• Valerie McDonnell

7 Classic Signs of Gaslighting

And how to protect yourself and loved ones





Cheating? How could you ask me that? After all I’ve done for you? After putting up with your craziness for so long? What makes you think I’m cheating?


That’s crazy. You got cheating from that? C’mon. You’re starting to scare me. We’re going to the hospital again.


It's for your own safety. Because you might be a danger to yourself. You’re acting crazy. Paranoid. You’re having another episode. Otherwise you’d never say something so hurtful.


Look you’re just going to spend the night there and I’ll come get you in the morning. We’ll go for breakfast. You’ll feel much better tomorrow. Remember what the doctor said? You’re so lucky to have me here. Who else could put up with you like me? Where would you be without me protecting you from yourself?


It’s okay. I love you too. You know that, right? Everything I do is to keep you safe. I’ll help you pack.


What is gaslighting?


Gaslighting is a term that has risen to the forefront of national consciousness lately, with the tidal revelations of the #MeToo movement, and the constant vicious political attacks on truth and science.


But what is gaslighting? How does it work? And who’s susceptible to gaslighting?


Dr. Ross Rosenberg, psychotherapist and narcissism/codependency expert, defines gaslighting as “a form of mental manipulation...like brainwashing, in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, or sanity.”


Gaslighting is the spearpoint of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome in which a narcissistic perpetrator leverages control over a weaker partner through a methodical campaign of breaking down and rewriting reality to support a bond of dependence through which they draw power from their partner’s captive attention and admiration.


Gaslighters tell outright and outrageous lies with a straight face, setting the standard for implanting false narratives and undercutting their victim’s faith in what they know to be true.


Strategic and calculated, gaslighting is a sustained and concentrated attack on two psychological fronts:


Breaking down reality

  • Implanting a dependence narrative centered around Us vs Them

  • Using natural fears and emotions to “diagnose” insanity

  • Ratcheting doubts into paranoia dismissed as symptoms of a “condition”

  • Sowing distrust in others and severing ties with the world


Building false security

  • Professing love and loyalty—when everyone else has left

  • Assuring protection, guardianship, dependability

  • Setting up “proof” situations supporting the implanted narrative

  • Promising support through future (implanted) mental deterioration


Gradually and slowly built, the castle walls soon reveal themselves as a dungeon, isolating the victim from outside help. But why would you want to leave anyway? Don’t you realize everything out there wants to eat you?


You’re so lucky to have me here.


Who gets gaslit?


Truth is anyone can be gaslit. Gaslighters expertly play fears and shames against our innate need for shelter and connection. They lie so persistently the truth starts to blur and even the sharpest ear can go numb with repetition. As soon as they smell doubt gaslighters pounce and stoke the cycle, breaking down trust in outside sources and choreographing situations they present as evidence for their false narrative and proof of their victim’s paranoia.


We are all susceptible.


Particularly vulnerable to gaslighting include people who are:

  • Codependent from childhood attachment trauma and shame

  • Chronically lonely

  • Children of narcissists

  • Children of abusers

But none of the above need to be true to leave someone open to gaslighting in a relationship. Interpersonal connection and power dynamics are complex webs of psychology. That’s why this particular Richmond sex therapist has dedicated her life and social work career to studying relationships and helping people manage them.


Why gaslighting is dangerous


Gaslighting is abuse and can cause psychological harm. Replacing reality with careful narratives built around guilt and shame causes a cycle of self-doubt that inculcates the belief that “I’m unlovable and inadequate” without the relationship the victim has with the gaslighter.


The core of gaslighting is “no one can help you but me” which makes escape especially difficult. And the systematic isolation from outside help and support—by ratcheting doubts into paranoia—severs the victim from other perspectives connected with reality.


Gaslighters can get their victims to turn away from family, friends, and therapists—and even quit their jobs, consolidating the gaslighter’s control to include financial dependence. Gaslighters often toy with their victims until they’re bored and then abandon them, confirming those programmed fears and leading to self-harm or suicide.


7 classic signs of gaslighting


Every relationship is built on stories. In a gaslit relationship they’re carefully constructed fealty narratives, built around heroic rescue and transactional entrapment. I saved you. You owe me. I’ll add it to your tab.


Look out for inflated and self-important pronouncements like:

  • No one can love you like I do.

  • I’m the only one who…

  • Without me you’d be…

  • Everyone but me is…

  • You’re so lucky I’m here…

  • You only think that because…

  • Don’t trust anyone’s help but mine.


Even toned in jest, such ideas can take root in the subconscious and propagate in the dark recesses of even a healthy mind. Gaslighting is that powerful.


What to do if you think you’re being gaslighted


Remember no one is perfect and everyone is amalgamated from past experiences. Sometimes those can cause profound feelings and emotions, sometimes without warning. That doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean you’re out of control.


Whatever’s going on in your life, you probably don’t need a superhero. Everyone needs input from multiple points of view—and no one (not even a sex therapist) has all the answers. If you’re questioning things about yourself or your life the best course of action is to seek a variety of viewpoints, including from experts whose knowledge is based on data and experience.


Reaching out to a relationship therapist to ask questions doesn’t mean you’re crazy or that something’s wrong—it just means you want to hear what an expert has to say. Even therapists ask each other questions.



Got a question about gaslighting?

(As always, your confidentiality is assured in this and all correspondence.)


Ask an expert




Produced with Quillpower

Sex Therapy at Home

Better communication for better intimacy

Exercises for mastering anxiety & facing fear

2567 Homeview Dr

Richmond, VA 23294

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© 2020 by Valerie McDonnell

Wordwork by Quillpower