Does your self-esteem change according to approval or disapproval from others? Always end up apologising simply to keep the peace? If so, you may well have been ‘gaslighted’. We talk to psychologist Dr Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, about spotting and stopping this type of manipulation.
Does your self-esteem change according to approval or disapproval from your partner? Do you feel elated when your boss praises you, but at rock bottom when your work is criticised? Or perhaps you always end up apologising simply to keep the peace at home?
If you can answer yes to any of the above you may well have been ‘gaslighted’, warns psychologist Dr Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect.
Taking its name from the classic 1944 film, Gaslight, in which Ingrid Bergman plays a woman who suffers at the hands of her manipulative and scheming husband, Stern believes that this particular form of insidious bullying is startlingly common - and can be emotionally devastating.
“The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people; a gaslighter - who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power in the world - and a gaslightee, who allows him to define her sense of reality, because she idealises him and seeks his approval,” Stern explains.
“Gaslighters and gaslightees can be of either gender, and gaslighting can happen in any type of relationship including with your boss as well as your partner, but I refer to gaslighters as ‘he’ and gaslightees as ’she’ since that’s the pairing I most often see in my practice.
“What is remarkable is that most people who experience this kind of manipulation are actually very successful in every other area of their lives and could never imagine themselves in an abusive relationship, but this is such a gradual process that it tends to creep up on them - and by the time they realise it the damage is usually already done,” she adds.
She believes women are generally very good at empathising - having been socialised to be people-pleasers - and that it comes naturally for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.
“The problem,” she says, “is that women often fall into the empathy trap, which tends to occur when we become so good at trying to understand where someone else is coming from and how they’re feeling that, almost imperceptibly, we start to see things from their perspective.
“Suddenly one’s own feelings and sense of reality take a second seat and you will often end up apologising for someone else’s behaviour, feeling unsure of yourself and your opinions, losing the courage of your convictions and, over time, essentially forgetting who you are,” she cautions.
A similar thing can often happen at the office, she argues, and to an even greater degree - because we convince ourselves that we need the relationship with our boss to work to keep a roof over our heads.
“What if you know that your boss or colleague doesn’t like or respect your work, but every time you confront them about an issue they make it into your fault, such as telling you that you are paranoid, or too emotionally sensitive, or not as hard working as you used to be?”
“This type of constant undermining can make office life unbearable and needs to be dealt with quickly and effectively.”
The warning signs
The Gaslight Effect may not involve all of the experiences or feelings Stern has identified below, but if you recognise any of them in your own relationships, there’s a good chance that you may be a victim.
1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself and ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.
2. You are always apologising to your mother, father, boyfriend or boss and wonder frequently if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/wife/employee/friend/daughter.
3. You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
4. You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behaviour to friends and family.
5. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
6. You start lying to avoid the put-downs and have trouble making simple decisions.
7. You think twice before bringing up certain seemingly innocent topics of conversation.
8. You have a sense that you used to be a very different person.
9. You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
10. You find yourself furious with people you’ve always got along with before.
How to fight back
“The most important thing is to identify what is going on because once you understand what is really happening in your life then that in turn is very empowering,” says Stern.
“Once you realise that you have your own part to play in the situation then you automatically have control over stopping it.”
The next step is to immediately recognise the Gaslight Effect when it comes up, and to tackle it head on, according to Stern.
“It’s a time to opt out of the conversation and to say that, although you respect that person, you are going to have to agree to differ, and thus remove yourself from a potentially volatile situation,” she advises.
“Remember, you always have the power to set that boundary and you have the right to be in a relationship where people show respect to you - and if this is not the case then you can simply say, without being belittling or aggressive, that you don’t like the way you are being spoken to at the moment or, in the long-term, work out whether or not you really want to stay with that person or in that job, or to leave.
“The ultimate power that we have in any relationship is the power to withdraw. We don’t have the power to change somebody’s mind or to make them think differently - although we can try!”
:: The Gaslight Effect, by Dr Robin Stern, is published by Fusion Press, priced £10.99. Available now.