In the 8th grade, I thought I lost my first cellphone. I turned over the house trying to find it before my parents would realize I was not as responsible as I had pinky-promised when they first handed it to me. I swore adamantly that I had not misplaced it, but it still wasn't where I left it. I finally gave in and asked my parents if they had seen it, and they both said "no" curtly and instead chastised me, topping it off with the suspicious addition, "Maybe it will turn up." Long story short, I ended up finding the stupid phone in my mom's sock drawer. I found out later that she took it and hid it to teach me a lesson. The first lesson I learned from that: My mom loves to teach lessons. The second lesson I learned much later: That instance was my first taste of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a term used to describe a method of manipulation whereby the offender creates doubt in the mind of the victim, to get them to do or believe something. This works by gradually getting the target to distrust their own perception, memory, or judgement by a few different, but equally effective techniques. Don't be alarmed by the words "offender" or "victim" though, I've found that almost everyone has done it or had it done to them at some point, and maybe just didn't know it.
One of the first ways someone can attempt to gaslight you is by "countering," which is basically when, during an argument, the manipulator counters your point by calling into question your memory of an event, even if you recalled it correctly. Not only does it make you question whether or not you are remembering something right or perceiving it objectively, but it also diverts the conversation from its original topic onto one where you're on the defensive. As a generally forgetful person, this one always works well on me. Phrases like, "last time this happened you were wrong too," or "you always cast things in such a negative light" are what you might hear if someone is trying to counter you.
Alternately, someone who is attempting to gaslight you might staunchly deny that something occurred, or they might completely "forget" that a certain event happened, being deliberately obtuse. As a less severe example, maybe your roommate says that they never do XYZ. Then, when you see them doing XYZ and point it out to them, they might respond, "I didn't say I never XYZ, just that I hardly XYZ." Of course, then you see them doing what they just corrected you about again and again.
A more serious version of this tactic is particularly prevalent in abusive relationships where the abuser will deny that an instance of domestic violence, for example, even happened. This tactic is especially potent because often no one else is around to validate your memory of things that take place. In these situations you feel almost as if you are living in an alternate reality, defined by your manipulator, where your gut instincts are chronically undependable and the world operates by a set of rules that only they can seem to grasp. You feel tense and paranoid—and crazy for feeling tense and paranoid—when there is no tangible evidence of foul play. This might lead you to start keeping accounts of events, like starting to write things down after they happen so that you know you are remembering them right later on. However, in these cases, a manipulator can assert something with such overwhelming conviction that you second guess your own memory anyway.
Other times, adamant denial coupled with an act of indignation at the slightest accusation of the manipulator's malintent is enough to guilt you into backing down. Because there often isn't any clear evidence that the manipulator is trying to take advantage of you, you start to doubt yourself. After all, how can you really question someone about a situation that they firmly believe didn't even happen?
Another tactic a manipulator can use to gaslight you is "trivializing." Someone using this tactic will say things like "you're being too sensitive," or "is this even worth arguing about?" This makes you feel foolish for being upset about something and dismisses your rightful anger as a mere overreaction.
To expedite the process of gaslighting, a manipulator might even stage situations with the sole purpose of getting you to question your sanity. For example, someone who is "staging" might deliberately move your keys or a wallet from the place where they always are and then help you "find them" in a new location where they will convince you that you must have put them (I'm looking at you, Mom).
This whole discussion has come a long way from the humble lesson-teaching beginnings of my childhood, but a valuable lesson has stayed with me: Always trust your gut above another person's reality.
Chayenne Mia is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in psychology. She is the 20/20 associate editor for The Eye. Speaking of Mia runs alternate Tuesdays.
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