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Gaslighting: The invisible abuse

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The Healt Service Executive (HSE) recognises various forms of abuse, one of them is emotional abuse, which is defined on the HSE website as a “behaviour that is psychologically harmful to another person and which inflicts anxiety or mental distress by threat, humiliation or other verbal and nonverbal conduct ”.  

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It is believed that emotional abuse, also known as psychological abuse effects, may persist over longer periods of time. A qualitative study from 2016 concluded that depression was significantly associated with having experienced frequent emotional abuse. In fact, emotional abuse has such an impact that coercive control was introduced as an offence under the Domestic Violence Act of 2018 in Ireland since 2019.

To recognise emotional abuse, however, may be difficult.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse which consists of manipulating the victim. Stephanie Sarkis, author of the book Gaslighting: How to recognise manipulative and emotionally abusive people – and break free says that manipulation “is usually insidious and slow”. This slow process can make it hard to identify this behaviour as abuse, either if you are the one being abused or if it’s somebody else you know.

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As a therapist, Sarkis also agrees with the study previously mentioned on the fact that emotional abuse may have an impact for longer periods of time than other types of abuse.  As a therapist, she gets to see many patients in her practice with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behaviours as a result of gaslighting.

Sarkis also explains that the purpose of gaslighting is to make you question your own reality. In order to achieve their goal, gas lighters use a few “tactics”, splitting or isolating their victims is one of the most common ones. An isolated victim means an easier to control victim. This would make you get closer to the abuser and far from others, which provides a sense of power and control to the abuser, Sarkis says.

But that is not all. People who use this form of manipulation make you doubt of yourself and your perception of reality by lying to you, discrediting you and minimizing your feelings. If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship with a person that uses gaslighting you may end up feeling confused and guilty after an argument. They could use phrases like “you’re overreacting”, “I never said that/ I never did that” (even if they did), or “That’s why you don’t have any friends”. Apologising for no reason (or for everything) and feeling that “something is wrong” but not knowing what it is and losing a sense of self may also be present in a gaslight victim.

In 2017, an article written by Sarkis went viral, where she would explain in more detail the 11 most common tactics that gas lighters use to manipulate their victims. You can find the article here.

Infographic by Liz Amaya, for The circular

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