Why Gaslighting Behavior Is a Sign of Weakness
... and 5 ways to break free.
Posted December 9, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Gaslighting is a practice of calculated deception aimed to throw someone off balance.
- Gaslighters pretend to have empathy for their partners, but this is instrumental empathy, not emotional empathy.
- To leave a relationship with a gaslighter, sooner is better.
- Gaslighters have fragile egos and low self-esteem, so use your own inner strength to keep the balance of power in your favor.
Gaslighting has become the “word of the year” for 2022 as we’ve witnessed various players trying to convince large groups of people that what they are seeing is not what they should believe. The term has been around since the 1938 play "Gas Light," and the 1944 film based on it, Gaslight. The villain in the movie was playing around with the gas flow in the lights in the house in an effort to convince his wife that she was losing her mind.
The purpose of gaslighting is, indeed, to throw someone off-balance and try to make them believe that they are seeing things that are not there or that the things they are seeing are not what they appear to be. It’s all a mind game, and it even harkens back to the old children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The emperor paraded through town without wearing a stitch, but his tailors had convinced him that he was wearing the most fashionable and magical outfit ever created, and in his desire to be thought wise, he was gaslighted into believing them. That’s the goal of the gaslighter—to trick their victim into believing something that is not true.
Gaslighters are skilled manipulators whose goal is to position their target in a place where the truth is unknowable, and the manipulator’s falsehoods become believable. Gaslighters work to isolate their targets from others, which further reinforces the power they wield. If you try to argue against their lies, they call you crazy. They find ways to turn you against your family by convincing you that your family is against you. They’ll occasionally “throw you a bone” with an honest statement but only as a means of confusing you later.
While we all have heard the term thrown around in the media and pinned on public figures, the truth about gaslighters is that their efforts to manipulate and psychologically torment their targets reflect the inner weakness that is a hallmark of their personalities. In addition, their level of self-esteem is inversely proportional to their drive to manipulate others. They recognize that they have little to offer others in terms of a quality relationship and so they use gaslighting as a means to hook their target and keep them engaged.
Why Do People Stay With a Gaslighter?
Unfortunately, once a partner begins the gaslighting process, their target may already be deep into the relationship and unable to objectively view what is happening. They were likely treated well at the outset of the relationship, with flattery and kindness being freely given as the gaslighter positioned them just where they want them to be—under their control. The harder a partner tries to break free, the heavier the gaslighter’s efforts to keep them in the relationship will become. They’ll go to any lengths to keep their partners close—so long as the effort doesn’t require honesty, authentic concern, true intimacy, or admitting they were wrong.
Do Gaslighters Have Empathy for Their Victims?
Gaslighters have extraordinarily little emotional depth, and they may try to “fake empathy,” but they don’t experience true empathy. They will tell a partner that they “understand what they’re feeling,” but their emotional shallowness doesn’t support emotional empathy; however, it does allow for cognitive empathy and instrumental empathy. These types of empathy reflect a type of empathy that can be used for nefarious reasons: They do see what’s going on inside your mind, but rather than be emotionally affected by your fears, your uncertainty, or your confusion, they capitalize on those feelings in such a way as to exacerbate your anxiety and increase your emotional discomfort.
Manipulators are skilled at using their target’s emotions as tools of psychological destruction. Gaslighters aren’t “accidentally” confusing you; they are intentionally creating situations in which you question your own cognitive faculties and your own senses. Control is their aim, and this leads to psychological disruption, learned helplessness, and clinical levels of depression and anxiety.
5 Tips for Escaping a Relationship With a Gaslighter
1. Heed Early Warning Signs.
It’s essential to speak up early in the relationship and call out the gaslighter’s behavior before you get in too deep. If their behavior is malleable and their commitment to you genuine, they will listen to your perspective and agree to work to change their behavior.
2. Know that Gaslighters Fight Dirty, So Don’t Fight.
If you are months into a relationship, and their behavior hasn’t changed, or gaslighting behaviors have increased, it can be difficult to cleanly end the relationship. If you try to have a serious conversation about problems in the relationship, this can fuel the gaslighter’s behavior even more. Because gaslighting is done as a means to build up their ego, gaslighters throw themselves into fighting rejection. They delight in using phrases like, “That’s not how it was,” “That’s not what I meant when I said that,” “No one will believe you,” and “Your own family/friends wouldn’t take you back.”
Gaslighting Essential Reads
3. Make a Clean and Swift Break.
Once you realize that the relationship is not salvageable, have your escape plan ready and act on it. It’s important to make a clean and swift break. The longer you stay, the harder it gets to leave—and your support network will only shrink the longer you’re there.
4. Cut Off Communication.
Cut off communication with the gaslighter when you leave. Make sure your friends and family are aware of your need for distance and support your refusal to be in touch—no matter how much the gaslighter pleads.
5. Put the “Gray Rock” Response Into Action.
There’s a piece of advice often given to individuals trying to cut off relationships with narcissists: “Be a gray rock." This also applies to gaslighters. By being a gray rock, you are choosing not to engage with them in any way. You don’t rise to their bait, you don’t try to reason with them, and you don’t argue back. You simply let whatever they tell you roll off your back. It can be difficult at first, but with practice, it gets easier.
Once You’re Free...
Don’t ever look back. Write down the details of your experience as a reminder of how bad things got. Encourage your family and friends to stop you if you ever express a hint of remorse about leaving the relationship. Most importantly, be on the alert if any new partner shows signs of narcissism, manipulation, or gaslighting. Though some people may not realize the damage their behavior is causing, if they aren’t willing to hear your requests for change and attempt to make these changes, end the relationship before it goes any further.
Remember that gaslighters have fragile egos, little self-esteem, and are inherently weak. Own your own strengths, be firm in your position, and know that you have the inner resources needed to protect yourself from harm.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock