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Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People -- and Break Free
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He’s the charmer — the witty, confident, but overly controlling date. She’s the woman on your team who always manages to take credit for your good work. He’s the neighbor who swears you’ve been putting your garbage into his trash cans, the politician who can never admit to a mistake. Gaslighters are master controllers and manipulators, often challenging your very sense of reality. Whether it’s a spouse, parent, coworker, or friend, gaslighters distort the truth — by lying, withholding, triangulation, and more — making their victims question their own reality and sanity. Dr. Stephanie Sarkis delves into this hidden manipulation technique, covering gaslighting in every life scenario, sharing:
- Why gaslighters seem so “normal” at first
- Warning signs and examples
- Gaslighter “red flags” on a first date
- Practical strategies for coping
- How to coparent with a gaslighter
- How to protect yourself from a gaslighter at work
- How to walk away and rebuild your life
With clear-eyed wisdom and empathy, Dr. Sarkis not only helps you determine if you are being victimized by a gaslighter — she gives you the tools to break free and heal.
YOU KNOW THE GASLIGHTER. HE’S THE CHARMER—THE WITTY, CONFIDENT, but overly controlling date. She’s the woman on your team who always manages to take credit for your good work. He’s the neighbor who swears you’ve been putting your garbage into his trash cans, the politician who can never admit to a mistake, the harasser who says you asked for it. Gaslighters are master controllers and manipulators, often challenging your very sense of reality. And they can be found everywhere. International political figures, celebrities, your boss, your sibling or parent, a friend, your coworker, your neighbor, your partner—any one of these people is in a position to gaslight.
Gaslighters will convince us that we are crazy, that we are abusive, that we are a huge bundle of problems and no one else will want us, that we are terrible employees who haven’t been fired yet just by the grace of God, that we are terrible parents who shouldn’t have had children, that we have no idea how to manage our own life, or that we are a burden to others. They are toxic.
With the 2016 presidential election and all the noise about “alternative facts” and “fake news,” the term gaslighting has seen a surge in popularity. (If our confidence in our trusted news sources can be shaken fully enough, it becomes easier to consolidate power and authority by filling our head with distortions. Classic gaslighting.) And yet there is no significant body of research about gaslighting. It doesn’t have a definition in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It can look like several other disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder, but I have found in my work as a therapist that gaslighters have a unique set of behaviors, and it behooves us to know them. Some gaslighters are easy to spot; others fly just under the radar. They are master manipulators and we need to know how to spot them, how to avoid them, and what to do if we’re entangled with them.
THE ORIGINS OF THE TERM
What does gaslighting really mean, and where did it come from? The term gaslight, as a kind of psychological manipulation, was first added to the Oxford English Dictionary in December 2004, although the documented use of this word and its variants goes back to 1952 (Yagoda 2017). In fact, the term seems to have been coined by Patrick Hamilton in his 1938 play Gas Light, and first made popular by the 1944 movie Gaslight, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Gregory, Paula’s husband, tries to convince her that she is going crazy—losing objects precious to her, hearing and seeing things that aren’t there, thinking the lights are flickering when he claims they are not. It turns out it has all been a setup to “gaslight” her. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover if you haven’t seen the film.
Gaslighters use your own words against you; plot against you, lie to your face, deny your needs, show excessive displays of power, try to convince you of “alternative facts,” turn family and friends against you—all with the goal of watching you suffer, consolidating their power, and increasing your dependence on them.
Interestingly enough, gaslighting is practiced equally by both genders. You are more likely to hear about male gaslighters, as female gaslighters’ behaviors are sometimes not taken as seriously as they should be. For simplicity’s sake, throughout this book I switch pronouns, using “he” or “him” and “she” or “her,” or plurals to reflect that the information here applies to both genders.
For the gaslighters, manipulation is a way of life. Of course, it’s important to note that manipulation in and of itself is not a bad thing. People use manipulation in positive ways all the time, and they can be great influencers of others (Cialdini 2009). For instance, we can be influenced and manipulated to work for a cause or take better care of ourselves. I guess you might call this persuasion, but it’s a fine line. Gaslighters, however, use manipulation to gain control over others. There is no higher good to this kind of influence.
The manipulation is usually insidious and slow, and you may not even realize the extent of the damage until you have an “aha!” moment, your family or friends confront you, or a gaslighter is instrumental at getting you fired from your job. The goal of gaslighters is to keep you off-kilter and questioning your reality. The more you rely on them for the “correct” version of reality, the more control they have over you. This power and control is what gaslighters crave.
As mentioned, gaslighting shares characteristics of other personality disorders. Some people who gaslight meet the American Psychiatric Association’s DMS criteria for the following disorders, known in the manual as Cluster B Personality Disorders:
Histrionic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Antisocial Personality Disorder
Borderline Personality Disorder
All Cluster B personality disorders are characterized by impulsivity. Personality disorders are thought to be deeply ingrained in a person’s behavior, making the individual very difficult to treat. People with personality disorders also experience being ego-syntonic—they believe everyone else is crazy or has a problem, not them. Sound similar to the gaslighters in your life? Even highly skilled psychotherapists have difficulty treating personality disorders. You cannot expect to be able to help (or get help for) some with a deep history of gaslighting. Usually the very best thing you can do is get as far away from them as possible. If that’s not possible, creating really solid boundaries and not engaging them is next best. Throughout this book we’ll look at how to do that, with the various types of gaslighters and situations where they’ll find you.
If you are involved with a gaslighter, be it at home, work, or elsewhere, I hope you’ll find some solace by knowing that you are not alone—and that in that feeling of unity with others, you will have the courage to distance yourself from the gaslighter in your life. You deserve better.
HOW I CAME TO THIS TOPIC
As a clinician in private practice, I have seen the effects of gaslighting up close and very personal. Because I specialize in ADHD, anxiety, and chronic pain, and gaslighters tend to target people with exactly these kinds of vulnerabilities, I tend to see more survivors of gaslighting than other therapists do. Quite a few of my clients experience depression, anxiety, and even suicidality as a result of a gaslighter’s behavior.
I am also a Florida Supreme Court certified family mediator and circuit mediator. In mediations, I have seen gaslighters in action, particularly in custody disputes. Gaslighters are more likely to be involved in a custody fight; they also tend to draw out legal battles instead of trying to settle them. Seasoned attorneys and judges can usually pick up on gaslighting behaviors right away, but some gaslighters are so good at manipulation that even some mental health professionals miss it.
I see the kind of damage gaslighters can do, but I have also come to see their patterns of behavior. I started posting about gaslighting on my Psychology Today blog and am receiving e-mails and calls from people all over the world. They were grateful to have language to speak about the hell of dealing with gaslighters in their lives and wanted to tell their stories. And they were asking for advice on how to protect themselves from or stop engaging with gaslighters.
One of my articles in particular, “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting,” posted in January 2017, went viral. It has received several million hits as of the printing of this book. After the post, the calls and e-mails escalated like wildfire. I was even contacted by people who recognized gaslighting behavior in themselves, and desperately sought help. The responses I received—from people so hungry for information—are a large part of what convinced me to write this book.
The more you educate yourself about gaslighting, the better you can protect yourself from it. Whether you are a victim/survivor of gaslighting; a therapist who helps people who have been impacted by gaslighting; a discoverer of your own gaslighting tendencies; or you are entering (or reentering) the dating world, starting a new job, or hiring employees and want to be proactive and warn yourself of potential red flags, you will find material of great value in this book.
First, a note: as you’ll see in this section, chapters are arranged thematically. That said, if you are tempted to flip to a chapter that seems particularly relevant to your situation, I strongly encourage you to start at the beginning and read the book all the way through. Gaslighting can be so complex, and you are likely to find wisdom for your situation in unexpected chapters. As you read about dating, parenting, work, and other places where gaslighters do their damage, a full picture of gaslighting, and what you can do about it, will emerge.
In Chapter 1, we will look at the clever processes of manipulation used by gaslighters. Gaslighting is essentially all about control, about gaining control over others—whether it is in the workplace, at home, or on a more global scale. You will learn how gaslighters use persuasion tactics to erode your self-esteem. Gaslighters ramp up their manipulation slowly. Once they see that you have accepted a slightly manipulated behavior, they know they’ve got you “locked in.” They will then increase their manipulation of you, betting that you will continue to stick around. Gaslighters know that once you make a commitment to accepting a behavior, you will likely be much more consistent and compliant from then on.
Any intimate relationship can be challenging at times, but with gaslighters they are torturous. Even people who have a strong sense of self can get sucked into relationships with gaslighters and find it nearly impossible to leave. Chapter 2 helps you identify whether you are in a gaslighting relationship. You’ll discover some of the obvious signs as well as more subtle ones, and see in stark terms the dangers of sticking around.
In Chapter 3, I will alert you to the red flags to look for on a first date and discuss the gaslighter’s purpose in having a high-intensity courtship. I’ll show you what actions you can take during the dating process to head off gaslighters at the pass. Finally, you will learn how to extricate yourself from an intimate relationship with a gaslighter if you find yourself in one, and how to protect yourself in the future.
In Chapter 4, we’ll look at how gaslighters tear apart the workplace. Gaslighters will fabricate stories so as to get coworkers fired, harass and intimidate coworkers and employees, and pit coworkers against one another to divert attention from their own unethical workplace behaviors. Gaslighters can be anywhere within your company: employers, coworkers, or employees. They can be anyone from the CEO to a mailroom worker. We’ll see how gaslighters have caused well-functioning companies to cave in, employees to run from their otherwise perfect jobs, and harassment lawsuits to be filed.
Gaslighters will often stop at nothing to make their coworkers look bad; they’re only too happy to “throw someone under the bus.” They’ll steal credit for your work, give you a bad performance review to keep you in line, or threaten lawsuits as a way to get what they want. This may look a lot like harassment to you, and it is. But there are good laws in the United States that can protect you from being harassed by a gaslighter at work. And I will provide a list of tactics you can use to protect yourself, such as making sure you always have witnesses to any meetings with the gaslighter.
This is the era of #MeToo—people are speaking out about the harassment or abuse they have endured, which sometimes went on for years. What was previously dismissed or not talked about is now being spoken about openly. Gaslighters often harass others as a way to manipulate and gain control of them. Gaslighters tend to prey on people with less power and authority, and threaten those who may attempt to report their behavior. Gaslighters can also be perpetrators of domestic violence—using verbal, financial, physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse to keep their victims in a state of fear. In Chapter 5, I’ll go over what makes up these different types of abuse—take a look and see whether any of them apply to your relationship. You’ll learn why staying in an abusive relationship is so dangerous—and you’ll learn the steps to getting out for good.
Gaslighters don’t just work one on one. Gaslighting techniques are also used by people in power to keep citizens and opposition off-kilter, distracted, confused—in other words, easier to control. In Chapter 6, we’ll turn our attention to the political arena and look at how some politicians and dictators have gained a Svengali-like effect on citizens. This is gaslighting on the big stage.
Political gaslighters distract us with outrageous and outlandish behavior while dismantling long-standing cultural institutions and practices. What are citizens to do when the leader of their country is manipulating the public wholesale? In this chapter, we’ll discuss ways that citizens can make positive social change while protecting themselves from gaslighting leaders, both legally and in terms of personal safety. Organizing with others is one of the most effective ways citizens can fight gaslighting. Yes, there is power in numbers.
Chapter 7 takes a look at another form of mass gaslighting—cults and extremist groups. While you may think that cults are the stuff of made-for-TV movies, you’ll still want to read this chapter, since it can apply to closed communities. Cult and extremist group leaders fit our profile of gaslighters to a T. They tend to be very charismatic, and they go to extremes to exert their control, often separating people from their family, controlling their possessions and choice of partners, their work, and their sense of reality. Religious cults are certainly the most well known—but we will look at other kinds of cults and extremist groups as well. Any organization that functions within a closed ecosystem of extremely curtailed personal freedoms probably qualifies as a cult or extremist group. We’ll look at the classic signs that you or a loved one is dealing with a cult or extremist group, as well as how to protect yourself or your loved one, or get away.
Some of us learned about gaslighting as children—from parents who used these behaviors to control. In Chapter 8, we’ll look at how to cope with a parent who is or was a gaslighter. You will learn how a gaslighting parent can affect their children into adulthood. We’ll also take a look at how gaslighting behaviors are often passed generation to generation. Kids raised by gaslighters often use gaslighting tactics themselves, in their own intimate relationships and friendships. These behaviors are called “fleas”—from the saying “Lie down with dogs and you will end up with fleas.”
Continuing to utilize coping skills learned from gaslighting parents can lead to a lifetime of strained and broken relationships. Since many gaslighting parents have personality disorders, and children mimic their behaviors, the children are often misdiagnosed with personality disorders, too (Donatone 2016).
Whereas some children of gaslighters grow up to be gaslighters themselves, some do not. In fact, some children of gaslighters develop the opposite of a gaslighting personality—they become codependent and parentified—they take on a parental role toward their own parent(s). For this reason, we’ll also cover how to handle a situation where you are caretaking a gaslighting parent, and how to handle gaslighters when completely removing them from your life is not an option. You will also learn how to cope when your siblings or adult children are gaslighters. You can’t always break off contact with these people as you can with coworkers and friends. You’ll learn how to cope when your siblings gaslight you. You will learn more about the “golden child” and “scapegoat” and how these roles play out in your adult relationships with your siblings.
The word frenemy was probably invented for gaslighters. These are folks with whom you seem to have a friendship, but it is always fraught with competition and rivalry. In Chapter 9, you will learn about these “emotional vampires” in friendships who can suck a person’s energy dry. Gaslighters will collect “ammunition” from you to use that information against you later. They’ll treat your vulnerability, usually a healthy part of relationships, as a weakness to be exploited. Gaslighters are also notorious for “splitting”—pitting friends against each other—so the victim has to lean on the gaslighter for support. The chapter will include tips on what to do when gaslighters spread harmful rumors about you to others—a common tactic when gaslighters feel you distancing yourself.
In Chapter 10, we’ll look at how to cope with a gaslighting ex or ex’s new partner that you can never really cut off. If you have children with a gaslighter, not only can you never truly leave the person, but you see your children suffering as a result. Parental alienation, turning the children against a parent, is a common goal of gaslighters (Kraus 2016). One parental alienation tactic used by gaslighters is to have their children refer to the other parent by her first name or asking the other parent to refer to the children by new names, to create emotional distance between the other parent and her children (Warshak 2015).
Gaslighters will sometimes even falsify abuse allegations to gain custody of the children. It’s not the children’s welfare they’re interested in—it’s control of the children and a way to “punish” the other parent. I have seen lengthy court battles that leave the nongaslighting parent emotionally and financially bankrupt. This chapter discusses how you can protect your children and fight for their rights and mental health.
By this point in the book, you may realize that you have gaslighting behaviors—or you may have suspected as much from the start and that’s why you are reading in the first place. Chapter 11 will offer you guidance and perspective if you think you have been gaslighting others. Help for gaslighting behavior includes seeking counseling and coming to terms with how you have manipulated and hurt those around you. You’ll learn more about how being around gaslighters for any length of time can bring out gaslighting behaviors in you as a way to cope—this is especially true if your parents or a long-term partner were gaslighters.
And finally, in Chapter 12 we’ll revisit counseling treatments for protecting yourself and healing from a gaslighter’s behavior. I’ll give you information on how to find the best mental health professional for you, including what questions you should ask when you call to make an appointment. You will learn about different talk therapy approaches, and which might work best for you. You’ll find in-depth information on different types of talk therapy: client-centered therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and solution-focused therapy. You will also find techniques to relieve anxiety that you can practice on your own, without needing to see a clinician. Additionally, you’ll discover whether individual or group therapy works best for you. I’ll also give you information on meditation, and how it can help you heal from gaslighting. Meditation is a no-cost, easy-access way to really decrease your stress level and boost your power to cope.
At the back of the book you’ll find numerous resources—books, websites, and contacts to help you cope with being gaslighted.
Throughout, you’ll be hearing directly from people who have experienced gaslighting firsthand. For privacy and safety reasons, identifying details have been masked, names have been changed, and in some cases, stories have been blended.
Without further ado, let’s get to it.
IS IT ME, OR IS IT YOU MAKING ME THINK IT’S ME?
Portrait of a Gaslighter
GASLIGHTERS HAVE A NUMBER OF CHARACTERISTICS THAT ARE IMPORTANT to know. The list you’ll encounter in this chapter may seem long or overbroad. My purpose in breaking out this list is not to create a clinical definition so much as to draw a better picture of what gaslighting is, how it operates, and how you can spot it.
You may find yourself thinking, “Well, that could describe the dynamics between my sister and me sometimes, and she’s not a gaslighter.” What we’re looking at here are patterns. When enough of these qualities are present and persistent in a person, chances are you are dealing with a gaslighter.
So, let’s begin to paint our portrait.
Their Apologies Are Always Conditional
One of the first things people often notice about gaslighters is that they are masters of the “conditional apology.” You know, when someone says, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” That’s not an apology; the other person is not taking responsibility for his behavior, he’s simply manipulating you into feeling seen by acknowledging your feelings. Gaslighters will only apologize if they are trying to get something out of you. Even if they do give you an apology, if you listen carefully, you’ll see that it’s really a nonapology, and they’ll usually only give it because you asked for one or because they were forced by a judge or mediator to do so.
“I was hit with, ‘I’m sorry I cheated, but if you were a better wife I wouldn’t have looked for affection elsewhere.’”
They Use Triangulation and Splitting
Gaslighters have a whole bag of tricks for manipulating people, but two of their favorites are triangulation and splitting, because driving a wedge between you and other people serves their need to dominate and control. Let’s look at these two tactics. Gaslighters triangulate and split for the following reasons:
“My coworker told me that my gaslighting boss said he was letting me go. Gee, it would have been nice if my boss had told me himself.”
To pit people against each other
To get people to align with them
To avoid direct confrontation
To avoid responsibility for their actions
To smear your character
To spread lies
To create chaos
Triangulation is the psychological term for communicating with someone through other people. Instead of directly speaking to someone, gaslighters will go to a mutual friend, another coworker, a sibling, or another parent to get a message across. Triangulation behavior ranges from implied communication—“I really wish Sally would stop calling me,” hoping the receiver will pass this message along to Sally, to blatant statements, such as “Please tell Sally to stop calling me.” Both are manipulative and indirect.
“My husband told me my mother-in-law wanted to tell me she didn’t agree with how I parented my child. I told him she could come talk to me herself, and I refused to talk about it with him any further. This is part of a pattern of manipulation from her.”
Gaslighters also love to pit people against each other. This is known as splitting. It gives them a sense of power and control. An example of splitting would be lying to a one friend about another, saying that a mutual friend had said something unflattering about them.
Gaslighters are the ultimate agitators and instigators. They get a power blast from getting people riled up and fighting with each other. The gaslighters will then watch comfortably from the sidelines, the very fight that they caused.
Follow this simple rule: Unless a person says something to you directly, assume that what you are told was said about you by that person is not true.
Gaslighters know that splitting and triangulating will draw you closer to them—and distance you from the person they are pitting you against.
“My ex told me my son said to him that I needed to back off, and that he promised my son he wouldn’t say anything. I called my son and asked him if he was having any concerns, and if there was something he wanted to talk about. He said no, he was fine, and we chatted for a bit. I knew what would happen if I had talked ‘through’ my ex—total chaos.”
They Use Blatant Attempts to Curry Favor
Gaslighters are also masters at buttering people up. They will use false flattery to get what they want from you. As soon as you fulfill their needs, they’ll drop their mask of niceness. Trust your gut. If the friendliness seems forced or phony, beware.
They Expect Special Treatment
Gaslighters feel that standard societal rules, such as politeness, respect, and patience, don’t apply to them—they are above these rules. For example, a gaslighter will expect his partner to be home precisely at a certain time and have dinner on the table when he gets home. If the partner doesn’t fulfill this obligation, the gaslighter becomes irrationally angry and retaliates.
They Mistreat People Who Have Less Power
You can tell a lot about people by how they treat a person who has less power than they do. For example, look at how someone treats waitstaff at a restaurant. Does she bark her order at the server, or does she order politely? What happens when a dish comes out and it is not what the diner requested? Does she assertively but politely ask for a correction, or does she make a scene and yell at the server? Demeaning the server can be a symptom of gaslighting.
“My ex-boyfriend would tease my little brother, but not in a buddy-buddy kind of way. It was more ‘I’m going to figure out your weak spots and expose them.’”
Another indication of gaslighting is how people behave toward or discuss children and animals. There is a difference between being indifferent to children or animals and treating them with disdain. Gaslighters may tease and pick on people or creatures perceived as “lesser.”
- "A succinct, useful self-help guide to responding to an all-too-common but under-discussed personality type."—Publishers Weekly
- "Sarkis clearly knows her material inside and out... this book will bring gaslighting victims and survivors out of the darkness and into the light, helping them heal"—New York Journal of Books
- "A fascinating and necessary study of rampant gaslighting and how to steer clear of being a victim."—Library Journal (starred review)
- On Sale
- Oct 2, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Da Capo Lifelong Books