How To Deal With Gaslighting & Exactly What To Say, From A Therapist
Gaslighting has been a therapeutic buzzword swarming around the interwebs for quite some time. The attention that this term has been receiving has been helpful in allowing people to recognize and name specific dysfunctions that are occurring in their relationships, and it has empowered many to stand firm in their unique truths. However, despite awareness and understanding of the term, it may still be difficult for many to navigate interactions when they are on the receiving end of being gaslit. So let's talk about how to deal with gaslighting and stand firm in your truth:
Know how to recognize when gaslighting is happening.
Gaslighting is a psychologically manipulative tactic to get a person or group of people to doubt their reality and memory. The term stems from the title of a 1938 British play called Gas Light, in which a husband repeatedly changes and alters the home environment and denies doing so when questioned by his wife about the changes. He repeatedly informs her that she is remembering things incorrectly and denying her reality, though he is intentionally changing their environment. Here is where the term comes in: He dims the gaslights in their home (while also doing things like making noises around the home), and when confronted by his wife about the noises and change in lighting, he continues to state that the lighting is the same and that he hasn't heard a thing, sewing seeds of doubt in her perception and reality.
Common gaslighting phrases:
- "You're making things up."
- "That never happened."
- "You're being dramatic."
- "You're blowing things out of proportion."
Another way to know when gaslighting is happening to you? Recognize the symptoms. When a person is being constantly gaslit, they start to show signs of lowered self-esteem and emotional dependence on the abuser. During a conflict where someone is gaslighting you, you may experience a range of emotions from confusion and anger to frustration and finding yourself going in argumentative circles both out loud and in your mind. This type of back-and-forth is exhausting and can affect your self-trust.
Once you can effectively recognize when gaslighting is happening in the moment, then you can start to break the cycle.
Stand firm in your truth.
The goal of gaslighting is to have the receiving person doubt their perception. For the person who is doing the gaslighting, their goal may be to avoid accountability while slowly causing you to foster an emotional dependence on them. This creates immense internal confusion, which then chips away at your ability to trust yourself and your own memory.
To combat this, stand firm in your truth. That means believing in yourself, your feelings, and what you know to be true. It means owning your perception (i.e., what you saw, heard, and felt). It sounds like "I know what I saw" or "Don't tell me how to feel; this is how I feel."
Write things down.
To help you ground yourself in your own truth, it can be helpful to write things out as they are happening. Journal about your experiences, and get into the habit of reviewing your writings. Keep a record of what is happening. A journal is a great way to maintain a record of what is happening over time. This will help you feel confident about what you know to be true.
Keep the conversation simple.
Know your purpose when entering the conversation. What would you like to accomplish? Resolve? What are the main points that you would like to get across?
A person who is gaslighting will blatantly lie, shift the narrative, and will minimize how you feel. Entering the conversation knowing your purpose will help you remain centered on a path versus being veered in the different directions that a gaslighting person may take you.
Be willing to leave the conversation.
The person doing the gaslighting may also use tactics such as deflecting and minimizing. In these instances, it's important to practice self-validation and recognize when the conversation is feeling circular and unfair. Give yourself permission to leave the conversation when you start to recognize signs of your reality being denied and minimized.
Remember: The goal of the person who is gaslighting is to have you doubt your perception, so walking away before the gaslighting gets severe is a way to maintain your perception of events.
Don't worry about trying to "outsmart" the gaslighter.
The best way to outsmart a gaslighter is to disengage. You can show up to the discussion with a mountain of evidence, videos, recordings, and more, and a gaslighting person will still find a way to deflect, minimize, or deny. It is more worth it to walk away with your perception intact.
What to say when someone is gaslighting you.
Once you start to hear the go-to gaslighting phrases coming up in the conversation, some go-to statements you can incorporate include:
- "My feelings and reality are valid. I don't appreciate you telling me that I am being too sensitive."
- "Don't tell me how to feel; this is how I feel."
- "I am allowed to explore these topics and conversations with you. Do not tell me I am being dramatic."
- "I know what I saw."
- "I will not continue this conversation if you continue to minimize what I am feeling." (Then, implement the boundary.)
Do gaslighters know they're gaslighting?
Gaslighting lies on a spectrum. Some gaslighters don't know they're gaslighting and are largely unaware of how their behavior is affecting the other person. But some gaslighters are very well aware of what they are doing, and it is done with intention and without remorse. Should the person engage in additional behaviors that fall under the spectrum of a narcissistic personality disorder, then the likelihood of them intentionally gaslighting you is much greater.
People who are dealing with gaslighting often wonder about the person's motives. If the gaslighter doesn't know they're gaslighting, it gives them a sense of hope. Essentially, people on the receiving end are trying to gauge how much patience they should have with their abuser. For example: Maybe if they don't know what they are doing, I can show them, and the conversation can be more productive.
But importantly, what would actually change if you knew what their motive was? It may help you learn to navigate the situation more skillfully (for example, if you knew that their motive was to cause doubt, then that may empower you to stand firm in your truth), but it is not necessary to know their motives in order to set boundaries.
Increase your support system, and share your truth.
Psychological isolation and emotional dependence can be the goal of the person who is gaslighting you, especially if they fall under the spectrum of narcissistic personality disorder.
When we reach out to our support system to share with them our reality; what is happening; what we know; and what we've seen, witnessed, and experienced; we are further integrating our truth into our minds. The more we stay quiet and downplay our realities, the more likely it is that the seeds of doubt will grow over time.
Sometimes we need external validation from our support system to build our internal confidence, especially when we are victims of being gaslit. You can reduce the psychological and emotional hold that a gaslighter has on you when you share your truths with safe people.
The bottom line.
It can be very disorienting to have a conversation with a gaslighting person because it knocks you off your center and changes the path of the discussion to something that now blames you and your feelings for "blowing things out of proportion" when you are just sharing your feelings.
It is more than OK to walk away and grieve the reality that your needs in the conversation may not be met. Standing firm in your truth and leaning into your support system can help ground you back into reality. Lastly, practice self-compassion for what you are enduring in the relationship; this will help you in navigating the feelings associated with being gaslighted.
Alyssa "Lia" Mancao, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and certified cognitive therapist with nine years of experience treating depression, anxiety, trauma, issues with self-esteem, body image, and the inner child. She received her bachelor's degree in sociology and social work from California Polytechnic State University, Pomona and her master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California's Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She has provided clinical treatment for children, adolescents, adults, and families in outpatient and residential settings, including with the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic at Harbor-UCLA, the Child and Family Guidance Center, Counseling4Kids, and in private practice.
She regularly shares insights and wisdom on her popular Instagram platform @alyssamariewellness, where she has over 66,000 followers.