Gaslighting – it is not your fault.
Gaslighting is a term used for, and often subtle, form of emotional and psychological abuse. Victims of this behaviour have often been controlled and manipulated for many years not knowing what is happening. You may find that you regularly doubt yourself, are often making excuses for your partner’s behaviour, apologising while not really knowing what you are sorry for and your self-esteem, self-worth and view of yourself drops over a period of time.
Gaslighters are often charming and charismatic and often switch between subtly criticising you and praising you. You will often find that the praise is in relation to something you have done for them that they approve of. The criticism is often discreet and they may then make you feel as though you are being overly sensitive, or you misunderstood.
Over a length of time, victims of gaslighting lose their own sense of perception, identity and self-worth. You may begin to doubt your own memories or your truth about situations. The abuse happens gradually over time which is why people often don’t recognise it for what it is. You will start to change your behaviours in order to fall in line with what the gaslighter wants from you. This might include how you dress, who you spend time with, whether or not you work, putting their needs over your own, and so many more behaviours that are not related to who you really are. Even those who are usually self-aware can be caught in this trap, due to its covert nature.
The following was shared by someone who had been caught in this trap for several years before she managed to see it and escape. I have her permission to anonymously share part of her story with you.
“Looking back, I can see so many examples of how I was controlled, manipulated over the years, and for a while I hated myself for how long it took for me to see it. I felt stupid for putting up with it and my doubts lasted for a long time after I ended the relationship. Even after our separation, he would try different ways to control me and my core instinct was to keep quiet about everything and make excuses for his behaviours. In trying to keep me and my kids safe by not saying anything to antagonise him, what I actually did was protect him by not letting others know what he was like, not getting the help I needed and allowed him to keep pretending to be such a great bloke in public.
I would like to share some examples, that I now recognise for what they were. One of the things that really stands out, is that I can rarely remember what caused the arguments or what I did wrong to warrant his behaviour, but I do remember how it felt.
My confidence was rarely particularly strong, which I guess made me an easy person to manipulate. In the beginning, he would pay me compliments on how I looked, but this very quickly wore off. It got to the point where I would get dressed up for an occasion, maybe treat myself to a new dress or outfit, and he would look me up and down and say nothing. There was always a look about him that left me wondering if I actually looked awful, despite having made an effort. The result of this was that I stopped bothering. I didn’t bother wearing nice clothes, rarely wore make-up, I even grew my hair longer than I liked as that was how he liked it. I started to view myself as unattractive, overweight and not worth bothering with.
One Christmas, he bought me a jacket I really wanted, and I was very excited when I was unwrapping it. Once it was unwrapped, he told me to try it on as he wasn’t sure he got it “big enough” for me. There were so many little comments like this that my self-view was that I was fat and I was left with the impression that others noticed I had gained weight – I was a size 12/14 at the time.
There were more scary behaviours which I learnt to predict, but was never able to avoid. When he got angry he got very quiet. He would sit in a room with me and my children, saying nothing, but breathing heavily or huffing. If I asked what was wrong, I was often ignored and he might even just walk out to the garage to smoke. Other times he would quickly start shouting, telling me I don’t understand, that he has to put up with awful behaviours from my children because I had not taught them properly as a mother, that he was the odd one out, that he does everything for me with nothing in return. This would often end up with him shouting that he was done, he wasn’t going to take any more, and would then walk out. At this point he would drive or ride away in a loud and aggressive way which left me worrying about him or anyone else who got in his way on the roads. He would then return, sometimes hours later, and act like nothing had happened. Or he would be full of apologies, promising he’d never do that again, and pointing out again that he could not help it because of the children.
One of the worst situations was one night when he had initiated sex, and I said no. I said no more than once but he would not stop. In the end, fear kicked in, I went in to mild shock and sort of shut down and it happened anyway. I did not know what to expect if I kept on refusing him. Afterwards he cried and said he should not have done that, he told me he loved me, he apologised, and I ended up consoling him. I felt dirty and used but it felt safer to tell him it was ok, that I could have left the bedroom, and eventually he slept. It took me a very long time to see this for what it was because I was so entrenched in his behaviours and how I needed to act in order to feel safe.
His rages became more regular, and I was able to see the warning signs. It was very obvious in his silences, his body language, passive-aggressive ways of ignoring or rejecting me until eventually he exploded. Whilst he never actually hit me or my children, there was always an undercurrent which suggested he might. He would punch, kick or throw things. He threw a plastic mixing bowl hard enough to shatter it, there are still several holes in my garage door where he punched or kicked it, he had to replace the garden gate after kicking it when storming out, threw a remote control at my pregnant daughter. He would also intimidate us by standing in doorways while shouting, and often did this to my son. He would open my son’s bedroom door without knocking and stand there shouting at him, knowing he could not get out.
Over and over again I tried to keep me and my children quiet so as not to annoy him. We would constantly walk on egg shells and do anything to avoid winding him up. More often than not, his rages stemmed from something like my son not doing the dishwasher or not wanting to eat with us and preparing his own food. It felt like my son, as a minor and not able to stand up for himself, took most of the worst behaviour. He would rarely act out directly against me, but would take it out on my son then point out that we wouldn’t have been having these issues had I been a better mother and taught my son to act the right way. He was always pointing out that he would not have got away with acting the way we did when he was a kid and heavily implied that hitting my children might have taught them differently.
There were so many occasions where I ended up doubting my perceptions of situations, especially in relation to other people. A friend had acted in a way that had highly distressed my daughter and, when I pointed out the damage that was done, was told not to make a fuss and the friend hadn’t meant it. I stated clearly that I wanted nothing further to do with the friend and that she was definitely not welcome in the house. Despite the facts and my feelings, he continued with that friendship and went to parties and even attended her wedding. Another occasion, we had friends for Christmas day. They were rude and disrespectful to me all day, and again I was told to not make a fuss and that they didn’t mean it. I could list so many occasions where I was treated badly by others, had hoped for him to defend me, and he always took the other person’s side against me. I would end up feeling stupid and as though I was being overly sensitive.
One day, while he was cooking, I walked into the kitchen looking at my phone as I had gone in there to show him something. I did not see that he had left the first top cupboard door open and I walked straight into it, hard enough to cause a small bruise. He started shouting at me that I should watch where I was going. I admitted that yes I should have been looking but he should not have left the door open. He shouted me down until I gave up, took the blame as always and was treated to an evening of him barely talking to me. Once again, I was the one feeling stupid and wrong while he took absolutely no responsibility in his part of this. This was a recurring theme and he never admitted when he was wrong, other than when it served his purpose to reel me back in and make me feel that my thoughts to leave him were unwarranted.
Now if you are lucky enough to have never been in a relationship like this, you might be wondering why I stayed with him so long if things were this bad. That’s the trap, he wasn’t constantly like this. He could be charming and generous and these nicer behaviours were sometimes brought up in arguments too, just to remind me how good he is to me. He would take me out sometimes with his friends, where he would “playfully” make little digs about me to put me on edge, especially if we were out with male friends. This was done in such a way that I doubted my insecure feelings and allowed him to convince me I was being over sensitive. All his worst behaviours were saved for me and my children, and always happened privately. This allowed him to maintain his charming, quiet, decent façade when out in public, which meant it took friends a long time to accept why I left him. Again, the truth of the situation greatly conflicted with the fabricated version of him.
Nobody deserves to be treated as I was, or made to feel as worthless and powerless as I did. Not everybody will understand or accept your truth, but speak it anyway. Ask for help, protect yourself rather than the abuser. Keeping quiet about it will not make it go away and they will probably never change. Look after you and find your escape. Life is so much brighter once you are out of the cage!”
Recognising that you are a victim is the first step to you being able to ask for help. You did not ask to be treated badly and you do not deserve it. It is time to see your abuser for who they are and to remove yourself from under their influence and power.
24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247