• It's almost as if abusers read from the same playbook. (Getty Images/Maskot)Source: Getty Images/Maskot
Gaslighters excel at manipulation, making it more difficult for victims to get help.
Na'ama Carlin

23 May 2019 - 8:50 AM  UPDATED 19 Aug 2021 - 10:22 AM

The word for when someone abuses your trust by lying, manipulation, coercion, making you doubt yourself and your narrative and lose your sense of self is called ‘gaslighting’.

Since I wrote about my experience with gaslighting, I’ve had people share their stories with me.

The gaslighting methods are so similar, it's almost like perpetrators read a manual. Here are some common phrases shared with me by victims of gaslighting that can help shed light on gaslighters’ mindset. 

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1. ‘I worry about your mental health’

Mailin Suchting, manager of the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN) at UNSW Sydney explains that gaslighting is “manipulating and intimidating behaviour that leads to self-doubt, a feeling of going mad”; instilling self-doubt is a key manipulation tactic. Gaslighters might focus on the victim’s mental health and use it to instil self-doubt and undermine the victim’s memory, logic, and reality. 

2. ‘That’s not what happened’

Men and women gaslight to coerce and control their partners, even children. It can happen in the workplace too. “Gaslighting in the workplace can manifest as a strategy of bullying – one person is using power to control someone else,” Suchting says. Denying something has taken place and making one question their recollection of event is one way in which gaslighters work.

GVRN co-convener and UNSW Associate Professor Jan Breckenridge says it causes victims “‘to question their capacity to have a narrative about themselves. It changes the way in which you describe yourself, the way you see your own behaviour. I think that’s really damaging.” 

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3. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you’

Gaslighters present themselves as ‘the best person’ – the best father, best wife, best mentor, by cultivating trust and shaping public perception. “Very few perpetrators are so shocking that people have never had some positive experience with them,” Breckenridge says.

They make themselves into someone who is almost untouchable, making it more difficult for victims to get help, as often close friends and family are also in the circle of manipulation without being aware.

“The narrative has been changed and controlled by the perpetrator,” Breckenridge says.   

4. ‘Your family doesn’t understand you’

“Gaslighters thrive on isolating their victims from others,” therapist Stephanie Sarkis writes in her book. By isolating their victim from friends and family gaslighters reduce the size of their victim’s world, making it difficult to get help as crucial support networks have been cut off. Victims internalise that only the gaslighter has their best interest at heart.

Breckenridge explains, “perpetrators are good at picking a spot that they can manipulate and leverage, and they do.”

For some of us, that spot is our family or our friends.

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Gaslighting can happen in all forms of relationships: intimate, friendships, workplaces, families. Because gaslighting is “a tactic of abuse, Breckenridge says, “you don’t need to be in an intimate relationship with someone to be gaslighted”. Children can be victims of gaslighting too.  

We tend to see abuse in terms of physical violence, but gaslighting presents a sinister form of abuse simply because it is invisible. It uses power to control another, changes the way you define yourself and undermines your narrative. Knowing some of the things gaslighters say and getting a glimpse into ‘the manual’ can help one recognise the patterns and validate victims’ experiences.   

It’s all about control 

According to Suchting, gaslighting is “one of a number of controlling tactics that can form part of a dynamic of domestic violence. 

“There’s a spectrum of behaviours in relation to domestic and family violence and coercive control”, Suchting explains. “They’re all possible but they don’t need to coexist. Perpetrators might just use one”. 

Like other forms of abuse, gaslighting is about control and power, achieved via deception, lying, and instilling self-doubt in victims. 

Perpetrators “use whatever strategy or tactic they can employ to retain control of the people in their lives. They might use this tactic in their relationship, but they won’t use it with their boss or their mates. It is purposeful,” says Suchting. 

For a person to realise they've been the subject of expert manipulation is confronting. You internalise guilt and blame - you should have known better and read the signs sooner. 

But the bottom line is: it’s not you, it’s them.

Na’ama Carlin is a freelance writer. You can follow Na’ama on Twitter @derridalicious.

If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.

See What You Made Me Do premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly, and every episode will be simulcast on NITV. (Episodes will be repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND from 9 May). 

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