Gaslighting: The Stockholm Syndrome of Emotional Abuse and Manipulation

Gaslighting is a traumatic form of abuse by a psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist initially disguising themselves as a dear friend, a doting partner, a loving family member, or a supportive co-worker or supervisor. The main goals are to take away your power (usually with the hope of gaining it for themselves) and to deflect from their own issues and project them onto you.

The gaslighter might be a supervisor that thinks you’re gunning for their job, a partner or parent who wants to exhibit control over you, a friend who’s jealous of you, or a co-worker who thinks s/he’s in competition with you. They feel insecure and powerless and divert others’ attention from their own problems by focusing on, and exacerbating, yours.

Oftentimes, this makes them look like “the hero” because they “saved” you or have to “put up” with you and, over time, this gives the abuser more power and control. They’ll say things like, “It’s a good thing you’ve got me around looking out for you” or “What would you do without me?” It starts out seeming supportive and caring and the criticisms are very subtle.

The subtlety and impression of caring are what remind me of Stockholm Syndrome, because the victim not only doesn’t see it for the longest time, but can’t bring him/herself to think for a minute that the abuser would ever do anything to hurt them – let alone go to the extremes that they do. In fact, in most cases, the victim can’t imagine their lives without that person.

The abuser then begins to drop little hints here and there, saying, “Hmm…your partner has been running late an awful lot lately. I wonder why that is.” Or maybe something along the lines of, “Well, that presentation for work might not have gone that well but you’ll do better next time.” Only, you weren’t actually complaining (or noticing) that your partner was running late recently and you had felt your presentation was amazing.

Concern for you becomes the main focus, only the concern is imagined, or more likely created, by the other person to make you doubt yourself. The abuser will use a series of orchestrations to turn their allegations into “truths” to make the victim feel that s/he is the one imagining things, and that they’re “misinformed”, not remembering things correctly, not that bright, or even paranoid, delusional, or crazy.

So how do you know if this is happening to you?

1) You constantly second-guess yourself.
2) You find wedges between yourself and others you used to be really close to, yet you have no idea why.
3) You know that something is definitely wrong, but can’t pinpoint what or why.
4) You feel confused, hopeless, and joyless all the time.
5) You feel as though you can never do anything right.
6) You start to suspect the abuser is intentionally hurting you and are told by him/her that you are “imagining things” that are very clear and obvious.

If you think this is happening to you, it’s helpful to document the behaviors and activities. Keep a log of the things they say that seem degrading or dismissive or just don’t make sense. Look at the frequency and significance of the events and in what areas of your life they seem to be targeting, such as your relationship, your friendships, or your job.

Should you discover that you are a victim, immediately begin to break off ties. People who gaslight are either not aware that they’re doing it or have been doing it for so long, it’s become “normal” behavior to them. Most of the time, they don’t care and cannot be reasoned with. Don’t engage with them any longer and, when in doubt, review the documentation to reassure yourself that you are not going mad and that you are now back in control and aware of the situation.

Healing from abuse takes time. You can’t beat yourself up over it or take it personally. When this person is done with you, they will happily move onto someone else. You can’t blame yourself; they’ve done it before you came along. Therapy can help. Try your best to surround yourself with people who love and support you 100% unconditionally and activities that bring you joy.

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