Tagged: controlled

Gaslighting: definition and example

A popular term you will hear in relation to emotional abuse is “gaslighting.” It may be a confusing term because it’s based on a kinda antique movie but it is used to describe a very common (if not the #1) problem with emotional abuse. Very simply it’s making the victim think they are crazy.

The term is based on a 1944 movie called “Gaslight.” In it a man marries a woman, not for love, but for access to search and steal her deceased aunt’s prized jewels. Naturally no woman would agree to this, so he puts on a show for her. He acts loving and caring and then when she notices inconsistencies he lies and covers it up by making her think she’s crazy.

He leaves the house at night (and she’s not invited because she’s so “ill”) and sneaks back into the house through the windows in the attic. When he turns on the gas lamps in the attic, all of the house’s lights dim for a moment because they are all on the same gas lines. (See, kinda antique, right?) It was a major clue to the wife that something was up but she had been taught not to believe her own eyes, only her husband’s truth. He did sneaky stuff to solidify his truth as the accepted one, like move things around the house or put things in her purse and act like she was stealing things from him and just forgetting about it. Pretty sinister stuff. It’s pretty harsh to use a term based on this movie about someone you love, isn’t it? I thought so.

I thought so because I think I kinda gaslit myself.


I remember the time I realized the beauty of the phrase, “well maybe I misunderstood.” I was a teenager and I found great power in the art of letting things go. In a disagreement with my sister about what color the car was that just passed? Let it go! Don’t necessarily give in but give her the ability to think she was right; “Maybe I didn’t see it right” and voila! Argument over! No need to argue anymore.

Let’s be clear, when I was a teenager that realization was healthy and good. We need to be able to not take ourselves so seriously. We need to be okay with not always being right. We need to be able to be wrong or at least let someone else be right.

So I took this healthy and good realization out into life and it helped my relationships. If something wasn’t worth being argued over, I didn’t. I admitted that I could be wrong and moved on. Things were great.

But things in my relationship to my husband quickly got one-sided. When things are one-sided, small shifts grow massive over time. Times I used the “maybe I’m wrong” trick turned into “remember, you were wrong.” The times I said, “maybe that is the best way” became, “that is always the best way.” Not good.


An emotional abuser isn’t gaslighting to steal jewels, he’s trying to steal being right. When you have to be wrong so often in order to let someone be right, you start to think you’re crazy, unworthy and less than.

Every day being separated from my narcissist has led to more and more realizations of things he stole from me. More accurately, maybe there were many things that I gave away to him that I shouldn’t have.

Here’s an example: chili. I believed I couldn’t make good chili. Every time I made it my husband put it down. I just didn’t do it right. In my early wifey days I originally made chili with just tomato juice, burger, and chili beans. He said it couldn’t be called chili, it was too runny to put on a hot dog so it was more like soup. So I tried a different recipe. Something else was wrong… over, and over and over again… over years and years. Sometimes there was a specific complaint; sometimes it was very vague or just a look; sometimes he gave me a compliment… with a negative twist on the end. It was all very unsteadying. This was gaslighting and the result was complete.

I. Fail. Chili. After years he still would tell others I didn’t know how to make chili, it was “more like soup” even though I had long ago ever stopped making anything remotely runny. That didn’t matter. The thievery was complete. I was incapable of making chili and everyone, including me, knew it.


Chili is not something to stress over. In the real world you say, “Maybe I got it wrong” and move on. Yet years of “maybe I was wrong” somehow got me pushed over into “I am wrong” territory. Even without my husband here to give a single negative glance, I don’t trust my chili. He stole my ability to make chili although it would be more accurate to say I actually can make more variations of chili than most people. But that is what gaslighting does. The abuser takes your own healthy ability to not take yourself so seriously, turns you around, and lets you believe you are wrong. Crazy even. The craziness comes in when my brain says “I can make so many variations of chili and often it’s tasty.” But my heart says, “Maybe I can’t make chili.” They don’t match up. Can I make chili or can’t I? Second-guess. Ruminate. Argue. Give in, give up. Fight for self-esteem. Suppress. Years go by adjusting responses to make things work. Things shift, change, and you are an inconsistent mess. You no longer trust yourself and somehow you miss the key player who was there all along. You only know you don’t trust your own self anymore.

And it’s not just chili. All of life is a game; a game the abuser must win at all costs. She spends years and years gathering your cards. “Chili? I’m better than you at that. Give me the chili card.” “Child-rearing? Oh that’s mine.” “I’m a better dancer.” “Oh no, don’t try buying clothes for me, I clearly have the better fashion sense.” “I pick the best cars because I know the best features that matter.” “You can’t be trusted with the money.” Snatch, snatch, snatch. It may take years for her to artfully get a certain card from you (by gaslighting) but she WILL get it. Big, small, she gets them all. A gaslighter is stealing being right. And it starts by letting you give them as many cards as you will without a fight. In my case: “Well, maybe I was wrong….” Our generosities are used against us.


In the movie the woman is finally clued into the reality and she snaps out of it and walks away tall, vindicated. In reality I think that would be pretty rare. Either you turn away empty and broken, (so few cards left) or, like in my case, my husband turned and walked away tall throwing all the cards in the air saying, “I don’t wanna play anymore, you’re cheating anyway.” And I’m left on the ground gathering what’s left of who I am after it’s been marred up by being in his hands so long.

However, any of those endings are better than begging for your own cards back all the while trying to hide the cards you have left so she doesn’t try to take them too.

If you think that you or someone you know is the victim of gaslighting, get help! Gaslighting is a me vs. you game and CAN’T be played with more people. Let people tell you AND BELIEVE THEM that you have a good fashion sense, that you’re a good mom or dad, that your contribution to the chili scene is valuable. Talk to a therapist and let them help you rebuild your deck. It’s dangerous to get so low as an emotional abuser would have you go.

I don’t believe that all emotional abuse relationships HAVE to end in separation or divorce but you do absolutely have to learn how to share cards to have a healthy relationship. Cards should be regularly and freely exchanged back and forth, given from both sides and never taken without a sincere apology later when you realize your goof. (Hey, we all get a little snatchy from time to grumpy time.)

Often, by the time gaslighting is recognized patterns have settled in that need outside help to view and correct. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. When it comes to gaslighting a little help will go a long way and people are willing to help. Gaslighting is just shifting reality so that the abuser wins. With someone else to help hold down reality where it belongs, gaslighting can’t happen.

And let’s not forget this little extra gem we learned: appreciate that when you turn on a light, the rest of them aren’t affected. Yay, building code advancements!


photo credit: @lattefarsan <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/99312118@N07/9434562706″>Övergiven</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Realizing Emotional Abuse

“When did it start?” “How long has he been like this?” I get these questions a lot and I can’t say. I guess the real answer is forever. Abuse is inherently sneaky. No one is going to be in a relationship with someone hits you in reaction to your meeting handshake.

I think the more important question is, “when did you know?”

Even that question is sketchy. For a long, long time (forever?) things seemed… off. It was more about the confusion I had. As things went on more and more things simply did not add up. I spent years and years trying to understand and now I realize that I was actually getting there. But I didn’t feel like I was actually getting there. I felt like I was getting further away. I felt crazier.

I had more questions than I ever had answers and now, in hindsight, I realize that that was me actually starting to get it. I was starting to get it because, in truth, there was no “it.” It didn’t make sense because there was no it. Every time I hit a dead end I circled back and tried a different angle. As I dug and dug, each time reaching a non-answer, I kept finding myself with less and less ground. I built supports and took on enormous amounts of blame because I was the only one working.


I had some friends who, with great amounts of alarm and concern for me, made sure I got to the local women’s center. I was a shell of a person yet still digging away. Why can’t I please him? How come when I go to my therapist to fix me she only wants to talk about my marriage? Why do I keep not being good enough for him? Am I self-sabatoging? Sure, he says incredibly hurtful things but he has a right to his opinions. It’s my part to show him grace. And plus, I am flawed, he has a point. Around and around. That was my brain. I was stuck. It was all that was left.

I still existed. I still went to work, got the kids to school, I still did everything I was supposed to but internally I was always on the loop: Why can’t I please him?…

I spoke to the advocate assigned to me and I cannot describe her, maybe one day I will be able to. All I can say now is she was unfamiliar but yet I was drawn to her. She spoke little but when she did I was both revolted and drawn to her words. It was cognitive dissonance like I had never experienced before (and I had experienced a lot!)

She said, “here we call those people abusers. Is it okay if I refer to him as your abuser?” My insides fought. NO! YES! I glanced into her eyes. She was so kind! I quickly made a compromise with myself. I will let her call him an abuser. It’s what she knows because those are the types of people she always works with. I will know the truth… but to please my conflicted thoughts I didn’t clarify what that truth was. I just decided I would allow her to call him my “abuser.”

Through the rest of that surreal conversation my insides fought. I cried in pain. I revolted at the thought of putting any blame on my husband. I tried to be strong and make purposeful decisions. I was there to get advice on how to leave him. I was there to appease my friends and prove I didn’t belong there and I really just needed to stay with my husband. I was in turmoil.

And even though I had experienced extreme amounts of turmoil in the past several years, although I had cried myself to sleep time and time again for years and years—nothing I had experienced before was like this.

The situation was so bizarre to me I felt split in two. I was like I was sitting at the table crying and I was also standing in the corner watching myself. The crying self I was very, very familiar with. The watching self bluntly pointed out what she saw as she watched this “movie.” “Wow, that’s what an abused woman says.” My crying self heard that statement and cried harder and tried more to defend him and the more she defended the more the watching self shook her head, “Wow, she’s really lost.” All the while the assigned advocate and my friend both sat with me lovingly caring… and my friend started to become an advocate and my advocate started to become my friend.

During that meeting I never said anything specifically bad about my husband. I just talked about how I felt and that was enough for an outsider to see the truth. This bothered me. How could someone judge my husband as an abuser without his perspective? I knew that he was so confident that he was right to be upset with me. How can his perspective be understood with him not there?

My friend looked at me and said, “Do you think that he is sitting somewhere crying over the state of his marriage like this?” I froze. I knew from loads of training what my husband liked and didn’t like. I was trained to know all his possible reactions to any possible thing. In that moment, with that specific question, I realized that he didn’t really care about our marriage. He didn’t care that I was crying because in all of his inconsistent reactions, he never cared if I was crying. He didn’t care about our marriage because he never did anything to fix it. He only gave feedback on why it was my fault when I brought the issue to him. He took great offense at how I had wronged him that got us to this state in our marriage but he never actually DID anything.

And as my crying self paused and looked up to take in this question, my watching self came over and put a caring hand on her shoulder.


And although nothing made sense, it all added up. It all added up to nothing. The answer was nothing. At the bottom of my problem was that my husband was empty. He had put it all on me because I was the only thing he could put anything on. He couldn’t blame himself because nothing was there. He was GOD and because he was NOT God everything that didn’t add up (which was everything) was someone else’s problem. And the person who was there, the person who cared the most, the person who did the giving… was me. He needed more ego and he took it from me. He needed a scapegoat and there I was. His problem became mine because I was the only person who could handle a problem.

The truth was that I was actually exceedingly strong. I had been taking on all of my flaws and issues as well as his. No wonder I was starting to crack.

I was reduced to crying in a domestic violence center because, as horrifying as it was to me, it fit. We’re all broken people. Everyone has flaws. Whether someone hits you or not, if they expect to put all of their flaws on you, that’s abuse. It hurts you.

The advocate called him an abuser. Even though he never laid a hand on me. My husband was an abuser. They knew this because I was sitting there deeply hurt because of him.


Did I fully understand all of this then? No. But it was the start. It was when I started to feel the truth. It was also when the watching part of myself actually got a voice. She cares about the crying self but she’s much more purposeful, cerebral, and honest really. I suppose she’s the one who’s writing now. It’s good to have her back.

A Time To Reflect: recognizing the effects of emotional abuse

Timing is key. I looked at the clock, calculating time. I needed time for the oven to run a full self-cleaning cycle before I had to leave but I also had to get the birthday cake done. There was no leeway. Good thing I did have the brown sugar in the pantry as I remembered. I turned back to cutting the cherries to make sure I had enough to do along the edges of the cake as well. I had plans too for the full time the oven was doing both its baking/cleaning things and kept moving to make sure everything was done. When I left the house and locked the door, birthday cake under my arm, I gave a long sigh and squeezed my eyes together to block the uncomfortableness. No time for pain. Keep moving.

I got the kids from school and kept them busy until it was time to drop them off. I drove to my husband’s work and unlocked his car. I gave them quick hugs and handed the oldest the cake, “I bet he will really love this cake, it’s his favorite. Have a great birthday day with dad. Remember where the gifts are so you can surprise him?” He did. I quickly said goodbye, again driven by time. Any minute he would be out of work and I needed to be gone. I didn’t want to leave the kids alone but I needed to be gone. I drove away suddenly lost. I had spent so much time, so many years, devoted to trying to make my husband’s day. I didn’t know how to do anything else. Now what?

Emotional abuse is strange phenomenon. It can get you to a place where you are so controlled that, even when it’s just yourself, you play out the script. My husband’s birthday. I offered that he have the kids on that day although he had never asked. I took them to buy gifts, I wrapped and hid the gifts, I cleaned the entire house from top to bottom, I made his favorite cake. My brain had an alarm bell going off somewhere inside, long muted and muffled by the abuse. Somewhere my brain remembered how he treated me. My brain remembered that I had asked that I could be the one to stay in the house and he had told the counselor, “it’s MY house, it’s like I built it from the ground up with my own two hands!” Somewhere my brain put together that I was arranging flowers beautifying a table that I was not welcome to sit at. I had in fact made family dinners from scratch nearly every night for years and years and the truth was the dinners were accepted but I was only just allowed to sit and was now it was clear that I wasn’t welcome. I was no longer even allowed. The planning was done. I did all the juggling and preparing and made everything perfect but now that the time was here to appreciate the work and celebrate on my husband’s birthday I wasn’t allowed. So I was drifting. Lost.

Why do we treat each other the way we do? Why do people like my husband expect everything but are appalled at the idea of giving anything? Why do people like myself give everything but think deep down inside there must be a valid reason that we really do deserve nothing in return?

Why do we keep doing what we do and what makes us finally stop? And, perhaps most crucialy, how do we go on in life after the “stop.” Who are we without the businesses of trying to fill the black hole of shame with birthday cakes, clean ovens, and flower arrangements? Who are we?

That’s what this blog is about. I’ve been discovering that although my experience is just as unique to me as yours is to you, so many things end up the same. As we work though the questions we may just find a lot of the same answers.


photo credit: Ian Webb (jukebox) <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/14279070@N05/33343339856″>Time</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>