Gaslighting. You’ve likely heard the term, but what is it, exactly, and how do you know if you’re a victim? Dr. Robin Stern, who coined the term over a decade ago, details this manipulative form of emotional abuse—as well as how to eliminate it from your life—in her book, The Gaslight Effect. In teaching you how to identify different types of gaslighting behavior (as well as your own role as the gaslightee), Stern offers strategies on breaking free from the emotional prison that these kinds of toxic relationships put us in—whether it’s with a partner, relative, friend, or boss.
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What is the Gaslight Effect?
The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between any two people, male or female, where one (the gaslighter) needs to be right in order to preserve their own sense of self, and tries to convince the other, (the gaslightee), that they are misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting their own behavior or motivations, leaving them to feel vulnerable and confused and ultimately doubting themselves. The gaslightee plays into this behavior by allowing the gaslighter to define their sense of reality because they idealize and need the approval of the gaslighter. This toxic dynamic is what Stern calls the “Gaslight Tango.”
The first step to breaking free from this toxic pattern is to recognize any sources of gaslighting in your life. While gaslighting may not involve all of the following “symptoms,” it’s important to pay extra attention to anything with which you identify. Also, take the “Are You Becoming a Gaslightee” quiz to further discern if you are dancing the gaslight tango:
- Are you constantly second-guessing yourself?
- Do you frequently wonder if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/wife/employee/friend/daughter?
- Do you frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family?
- Do you find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses?
- Do you think twice about bringing up certain seemingly innocent topics of conversation?
Understanding Why You Participate—and How to Stop
If you’ve determined that this kind of toxic behavior exists in your life, the next step is understanding your role as the gaslightee. According to Stern, there are two main reasons why people participate in gaslighting, the first being fear of the “Emotional Apocalypse.” The Emotional Apocalypse can take many forms, ranging from cutting remarks to relentless yelling, guilt, accusations, or threats of abandonment. Gaslightees often take a contradictory approach to the Emotional Apocalypse, at once trying to downplay or diminish their gaslighter’s behavior, while simultaneously fearful of provoking further rage, yelling, or insult by walking away or otherwise disengaging.
The other way gaslightees get pulled in is the “Urge to Merge,” a trait Stern says is shared by all who are prone to being gaslighted. “No matter how strong, smart, or competent we are, we feel an urgent need to win the approval of the gaslighter we’ve idealized. Without their approval, we feel unable to see ourselves as the good, capable, lovable people we so desperately want to be. Because we need that validation,” Stern explains, “we are unwilling to see things differently from the people we love.”
Gaslightees in this situation do one of two things: Either they drop their own perceptions to agree with the gaslighter, or they work relentlessly to induce their gaslighter, through emotional manipulation or argument, to see their point of view. Though the responses are different, they are responses to the same thing: a fear that different viewpoints will result in the loss of approval and connection, thereby leaving them isolated and alone.
While you may not be able to change the behavior of your gaslighter, you are able to change your own, thus freeing yourself from gaslighting’s harmful effects. While not necessarily easy to enact, Stern explains, the concept is simple: “You can end the gaslighting as soon as you stop trying to win the argument or convince your gaslighter to be reasonable. Instead, you can simply opt out.” Gaslighting is only successful when the gaslightee, consciously or unconsciously, tries to accommodate the gaslighter out of desperation for their approval.
For more help recognizing and repairing relationships made toxic by gaslighting behavior, as well as strategies on how to “opt out” from the Gaslight Tango, check out Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.
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