Is Gaslighting Emotional Abuse? Recognizing Traumatic Patterns and When to Seek Help

Emotional abuse is not always taken as seriously as physical abuse. It’s more difficult to identify and to see. Physical abuse leaves physical marks, while emotional abuse leaves psychological damage only. A type of emotional abuse that can be particularly hard to identify by the victim is gaslighting, the manipulation of a victim to make them doubt their memories, self-worth, and even their sanity. This, like other types of emotional abuse, can lead to trauma. Treatment that focuses on the abuse, related mental health symptoms, and potential trauma can help victims heal and recover.

If you constantly doubt yourself in a relationship, wonder if there is something wrong with how you remember things, and question your ability to be a good partner, you may be a victim of gaslighting.

This type of manipulative emotional abuse is designed to make you question everything, which is particularly damaging.

Know the signs of gaslighting as well as the potential consequences, and understand that there is help available. This can be a traumatizing experience, but expert treatment will help you heal.

What Is Gaslighting?


The term gaslighting comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight. Ingrid Bergman plays a young wife who is being manipulated by her husband, played by Charles Boyer. He does things to make her think she’s going crazy, such as dimming the gas lights in the home and then telling her she’s imagining it. The point is to undermine her credibility in order to steal from her.

Manipulating someone in this way is older than the movie and is recognized today as a type of emotional abuse. While the husband in the movie had a very specific reason for gaslighting his wife, most abusers don’t. They are manipulative and abusive for complicated, psychological reasons.

A victim of gaslighting is led to question their own sanity, judgment, memories, perspective, and connection to reality. It’s unsettling, damaging, and is considered abuse. The lasting effects of experiencing gaslighting can be poor mental health and even trauma.

Gaslighting as Emotional Abuse

Physical abuse is clear and simple to identify, even if it isn’t always easy to admit to being a victim, but emotional abuse is more insidious. Emotional abuse can be subtle, and as a victim, you may be tempted to blame yourself.

Emotional abuse includes actions or neglect that is deliberate. It is not simply an outburst or loss of control. To abuse someone is a choice. If you are being emotionally abused, the perpetrator is choosing to limit your self-esteem, self-worth, or independence in order to gain control.

Gaslighting is just one way to do this. Manipulation to make you doubt and question yourself is deliberate and it is emotional abuse. Just because it is not physical does not mean this isn’t abuse. The scars are psychological and real.

Recognizing Gaslighting Techniques


It is naturally difficult to recognize gaslighting when it’s happening to you. The whole point is to make you doubt yourself. There are several strategies that an abuser may use to gaslight that you may recognize in your partner:

  • Countering your memories or accusations, they may say you’re remembering things inaccurately.
  • A gaslighter trivializes their victim’s experiences, reactions, and emotions, calling them overly sensitive.
  • Absolute denial of an episode of abuse, a promise made, or another incident is a common strategy, as is outright lying.
  • It’s common for someone who is gaslighting to change the subject in the face of an accusation, to avoid the topic.
  • The abuser may also act as if they don’t understand or simply refuse to listen to complaints or accusations.
  • Interspersing these abusive actions with positive actions or praise serves to confuse the victim, further forcing them to question their own thoughts and beliefs about what is happening.

Signs You’re Being Manipulated

Gaslighting is, by its very nature, subtle. It wouldn’t work otherwise. It may take a lot of time to realize that it’s happening to you. With this type of abuse especially, it’s important to listen to the concerns of those you trust. If a family member or close friend has confronted you, concerned that your partner is gaslighting you, take it seriously. And then consider these signs of gaslighting:

  • You are always second-guessing your thoughts, memories, feelings, and decisions.
  • You wonder constantly if you are too sensitive or if you are overreacting.
  • You apologize to your partner often.
  • You feel confused a lot and this leads to other difficult emotions, like anger and depression.
  • It seems like you should be happy, that your life is great, but you just aren’t.
  • You lie to family and friends to avoid difficult explanations.
  • You make excuses for your partner.
  • You wonder why you’re different from how you used to be: happier, more confident, more secure.
  • You often feel like you can’t do anything right.
  • You doubt your ability to be a good partner.

Can Gaslighting Lead to Trauma?


Any type of abuse, including emotional abuse and gaslighting, can be traumatic. Trauma is a reaction to an event or events, not the event itself. You don’t have to go through something physically life-threatening or frightening to be traumatized.

Trauma changes how you feel about yourself and how you perceive the world around you. It makes you feel unsafe, anxious, or depressed. Gaslighting can trigger these feelings because the perpetrator has led you to doubt everything about yourself, leaving you feeling overwhelmed, isolated, confused, and frightened.

How to Get Help and Heal From Emotional Abuse and Trauma


It’s so hard to recognize being gaslit; this is the whole point of this type of abuse. Your partner is exerting control by making you question and doubt everything about your own perceptions and sense of reality. But if you see the signs, and if someone else who cares about you has confronted you about potential abuse, it’s time to reach out and get expert care.

Choosing Treatment After Gaslighting


Because ongoing emotional abuse can lead to trauma, choose a facility with expertise in trauma-focused therapy. This is a complicated issue with multiple repercussions. Because of the gaslighting, you may be traumatized, but you may have also developed other mental health issues: depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse, or even PTSD.

For this reason, you may want to choose a residential facility for treatment. It will provide you with space and time to focus on healing and reversing the damage done by your abuser. A residential center is also a safe environment, which is important for victims of abuse and trauma. For women, a facility that is gender-specific feels even safer and may be more conducive to healing.

When you seek out treatment for abuse and trauma, you will get a complete evaluation to diagnose any other mental illnesses. This is important because treatment is most effective when it addresses all of your needs. Another reason to choose residential care is that these facilities are better equipped and staffed to treat multiple conditions.

Treatment in a facility will include therapy as well as alternative and holistic care. Expect to go through some intensive, sometimes uncomfortable trauma-focused therapy sessions. These will help you confront your painful experiences and process them in a more positive way. You’ll learn how to develop healthier relationships, how to cope with difficult emotions in productive ways, and how to move forward and heal.

Getting treatment will be a new challenge, but one with a positive outcome. It’s not easy to admit to being a victim of abuse and to face and recall trauma perpetrated by a gaslighting abuser. But if you take this step and accept professional treatment, you will be able to heal, recover, and move on to a better, happier life.

Contact us today to learn more about our program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.