Gaslighting and its impact on self-concept series episode 1

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As I start writing this piece, many threads of thoughts come crowding … I have been wanting to write a piece on subtle emotional manipulation that I have experienced and may have even exercised over my loved ones.

Manipulation is a word that belongs to a broad genre of meaning.  What I intend to write about is how our sense of self-confidence and self-respect get impacted by subtle manipulation by others and vice versa. 

The best way to start writing this is to begin with personal narratives and then we will see where the thread goes.

The first overt manipulator that I experienced in my life was a perpetrator (nearly 35 years older than me) from within the family who subtly prepared me for sexual relationships and eventually systemic rape.  I was then hardly 14 years old, semi-orphan and had a not so pleasant relationship with my only care-giver.  The way the gaslighting and the abuse happened was the following: 

a.     Subtle or not so subtle criticism about my caregiver and making him look terrible in my eyes.  The caregiver’s actions and emotions accentuated this perception, and led to eventual breakdown in our communication.  We stopped understanding and being considerate to each other.  This was the first step.

b.     Paying inordinate amount of attention to me, making me feel both powerful and disreputable in others’ eyes.  The sudden change in equation in this relationship did not escape others, and I immediately became the “rotten girl”.  No one had the courage to say or do anything to the perpetrator as he was the most powerful entity in that household.  This was the second trick as it invariably isolated me from others.

c.     Touching me inappropriately and sexually, behind other people, again making me feel both pleasured and guilty at the same time.  As a teenager, hormones were flooding my body and this process simply pushed me over to mature faster sexually and made me feel horrible about my body because I felt terribly guilty about feeling the pleasure. While the body matures faster in this process, the mind lags behind and does not mature that fast.  The meaning and sense making process of the child is all confusing and are often replete with distorted versions of self and of others.

d.     The next step was subtle form of threats, e.g. telling me that since my caregiver was good for nothing (I had almost totally believed this bullshit by then) I would have no place to live, other than the perpetrator’s residence.  That compromising with the situation and making the most of it was the best option available to me.

e.     A unique form of manipulation at this stage was telling me that I was helping him as a man, as men have physical needs and that since he was not getting it from his wife, I was doing him a favour by providing him with sex.  Besides, he loved me, didn’t he? And that it was our secret.  Believe it or not, I believed in it.

f.      The other forms of gaslighting then started taking place on a regular basis, e.g. keeping track of my movements, who I met, what I wore and most importantly how much time was being spent with the perpetrator.

g.     The most horrible part of being abused as a child is that the child stops looking at herself as a child and believes that she is an adult and is responsible for what is happening to her.  This is the worst form of gaslighting because no one cares to stop the perpetrator or make the child understand the situation or stop criticising her for whatever was happening to her.

It is another story of courage and grit about how I left that place and lived my life.   I would like to continue to write about gaslighting that took place then in my life and how it has impacted my personality and my being for the rest of my life.  That will be part 2 of this series.

But this piece is not for that story.

Today I wish to conclude that as a trained therapist and an executive coach, how much of this I witness in others’ lives and the impact that it can have in people’s life.

Research shows that 

·       A controlling person isn’t always overtly threatening or aggressive. Sometimes they are emotionally manipulative and acting out of insecurity. For instance to say, you are not paying adequate attention to me and making you feel guilty is a sign of very subtle control.  Wanting you to change your plans because the other person misses you or needs you to help her or him despite knowing that you have other plans are very subtle forms of gaslighting. 

·       People of any age, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status can be in controlling relationships, playing either role.

·       Controlling tactics in a relationship include veiled threats, belittling or teasing, and using guilt as a tool for influence.  I married someone who would constantly belittle me about my looks and my talents and my ambitions, and said that he was only joking and that I should have known that he was like that only.

·      One of the playoffs for the controlling person is that the ‘victim” start believing that they are lucky that despite being whoever they are, their partner puts up with them, that they are inherently difficult people to be with, that the partner loves them so much despite their shortcomings and hence tries their best to ensure that the victim lives in the right way.  It can take any shape or form to damage one’s self-belief and sense of self.  I, for instance, believed for a long time that my ex-partner was great as he never physically abused me till someone pointed out the amount of emotional abuse that I received and accepted as part of the deal and as my due.

·      The last and the most important part of this is that most people (men and women both but more women as the patriarchal structure provides lot of leverage to men to be more powerful) start losing faith in who they, who they can be rather than who they should be in the significant other’s eyes.  They start believing that they should change 

·      their behaviour, 

·      their self-perception, 

·      their way of living their lives, 

·      their friends, 

·      their profession, 

·      their understanding of the world or their world view

and become someone who the significant other wishes them to be.  The saddest part is that this never happens.  No matter what the change is, “you are not good enough” will be constantly reinforced by the perpetrator because the idea is not make you better, but to have absolute control over you and be paranoid when the control is getting lax.  Hence, there will never be any peace of mind either for the perpetrator or for the victim for both will be doubtful about the situation going out of hand.

This is primarily based on my own experience and on the experience of others and stories that I hear as part of my profession.  However, apart from that, articles that have helped me with some data are:


Psychology Today

What has been your experience? What do you think of this piece?

I live in Bangalore, India, and by profession, I am CEO of a consulting organization, an Organization Consultant and an Executive Coach. I write because I like writing my thoughts and reflections for me to review my life and the life as I see around myself. However, sometimes it makes sense to convey my thoughts to others and connect with others. Maybe it strikes a chord; may be it does not. My life has been my most outstanding teacher, which is why I like sharing my experiences, memories, encounters and other narratives that I build as I go along. I am interested in people, society, culture, ways of life, individual and collective narratives/stories as they lead us to discover each other as nothing else does. I also write about coaching, people's lives, culture, stories, mothering my daughter, believing in a feminine way of life, and most of all, believe that all politics starts from the self and personal convictions

4 thoughts on “Gaslighting and its impact on self-concept series episode 1

  1. Thank you for sharing- very touching and insightful. I can identify with many features that you have mentioned, both as a victim and as a perpetrator- quite often we are both. I have also experienced that the whole process leaves both the victim and the perpetrator with an inability to grace genuine acceptance and love when it comes their way. There is always a doubt- do I really deserve it ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Ashok for your insightful comments. It is when we lose touch with either the victim or the perpetrator within, the game of self hate, and consequently blaming others start.


  2. Well written. clear – the process and stages of manipulation, the quieter forms of abuse and control…a lot of ground covered. Thank you for sharing. I imagine it is never easy.

    Scary too and sadly I think it is perhaps difficult to know after a while what of oneself should one believe, value, love and celebrate. Like wise, of the other.

    Also, i wonder if questions arise such as – for whom do I live – what can make me feel whole…? Can I and how do I forgive, myself included?

    I hope you will write more often. There is much experience, insight and wisdom in what you share. Sharing of yourself doesn’t allow for easy flights into intellectualizing and abstraction. Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Naren for your insightful response. Your questions are very relevant and haunting too. My guess is that they never go away but what can be an able do-traveller is the ability to recognise one’s resilience and will to enliven. Will write more about that.


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