remarks and attempts at manipulation and to take active action against them. It can be a great help to talk to people close to you about your doubts and not to let them isolate you under any circumstances. Clear limits should be set right from the start in the case of gaslighting, the perpetrators should be made aware that they do not have to deal with you in this way and should be removed. Here is always also the own gut feeling a good indication whether something goes wrong in a relationship. In case of doubt, keeping a diary can be useful to check later what was really said and what happened. Unfortunately, those affected often recognize the manipulation of the Gaslighter only with some distance and even then it can take a long time until it can be assumed that the perpetrator is the person who has done something wrong. In such a case or if alone can not be released from a relationship with a Gaslighter, psychotherapy is always useful. Trained psychotherapists can help the person concerned to come to terms with what has happened, to regain self-confidence and to activate resources. Finally, it is important to act at any time and even if the step out of the supposedly protective relationship seems so unattainable, always the only option to regain quality of life.

  • Abramson, Kate: Turning up the lights on gaslighting. Philosophical Perspectives (2014), issue 28.
  • Ni, Preston: How to successfully handle gaslighters and stop psychological bullying. London, 2017.
  • Sweet, Paige: The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review (2019), issue 85 (5).

Categories: Personality Disorders

Verena Klein
Author Verena Klein
"LIMES Schlosskliniken specializes in the treatment of mental and psychosomatic illnesses. With the help of the blog, we as a clinic group would like to examine the various mental illnesses in more detail and present different therapies as well as current topics."

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