One of the hallmarks of emotional abuse is the use of gaslighting, defined as, “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.” While it has long been held as something of a truism that “truth is subjective” by philosophers, psychologists, and scientists alike, gaslighting is an abusive tactic that uses subjectivity against its victims by causing them to question their own perception and understanding of events and feelings… and often themselves at the core.
There is some science behind the brain’s fluid ability to accept new information as factual, as truth. “Cognitive ease“, sometimes also called “processing fluency“, defines the speed with which our brains process and integrate new information. When exposed repeatedly to specific, targeted messages in familiar contexts, we’re more likely to accept the message as factual, as truth, even when on some level we know this isn’t necessarily either factual OR truth. This has been a longstanding, fundamental principle of marketing; in the past two years we’ve also seen this practice play out on a global scale as politics have infected media and journalism to the point where the message, however inaccurate and untruthful, is still repeated in targeted ways to specific audiences… who then accept the message as their subjective truth whether it is factual or not. Anyone active on social media sees this happen on an almost daily basis as friends and family share misinformation as if it were fact, because they believe it to be true.
Where this becomes particularly influential on a personal level is when it feeds into particular cognitive biases, reinforcing internal beliefs a person may not even know they hold until “supporting evidence” becomes readily available. In short, “the things we’re exposed to constantly feel more true.” This is part of the devastating effect of gaslighting, even in the short term; the abusive statements are repetitive, and delivered with an air of authority or force that imply the abuser knows whereof they speak better than the victim does. This is part of how seeds of doubt come to take root. “What if they really *ARE* right?” is a question we, the support workers, hear from victims all the time, and it is a devastating effect on self-esteem when the gaslighting attacks and distorts a person’s self-worth at its very foundation. Part of what makes gaslighting behaviours so powerful to so many is that the abusers are very effective observers of their fellow humans and find weakness to exploit fairly swiftly. These weaknesses may already be well-tied to internal value scripts the victims carry about themselves; this is where the manipulative agenda meets an existing confirmation bias and exploits the victim’s processing fluency to introduce a whole new set of behavioural routines. And voila!, we have a perfect storm of devastating emotional abuse.
When we look at gaslighting in relationships, we start with noting the abuser’s behaviours, including emotionally-destabilizing tactics that may commonly (though not exclusively) manifest as a push/pull, “I love you/I hate you” or “come here/go away” attachment behaviour. When the victim is uncertain about their place in the relationship system (see also: sick systems), it becomes much easier for the abuser to introduce reframing perspectives and interpretations that support their own positions and agenda while effectively dismantling the victim’s views, values, and ability to trust their own judgments. Gaslighting practices often also go hand-in-hand with isolating behaviours, in which the abuser works to cut off the victim’s connections to outside influences and perspectives that may undermine the abuser’s distorting control. Gaslighting works best when there are few or no effective outside influences working to support the victim, and abusers will use the victim’s emotional turmoil resulting from any attempt to reconcile two conflicting sources of information as a way of keeping the victim uncertain, and unable to act decisively in their own defense.
When we work with victims of gaslighting in the counselling room, the very first steps we take, almost always in this order, are: (1) establish the client’s safety, first and foremost, and (2) validate their experiences and feelings as real and authentic. From there it’s often a case of re-establishing some baseline understandings: abusers often attack their victims at the level of who they are, as much as what they do, so we counter that in counselling by establishing that “this is a thing that happened because of who the abuser *IS*, not because of anything you said or did to deserve this treatment.” NO-ONE DESERVES THIS BEHAVIOUR, EVER. Not from parents and care-givers, not from teachers and leaders, not from employers, not from lovers and partners. It may be true that many abusers choose their victims carefully, but the truth is, they are often going to exhibit some or all of these behaviours to everyone in their world, to some degree, at some points. Romantic abusers will certainly repeat these patterns in all of their relationships; parents continue toxic behaviours with their adult children; toxic bosses will continue to be tyrants in the office to some or all of their employees as long as *their* bosses tolerate it. THIS IS NOT BECAUSE OF THE VICTIM, IT IS ONLY BECAUSE OF THE ABUSER. But the nature of gaslighting means that we often have to reconstruct some fundamental beliefs in our victimized clients’ own sense of self-worth and good judgment, and that takes time.
Rule number one in dealing with abusers who engage in these kinds of behaviours is to cut off all contact as safely and swiftly as possible. There may be reasons why this is not entirely possible (shared custody of children, financial entanglements, etc.), and for this reason we might often suggest seeking legal assistance as soon as possible, as well as documenting any and all forms of contact and their nature. We often hope this record never needs to see the light of day, but in the event of things needing legal intervention, the more the survivor of the abuse can document, the clearer a window of contact they can provide to the police or courts as required. Maintain a copy of all written contact, but don’t respond any more than absolutely necessary for logistical purposes; stay out of emotional engagements at all costs. Come vent at the therapist, at friends and family, anywhere there is dependable safety to do so. Don’t vent online; it’s imperative to keep oneself clear of social media platforms where the written word can be captured and shared without consent to the one person you might most NOT want to see what’s being said about them. It’s most important to stay safe, and that means not opening oneself up to further assaults as much as possible.
It’s important to note, this does NOT mean survivors need to stay silent. Part of our role as therapists is to provide safe space to process the horrors of this kind of experience, to make space for a voice that’s been buried in self-doubt for long enough. It’s hard enough to dissociate from the abuser and the abusive situation without needing to suppress those feelings any further. Getting to safety, regaining perspective, re-establishing self-trust; these are our goals. And we help support, as best we can, those who for whatever reasons are not in a position to safely get clear of such situations just yet.