Gaslighting isn’t always a conscious form of behaviour in relationships: it may manifest itself without you being fully aware of it.
But what we don’t often recognise with this toxic form of behaviour is that it’s just as easily applied to ourselves as it is to other people.
“Gaslighting is used by people to make other people question their version of reality,” writes therapist Claire Jack in a piece for Psychology Today.
“It’s an effective way of convincing someone else that you’re right and they’re wrong. By doing so, you can manipulate people into acting in ways which meet your needs and place them in a weak position within the relationship.”
Jack explains that we tend to think of gaslighting as a very intentional tactic: a means by which manipulative people can assert their power over others.
While it often happen like this, Jack says it can also occur without you meaning to. In other words, you end up disempowering those around you, or damaging their self-esteem, without realising that you are doing so.
A typical scenario where this may happen is in reaction to arguments. Say you fall out with your partner, a family member or a friend over something and cannot reach a resolution.
You may be tempted to gloss over the row afterwards, and not reference it again. But while this may seem like a positive reaction (by avoiding further conflict), Jack says it’s actually a means of gaslighting.
“If your partner, friend, or colleague expresses a desire to talk about what happened, do you brush them off or redefine the fight as ‘a little tiff,’ refusing to acknowledge that, to the other person at least, it was a significant event which needs to be dealt with?” she says.
“Disregarding someone else’s emotional and processing needs in this way, over time, has the effect of silencing them. What point is there in discussing things with you if you deny the significance of what happened before?”
Such a reaction also validates any bad behaviour that may have occurred during the argument (shouting, name-calling etc.) and trivialises the hurt the other person feels as a result.
So, what’s a healthier way of reacting to an argument? A 2019 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests that “active repair” is the best way forward.
This involves anything from apologising to reaching a compromise or talking things through: but crucially, you need to acknowledge what has happened in the fallout, and any upset that has been caused as a result.
Another side note to this is that you should try to avoid passive-aggressive phrases such as “I’m sorry if… ” or “why are you so upset?” when you come to reflecting on your argument.
Again, these venture into gaslighting territory, by making the other person question the truth of their feelings.
Instead, try “direct, emotionally honest, assertive communication,” says Andrea Brandt, author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness.
She suggests validating the other person’s feelings by acknowledging where they come from, even if you don’t agree with them. For example, “X, I understand you’re upset because you have to move your night out in order to have dinner with my family. However, It’s very important to me and I appreciate you doing it.”
As relationships therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw points out in an insightful post on the topic (above), gaslighting is something “most people don’t consciously choose to use” in relationships: rather it’s a learned response.
With greater awareness, you can replace it with healthier reactions that help you and the people around you feel valued and secure in the relationship you both share.