By Jazmine Polk, Health
It’s normal to second-guess your memory every now and again. After all, recollections can be fuzzy (especially when you’re under stress, or running on too little sleep). But if you’re in a relationship that makes you constantly doubt yourself, you may be a victim of gaslighting.
Gaslighters lie and manipulate you to distort your sense of reality. Over time, this controlling tactic can erode your confidence, to the point where you no longer trust your own instincts and feelings, Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City, tells Health. “Having your reality questioned has got to be the most damaging thing out there, because our reality and the way we think about the world is kind of all we have,” says Michaelis.
Because of its subtle nature, gaslighting can be hard to detect. But there are a few warning signs. Here, experts point out the red flags for this sophisticated form of emotional abuse.
Your partner corrects your recollections
Do you find yourself constantly starting sentences with, “Oh, I thought you said …” only to have your partner tell you you’re wrong? “If they’re questioning your memory, or causing you to question your memory of certain events or narratives, that’s a big [red flag],” says Michaelis. Gaslighting is often used create confusion to cover up wrongdoings, he explains, such as an affair or other types of abuse. “It really is about your [twisting] your sense of reality, and that’s what’s so harmful about it.”
They tell glaring lies
One surefire way to tell you’re dealing with a gaslighter is if they deny facts you both know are true. “They’ll blatantly tell you that they never said something—or never did something—even if you were there to witness it,” Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, an author and psychotherapist in Tampa, tells Health. The goal is to make you question you perception of what happened. You might think to yourself, Maybe I imagined she said that; or Maybe I didn’t actually see him do that—I just thought I did.
They call you “crazy”
Another red flag: You’re frequently asking yourself, Am I too sensitive? A gaslighter will respond to your concerns by flipping the issue, and suggesting there’s something wrong with you. They might tell you you’re overreacting, or being too emotional. The end result is that you lose faith in your own judgment, says Sarkis.
A gaslighter might attack your family and friends, too, by calling them “crazy,” or suggesting that they’re conspiring to end your relationship. Your partner might say something like, “Is this another delusional idea from your sister?”
Or they might involve the people you trust the most, warns Sarkis. “A gaslighter might even go to your mom to avoid direct confrontation, stir things up, and bad-mouth you, so that [your mom] can be the one to suggest that you do something about your mental state.”
They shut you out when problems arise
Another classic gaslighter technique is stop communicating altogether after you voice a concern. “Instead of talking out issues in a healthy way, what gaslighters do is they’ll completely block you out,” says Sarkis. “You’ll be right in front of them and they’ll act like you’re not even there. They’ll refuse to talk to you, or they will ghost you and not text you.”
This will cause you to worry that you were wrong for bringing up the issue in first place, or to regret how you brought it up. And that’s exactly what the gaslighter wants: to divert your attention from whatever it is you’re upset about, and make you focus instead on whether you handled the issue correctly.
Gaslighters might also say things like “Are we really talking about this again?” or, “I don’t have time for this,” to send a message that your feelings aren’t important.
Their mistakes become yours
In a relationship with a gaslighter, “I’m sorry” is not a phrase that you will hear often. But it will be something you say frequently, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.
Gaslighters want to make you believe that you are the one screwing up all the time. If your partner is late to dinner, for example, they might say it’s because you weren’t clear about the time. “[Gaslighters] have to be right about everything. Someone’s got to be wrong and that is going to be you,” Jeremy Sherman, PhD, a social science researcher and blogger at Psychology Today, tells Health.
When gaslighters do say they’re sorry, it’s typically not genuine. Rather than apologizing for a mistake, they will apologize for your reaction to whatever they did, says Sarkis. For example, they might say, “I’m sorry that you got upset about this,” or, “I’m sorry that you had an issue with what I did.” This phasing allows them to shift the blame from their crime onto your response; and once again, you are the one in the wrong.
If you suspect you are being gaslighted, talk through your concerns with a third party, like an unbiased friend of a therapist, says Michaelis. Reviewing your concerns with a trusted outsider can help you think more clearly, and decide how you want to proceed. If the gaslighting is hurting your self-esteem or is detrimental to your mental health in any way, it may be time to walk away, he says: “When your reality is being questioned, used against you, or you’re being blamed for something another person did, that’s usually a sign of extreme narcissism—and something that you need to end.”