Gaslighting – top tips for escaping an emotional controller

Gaslighting is high in the media at the moment due to Rebecca Humphries’ open letter about Seann Walsh after his very public clinch with Katya after a Strictly Come Dancing party.

She referred to him "aggressively, and repeatedly, called me a psycho/nuts/mental" throughout their relationship whenever she questioned his "inappropriate, hurtful behaviour.”

Now it is impossible to say whether Seann Walsh was and is a true gaslighter and that this behaviour had been consistent over their five year relationship or whether he was covering his tracks with the same level of finesse as a defensive and foolish teenager.  

As a psychologist I have to say that the very public expose of their break-up, the published open letter, the fact that Rebecca Humphries has stated that she will sell her story “on her own terms” is not in keeping with a truly gaslighted woman. The damage would be far deeper and more corrosive and unlikely to end in a public attention-seeking drama. If, it is indeed a fifteen minute of fame event then Janet Street Porter’s withering edit  is spot on.

Gaslighting became a term after Patrick Hamilton’s brilliant 1938 play, Gas Light, which became a classic film in 1944. It refers to a behaviour pattern in which one person in a relationship systematically undermines, confuses and questions their partner to the point of distress or even perceived madness. It is not just about bullying – it is corroding someone’s personality. Many of us have been there – yes, even a doctor of psychology!

Typical behaviours include:

  • Rebuttal of any questions about their behaviour with claims that you are mad, paranoid, foolish, over-dramatic
  • Claims that you have agreed to something when you have not even discussed it
  • Labelling your normal emotions as out of control, crazy, neurotic
  • Claiming you have done things you have not
  • Claiming that conversations you clearly remember did not happen
  • Accusing you of wrongs they have done
  • Using your dearest people to frighten you - such as telling you your children feel abandoned by you
  • Telling your friends and family that you have a ‘problem’ which they are trying to control
  • Dotting the above behaviour through periods of being nice

And the effect on the victim?

  • Self-doubt
  • Belief that they are mad or have some kind of disorder
  • Distress and self-criticism
  • Low self-worth
  • Seeking ever more confirmation from the gaslighter
  • They become a victim

Usually this process evolves over years – not over a three week dalliance. Rebecca Humphries claims to have been experiencing this for over five years which is more in line with true gaslighting.

So what do you do if you believe you are being gaslighted?

  • First really test your concerns. A book by Stephanie Sarkis Ph.D. sets out the behaviours in more detail than this blog. Read and see if you can tick most of them
  • Keep a two-column reality diary – write out the things which are said and done in the left column and the reality in the right. It is a very useful little book to keep you focused on what is being done to you
  • Talk to a trusted friend. Many of us have felt ashamed – but talking it through is a very powerful way of identifying the manipulation
  • Get angry – no-one has the damn right to reduce you to a self-doubting wreck in order to feed their twisted ego
  • Most important – get out. Listen to Janet Street Porter and follow those words

One thing this former gaslighted psychologist can tell you. A gaslighter never changes. Walk away!

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