This Is Why Victims Of Gaslighting Stay — And How They Can Finally Break Free

Photo by Evgenij Yulkin

As a society, we're finally starting to become more conscious of the toxic behavior known as gaslighting—partially because of all the high-profile cases of it we've seen recently across every sector of life from Bachelor in Paradise to Washington pulpits. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, a series of manipulative behaviors with the goal of getting control over you and isolating you from your friends and family. A gaslighter makes you question your version of reality—making you vulnerable to more abuse.

To a total outsider, it can often be difficult to understand why a person would remain in a relationship with someone who gaslights them. But when you look closely at the specific behaviors of gaslighters, it's easy to see why extricating oneself from this type of controlling, head-spinning relationship is so difficult. Sometimes, it can even seem impossible.

How do gaslighters keep their victims in tow?

1. They do apologize—but those apologies are conditional.

Gaslighters 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 non-apology (e.g., "I'm sorry I cheated, but if you were a better wife I wouldn't have looked for affection elsewhere"), 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.

2. 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.

3. They use your weaknesses against you.

Many times, you'll begin a relationship with a gaslighter feeling very safe, so you do what any trusting human in what they think is a healthy relationship would do—you share your intimate thoughts and feelings with the person. This is a normal, natural, healthy part of developing a close relationship. However, notice that the gaslighter rarely reveals as much intimate information about himself.

Meanwhile, the information you share will soon be getting used against you in fights—it becomes psychological ammunition. For instance, a confidence you shared with the gaslighter about your conflicted relationship with your sister is now thrown back at you as, "No wonder we are arguing. Your sister can't stand you, either. You treat her the same way you treat me."

4. They almost always associate with people who fawn over them.

Friends who would confront gaslighters about their behavior have no place in the gaslighters' life. Gaslighters will associate only with people who put them up on a pedestal, the way they feel they deserve to be treated. The second gaslighters feel that you no longer admire and cater to them, they will drop you.

5. They cause fear in others.

Family and friends of a gaslighter may defend him against people who have the audacity to call him out on his behavior, or they may themselves avoid confronting the gaslighter. This occurs for two main reasons: (1) The friends and family have become accustomed to the gaslighter's behavior and consider it to be normal; and (2) they are protecting themselves from looking disloyal to the gaslighter. This is especially common in the children of gaslighters. When family and friends experience the retaliation of the gaslighter, they learn to fear him and avoid confronting him at all costs.

6. Punishment doesn't affect them.

People with Cluster B personality disorders (those higher in gaslighting behaviors) tend to have a different neuron-firing pattern than do other people when disciplined or punished. They also don't value rewards in the way other people do. This means that punishment and rewards tend to have less of an effect, which results in gaslighters being more likely to "do their own thing" without concern about reactions from others.

7. They practice "cognitive empathy."

Gaslighters may seem to understand how you feel, but take a closer look and you'll notice a robotic quality to their expressions of empathy. Their reactions seem flat or prerecorded—there is no real emotion behind their words. Gaslighters are experts at using "cognitive empathy"—acting as if they have empathy without actually feeling it.

8. Loyalty is required—but not reciprocal.

Gaslighters require complete and unrealistic loyalty—but don't expect loyalty from them. They are notorious for their compulsive infidelity. Gaslighters do whatever they want to you, but God help you if they think you've betrayed them. They will make your life a living hell.

9. They avoid admitting problems they've caused.

Gaslighters will say that you, or people around them, are irrational and have things all wrong, when in reality they are avoiding having to explain themselves or take responsibility for their actions. For example, gaslighters will put their co-workers at risk by not following workplace safety guidelines. When they are confronted by superiors about these violations, they argue that no one really got hurt and that they are being unfairly targeted. Or gaslighting parents who are told by their child's teacher that it would be helpful if they would spend more time on reading at home will automatically blame the other parent for the child's issues with reading or blame the teacher or the school for bringing it up.

Remember, gaslighting is different from simple manipulation.

What's the difference between someone who manipulates for a particular benefit and a gaslighter? It's a fine line. Whereas manipulation (or influence) is an essential part of some jobs, such as sales, it's a pattern of behavior with gaslighters—their default mode. That is, when most people lie, it's for a specific outcome—to avoid confrontation, get ahead, or curry favor with someone. But with gaslighters, there is no particular reason to lie, and yet they do it over and over again, often in an escalating fashion as they feel the effects of their power, just for the sake of doing it—to con, gain control of, and confuse you. Gaslighters manipulate others not just situationally but as a way of life.

Why do gaslighters behave this way? There is a debate regarding "nature vs. nurture." Sometimes people are just born manipulators, but gaslighting behaviors can also be learned from parents or other people in a child's life. Gaslighters who were psychologically abused as children learned maladaptive coping techniques so as to cope with the cruelty inflicted upon them.

Many gaslighters have narcissistic injury—a perceived threat to their self-worth or self-esteem. They then react with narcissistic rage. This rage isn't always loud—it can be quiet and just as dangerous. In fact, when the narcissist is full of rage, it usually comes across as an eerie calm—enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

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Why have you lived with this?

It takes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to remain connected to a gaslighter—whether it is a partner, sibling, parent, co-worker, or someone you helped elect. Cognitive dissonance occurs when you have information about the gaslighter that is completely contradictory to your beliefs, values, and what you thought you knew about that person. When we have a state of cognitive dissonance, we react in one of the following ways:

  • We ignore the contradictory information.
  • We fight against the contradictory information.
  • We replace our beliefs and values with the contradictory information.

You may have put up with it because you convinced yourself that it was normal. But the healthiest way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to take action to bring yourself back into alignment with your own beliefs and values—and many times that means leaving or distancing yourself from the gaslighter.

So, what can you do?

If something doesn't feel right about a relationship or person, trust that instinct. If needed, seek the help of a mental health professional. Gaslighters are very sneaky at eroding self-esteem and making you feel dependent on them, but talking with a counselor can help you get back to feeling like yourself again.

There are ways to decrease a gaslighter's influence in your life. Many of these will boil down to one thing: Get as far away as possible. Because gaslighters are so slippery and manipulative, your best bet is to cut off all contact. If you can't completely cut off contact, drastically reduce it. Also, never let them see you sweat. Gaslighters' payoff is knowing they've upset you. If you don't react or act bored, they will usually leave you alone.

Some people try giving a gaslighter "a taste of his own medicine" by yelling and manipulating right back. This can work in the very short term, shocking the gaslighter into silence, but don't be fooled. They'll come back for revenge. This is a tricky game to play. And at what cost to you? You don't want to start acting like a gaslighter, no matter how strong the temptation.

Finally, know that confronting a gaslighter almost never works. When you try to bring up their efforts to distort reality, they'll only distort it further and refuse to acknowledge what they're doing. The best option is to leave and cut off all communication with the gaslighter—go "radio silence." Be prepared for them to try everything in their power to get you back into their clutches. They need attention—and if they aren't getting it from a new relationship, they will come back for you. Keep up no contact. Things will never get better with a gaslighter—only worse.

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Related Class

Remember how healthy people behave.

If you're currently dealing with a gaslighter, one way to help ground yourself is to keep in mind the way a psychologically healthy person should actually act. Now of course, if you've been around a gaslighter for a while, it can be easy to forget what that even looks like. Psychologically healthy people:

  • Encourage expression of opinions
  • Say what they mean and mean what they say
  • Support you even if they don't agree with you
  • Let you know in a direct and kind way if you've hurt them
  • Are capable of emotional intimacy—the mutual sharing of feelings and ideas
  • Trust others
  • Exhibit behaviors that are genuine and authentic

Excerpted from Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free by Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, Ph.D. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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