Gas lighting and emotional abuse: Why is it the norm?

By Natalie Greener

I wrote this about my experiences last year for a uni deadline. But in exploring this topic and now having my own platform to write to, please read my piece – I was waiting for the right time to post, and after my dark patch the last week and wanting to show myself I am a strong woman, now feels like the time to let my walls down. Enjoy x

Feature image by Florence Given

Image from: Gaslighting | The Narcissist’s Favorite Tool

The practice of gaslighting has been normalised. Originating from the fiction, Gas Light (1938) about a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she is going insane – it can be argued the social media obsessed culture we live in today has created an atmosphere where this manipulation is standard. We can no longer prevent this abuse before it happens because it is hard to identify what is normal amongst today’s youth versus what is an act of gaslighting. We are at the point now where the consequences are overlooked and abusers are often excused for their actions. Narcissism is hard to spot yet we are given the tools to do so. For example, we see romantic gaslighting in Coronation Street, The Archers radio soap, Love Island and real life. We also see non intimate forms of manipulation in films such as Hot Fuzz. Did you even realise when watching this Cornetto Trilogy classic that the entire plot is based on a town gaslighting two individuals? The lead’s own Father tries to morph the reality of what we see to justify him avoiding accountability. The point of this film isn’t gaslighting yet it is the perfect example of subtle abuse. We need to be more savvy when identifying emotional abuse so we can remove the connotations of it being okay. There are dire consequences of such actions on victims and the lack of acknowledgement is scary. Thankfully, a movement, utilising the tools making gaslighting easier, is taking place and shouting about the importance of noticing the red flags in real life not just on television. Can we establish a society where mental health isn’t at risk every time you turn on your mobile phone? Let us be clear on what is normal because emotional abuse is not.

My evaluation from research

Being a hot topic on social media and within the third wave female empowerment movement, gas lighting and its consequences are finally being spoken about and forced into the public eye – but why?

The answer to the sudden focus is that this extreme yet subtle form of manipulation is a more than common way of emotional abuse and it seems to be eating away at many victims. If you feel as though somebody is twisting your perceptions of reality for their own gain, now is the time to spot the red flags as they arise. In this world of technology and cyber stalking, dangerous behaviour may be hidden under the blanket of emotionally unstable teens and be deemed as normal. But it’s not.

Roxanna Safida, the founder of ‘The Black Sheep Survives’, makes the point when talking to survivors that abuse is power and control. When I was exploring the true and modern meaning of gaslighting, she touched upon narcissism and how some people play with others simply for leisure. I found this concept very hard to grasp but in theory, we aren’t all the same. The sooner we realise that there are mean people in the world, the sooner we can spot them. We need to stop overusing excuses and sticking up for those who do harm. 

“Excuses are keeping you directly tied to justifying conditioning so you prolong healing” Roxanna Safida says. 

To be able to confidently speak her truth and let others be aware of her story, social media has become a light in the dark for some victims. Instead of using Instagram and fake accounts to be a tool to enable gaslighting, it has become a point of healing for people to hear her story and what red flags Roxanna can help us spot.

The act of gaslighting and emotional abuse has become engraved into us young people as normal. We believe that it’s okay to lie and there is no harm done when making others believe that they are the problem. I don’t know if this is because, behind our screens, we have no face thus no consequences. Or maybe it is down to the ‘shag culture’ connotations that come with apps like tinder – we assume people don’t have feelings anymore and that they can’t be hurt. However, the reality is that the person you’re meeting on your one-off date isn’t just a an image of pixels. Does this one night stand mindset maintain through to long term relationships? 

Once I ‘went with the flow’ of an emotionally abusive relationship. For some reason, I always felt as though it was me that was the problem. It was me who was paranoid, emotionally unstable and non deserving of the individual I was in a relationship with. The concept of you losing your mind is a disguised way of an abuser breaking you down slowly, without anybody noticing – including yourself.

What you thought you saw, you didn’t. What you thought you heard, you didn’t. Doubting your own memory can be a scary thing. So now it’s time to spot the red flags and expose the gas light culture that has the teens of today wrapped around its finger. The first stages of building the foundations to enable an individual to be gaslit are disguised in most dysfunctional relationships. The key is to identify dysfunctional and toxic as two separate things. 

Talking from my own experiences, it felt normal only being able to pour my heart out to my abuser as I thought nobody understood me like he did. But slowly, this ‘healthy’ and trusting relationship turned dark. Suddenly, things were happening out of my control with ex girlfriends, pathological lies, isolation from my friends and the only person who could make my anxiety go away was him. For months they had been making adjustments to my life without me even knowing. I had no friends to turn to because he told me I was a pushover and they were using me. He was telling mountains of lies to my family and friends to put himself upon a pedestal. We ended up trusting him. It got so bad that he infiltrated my career and made me  believe I couldn’t be successful without him. Slowly, he became the centre of my universe when really, I didn’t want him to be. However, once I was in too deep, he became part of my identity. I wasn’t my own person anymore and because he was my work life, my social life, my family life and effectively my human diary, what was left of me just felt detached from reality. I knew what was going on but I was looking into my world from the outside as it was happening, but I had no control. I’d joined the many individuals who live in a fantasy created by their manipulator. 

Professionals in intimacy and qualified psychotherapists insist that we are not responsible for the gas lighter’s mental well being and happiness. Mari A. Lee, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles County, California, and an author on betrayal trauma,  explains that attempting to rescue at the expense of your own emotional, physical or spiritual wellbeing is participating in an unhealthy and highly destructive dance. When addressing the idea of wanting to help your abuser, Lee states that “you are not required to be a rehab centre for your partner, nor do you have a magic wand that will take their pain away. That is their work to do”. Learning from her work puts into perspective how the movement of mental health amongst young people online may not be totally beneficial. Self care is important and not putting yourself first may lead you down a destructive path of watching out for your abuser’s mindset more than your own. Contrastingly, the need of more voices speaking out on this topic is necessary as more people advocate for healing.

Sometimes, the gas lighting can lead to more intense and dangerous actions. Being a supportive online presence to spread awareness about emotional abuse has opened up communication between me and other victims. Ella Badley contacted me in the hopes she could share her harrowing story. After her relationship began, Ella’s boyfriend began showing signs of controlling behaviour. Trying to voice her concerns seemed hard as nobody fully understood her concern and the seriousness of the situation. The red flags were overlooked once again meaning she experienced darker abuse including; stalking, harassment, threats. Consequently, the police were involved. Men can also be a victim of this – mental health doesn’t discriminate against gender. An anonymous interview by a male friend also highlighted how the normality of gaslighting culture meant, as a man, he shouldn’t need to look for emotional abuse indicators. He thought that because he was a guy, he couldn’t really be abused emotionally. Yet he still felt isolated once leaving the relationship. It wasn’t until one of his friends posted about gas lighting that he understood what had happened to him.

The argument as to why gaslighting is normalised in today’s youth begins and ends with social media. It’s easier to watch and be anonymous behind a screen with the comfort of never being found out. This may lead to not suffering the consequences, allowing the notion that these actions are okay. The dehumanisation of individuals online is a con to the social media generation however, the problem has been identified. We can only hope that young people use their online persona as a tool to spread awareness and prevent further abuse taking place. As we know, it isn’t the gun that kills people but rather the individual pulling the trigger. Social media is the same – take the power back and create a ripple amongst your friends and family. Gaslighting and emotional abuse is overlooked because there are no physical scars, but this needs to change. Immediately. 

I want to take control of my trauma and that is going to be a long journey. I can’t trust anyone fully and when I start to fall for someone, I have to make it stop, doubting every decision I make because, deep down, the thought remains – Am I the problem? For anyone struggling with these thoughts, there are people ready to listen to you and help. Utilise social media to give you motivation on bettering yourself and push your mind into a place where you know that you are not responsible for somebody else’s manipulation. One of the accounts that is on of my personal favourites is Florence Given and her prints that she shares on instagram – as she says “today is a good day to dump him.”

by Florence Given

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