What is gaslighting? Gaslighting is when your emotions, words, and experiences are twisted and used against you, causing you to question your reality. This can be a very effective form of emotional abuse, because once an abusive partner has broken down your ability to trust your own perspective, you may be more vulnerable to the effects of abuse, making it more difficult to leave the abusive relationship.
We’ve talked about the types of gaslighting techniques, and the signs to look out for, but what does it look like in a real situation? How can one stay safe in this situation or work to prove that what happened, happened?
Here is an example of a survivor’s story, who shared what it was like to experience the abuse of gaslighting. This story is especially powerful because it blends emotional, digital, sexual, financial, and physical abuse:
“I don’t know what’s real anymore. I saw him hit me, and I try to talk to him about it, but he tells me that it never happened. The bruise I got I thought came from him, but he told me I fell down. But how did I fall down? I thought I saw exactly what happened. I ask him about it again, but he says, ‘You fell down, I saw you fall down. I would never hit you that hard. You’re crazy, it’s all in your head.’ I started doubting my sanity. I really thought I saw him raise his fist…”*
*While this story uses he/his/him pronouns, anyone is capable of abuse, and anyone can be the victim of it
It’s important to note that gaslighting may not happen right away. It can happen very gradually in a relationship. After experiencing these abusive patterns, you can find yourself feeling more confused, anxious, isolated, and could lose all sense of what is actually happening.
Once you’ve recognized the gaslighting, what can you do?
Here are a few ways to combat gaslighting:
Since gaslighting can make it difficult to feel like you truly remember what happened, it can be helpful to keep proof of the incident(s) so you can rely more on the evidence. Here are some examples of what proof you can document:
- Keep a journal — Every time you encounter something, write it down in a secret journal your partner doesn’t know about. Write down the date, time, and what happened.
- Speak to a trusted friend or family member — If you have a trusted friend or family member, telling them what happened or talking out what happened can help you clear your head, and someone else will know what is going on.
- Keep voice memos — If the abusive partner doesn’t have access to your phone, escape to a room by yourself and record yourself speaking with your phone on what just happened. If your phone isn’t a secret, tape recorders will still record sounds, and you can hide those tapes away.
- Take pictures — If the abuser doesn’t have access to your phone, take pictures of what happened to you, your child, your pet, or your stuff. The pictures will have a date and time on them in your photo gallery. If your phone isn’t a secret, you can buy a cheap disposable camera at discount stores, and hide the film from your partner.
- Email — Send your experience, voice memos, pictures, or videos to a trusted friend or family member for safekeeping.
Why do you need this proof? First and foremost, evidence of what occurred can help with your mental health. Recovering from gaslighting that you experienced, for weeks, months, even years, can be difficult to do; seeing proof that it happened, validates your experience, challenges the effects of your partner’s abuse, and can help you determine reality. Proof can also be useful when taking legal action* against the abuser.
*Make sure to check your state’s recording laws before you present the proof in court
No matter the form of documentation, always keep your proof safe and secure by hiding it or sending it to someone you trust. If you are afraid that the proof may be found by your partner in your hiding spot or on your phone, send it to a safe location or a friend and destroy/delete the copies you have. If you have questions, please reach out to an Advocate about ways to document proof while staying safe.
While documenting your proof, safety planning is also a great way to recognize and heal from gaslighting.
A safety plan is a personalized plan that includes ways to remain safe while in a relationship, planning to leave, or after you leave. It involves how to cope with emotions, tell friends and family about the abuse, take legal action, and more.
The more isolated you are from friends and family; the more effective gaslighting can feel. When you are completely isolated from anyone else, you may find yourself relying on your abusive partner to define reality, which creates a very difficult situation to escape.
One way to safety plan against isolation is speaking with a trusted friend or family member. We know that this can be very difficult to do while in an abusive relationship. One thing you could consider is prefacing your conversation with something like, “I don’t have a lot of options right now, and I feel like my partner may be gaslighting me and I want to be able to talk to someone and process what is actually happening,” or “I know that this isn’t a situation I want to stay in nor is safe for me, but for right now one of the things I know my partner is doing is gaslighting me.” Talk about what happened actually happened to get your experience validated. For people who care about you, it can be difficult to learn what is happening.
If you are planning to leave your relationship, make a plan for how and where you will escape quickly. If you do have to leave in a hurry, make sure you take your documented proof of gaslighting with you, and this list of important items.
Another way to safety plan after leaving a relationship is to reach out to a local domestic violence program or join a support group. There, you can talk to each other and share experiences with others who were in a similar situation. Gaslighting is a way that abusive partners minimize and/or dismiss what they did, so talking it out with others will validate your experience and recognize that what the abuser did is not ok, and it is emotionally abusive.
Combating gaslighting also involves self-care. Whether you’re still in the abusive relationship or after you’ve left, healing your mind is an important step. To put it simply, self-care is really about taking care of yourself in ways that feel best to you and bring you comfort.
Self-care may mean taking a moment to think and process happened to you, which can look like working hard to not accept responsibility for their behaviors. You can practice recognizing when your partner is trying to manipulate the situation, by blame-shifting and putting the problem on you. Abusive partners shape the narrative the way they want it. They want you to think you caused it, but you didn’t (“If you hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have done that.”).
You don’t have to argue about the truth with your partner, you’ll waste energy trying to convince them. Know your truth — there’s no use in trying to convince them. They are denying your reality for a reason and can end up arguing with someone who is refusing to accept responsibility for their behaviors.
Practice trusting your instincts. Give yourself permission to trust your feelings, your thoughts, decisions, and intuition; know that what you felt was true, and you do not need to convince anybody of it. Listen to what your gut is telling you. It can take some concerted effort to remember how to trust your gut after experiencing gaslighting for a while. Have patience with your own process.
You could also try to seek therapy, preferably someone with a domestic violence background. Gaslighting can lead to paranoid thoughts and affect your mental health long term, so seek support if you recognize that gaslighting has been happening.
In order to overcome this type of abuse, it is important to recognize the signs, and trust yourself again. If this situation sounds familiar to you, or you are questioning what’s happening in your relationship, reach out to an advocate. They are here to support you 24/7/365. Reach out by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 TTY, or chat online by clicking the purple “Chat Now” button at the top of the screen.
Remember— you are not alone!