Gaslighting is an insidious, but unfortunately, not particularly uncommon, form of emotional abuse. And since subtle forms of gaslighting can often masquerade as being totally innocent, there are times you might not suspect it’s happening at all. Gaslighting is by its nature both incredibly confusing and difficult to spot. But if you are feeling increasingly unsure of yourself, or unsure of a relationship, it might be time to seek some guidance on what might be going on.
“Gaslighting is a manipulative way to create subtle chaos and make you feel like you are losing your mind,” Stephanie Campbell, MS, LMHC, of Blooming Lotus Counseling, who helps clients cope with toxic relationships and traumatic events, tells Bustle. “It undermines your self-confidence and makes you feel off-balance, which may result in your belief that you need your partner for survival.”
Simply put, Campbell says, a partner may habitually make you feel unsure of yourself or your sense of reality. It might seem like simple differences in communication or perception, at first, but overtime, it can really erode your core.
“Of course, miscommunication is not necessarily gaslighting. But if there are other red flags and you feel this is happening in your relationship, make note of instances that make you feel uneasy,” Campbell says.
If you are having major discomforts or self-doubts, reaching out to get some support and perspective can be a really productive option.
Below, some professionals help to discern more subtle, seemingly innocent forms of gaslighting.
1. They Tell You Negative Things Other People Say About You
It might be framed as being honest. But sometimes that honesty can be really manipulative, and is a tactic to make you feel badly or get you to do what someone else wants.
Michigan-based psychologist Dr. Michele Leno, founder of DML Psychological Services, tells Bustle that your partner might be gaslighting you if they often tell you bad things people say about you, and then accuse you of being insecure when you question what they are saying.
“Does your partner regularly tell you the negative things that others are saying about you? Partners may use this tactic to ‘encourage’ you to doubt yourself and change for them,” Leno says. You then might go through the process of trying to prove how secure you are, or even go so far as to change yourself in regards to what they are saying.
Finding outside help and perspective from people and professionals you trust can help you find your footing and see what’s going on.
2. They Suggest You Seek Help For The Problems In The Relationship
This might seem like a helpful or loving suggestion, but do pay attention to why they are suggesting you seek help.
“Your partner says, ‘I’m concerned and maybe you should talk to someone,'” Leno says. “At a glance, this seems like a well-intended gesture. However, not all partners mean well and some may suggest you seek therapy as a way to say, ‘Our problems are your fault.'”
If they are suggesting that you seek counseling, help, or outside perspective for problems that are happening between the two of you, or for problems that you are bringing up about them, this can be an indication of subtle gaslighting.
Ask yourself, how do you feel about the problems? How do you feel when you are around your partner, and what is usually the outcome of your attempt to discuss issues?
3. They Block Your Growth
Blocking or being unsupportive of your growth is another sign of gaslighting.
“If your partner is dismayed by your plans to change careers or return to school, or they are presenting ‘reasonable’ obstacles to discourage you, then remember that gaslighting happens in plain sight,” Leno says. “It’s easy to pull off because the gaslighter uses what they know about you, against you.”
While having someone who talks with you in a truthful and reasonable way as you try to work toward your goals is a good thing, someone who consistently creates more mental roadblocks on purpose is not a positive force.
4. They Say You’re Wrong When You Know You’re Right
Again, gaslighting is when someone makes you doubt your own sense of reality, psychologist Stephanie M. Kriesberg, who specializes in helping clients with narcissistic parents, tells Bustle. And this usually happens within the context of simple conversations.
Kriesberg says that a gaslighter might, when confronted with a plan you made together, pretend that conversation never happened.
“The gaslighter might say, ‘You thought I said I would go to your sister’s wedding with you? I never agreed to that. I’m going fishing. You must have misunderstood me,'” Kriesberg says.
Another tactic is changing the subject when you bring up something you want to discuss in regards to their behavior or your relationship. Notice if this is a pattern.
5. They Do Not Take Responsibility For Their Behavior
Gaslighters make you doubt the reality of your feelings by making it seem like their behavior doesn’t count or they aren’t responsible for it, Kriesberg says.
Anytime you bring up something that is not working for you, they seem to sidestep having anything to do with it, and find a way to lay the blame or reasoning on someone else.
An example might be feeling upset that your partner repeatedly cancels dates. Their response? Talking about what a difficult time they are having at work.
If that is a common pattern of communication, Kriesberg says, it’s worth looking at. It can’t always be someone else’s fault.
6. They Use Virtue-Signaling
The fact that gaslighting is an “ambient” form of abuse suggests something is there, but you are not quite aware of its presence, reverend and psychotherapist Sheri Heller, LCSW, who specializes in complex trauma, narcissistic abuse, and addiction, tells Bustle. “Nevertheless, it’s infiltrating your subconscious like elevator music or subliminal advertising.”
One way the “ambient abuser” tries to get the upper hand, Heller says, is by pretending to have your back and being committed to your growth and well-being.
“They present themselves as benevolent and insightful, even altruistic,” Heller says. “Virtue-signaling is a tactic used by ambient abusers. Virtue signaling is when one conspicuously touts their moral values and philanthropic activities so as to garner admiration and cultivate a false sense of security and establish trust.”
Virtue-signaling conceals the hidden motive to get the upper hand. If the way your partner presents themselves seems out of step with how they act or communicate, or how it feels to be around them, this may be a gaslighting tactic.
Understandably, coming to terms, or even being uncertain, about gaslighting, can feel very disorienting. It is important to get help from an outside source if you think this might be going on. You aren’t alone here.
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
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