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Gaslighting: What to Do When It Happens With a Friend

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“Don’t gaslight me,” Aubrey Plaza says in a scene during her brilliant performance in Season 2 of “The White Lotus.”

Before you worry that we’ll spoil the show for you (and don’t worry, we won’t), this pop culture reference demonstrates the rising popularity of a term that is showing up everywhere: gaslighting.

It’s living in our vocab rent-free, but what does it really mean? I spoke with Dr. Sue Varma, a board-certified psychiatrist in New York City to learn more.

“Gaslighting is a colloquialism that refers to a form of psychological manipulation, intentionally meant to undermine a sense of reality and make you question what you know and believe to be true. It is done by someone trying to gain power over you and to erode your sense of confidence.”

In other words, it’s when someone distorts the truth and makes you doubt yourself or feel crazy.

‘Gaslighting’ is 2022’s word of the year.

Every year, Merriam-Webster looks at data to see which word has been significantly looked up in the past twelve months, and cited across a number of publications. 

And in 2022, ‘gaslighting’ saw an 1740% increase in lookups.

Fun fact: The term (and unfortunately, the practice) has been around since writer Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight, in which a character constantly dismisses and berates his wife and exemplifies his toxic masculinity. 

Recently, the buzzword “gaslighting” has gained popularity as mainstream television and film has adapted it into the fabric of our culture. 

More recently, Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, a psychotherapist and expert in mental health, published a book illustrating how this term applies to other aspects of life, including romantic relationships, friendship, workplace politics, and family dynamics. And of course, social media fueled the further use of this term as more and more users around the globe transparently shared situations in which they were gaslighted or were gaslighting others.

“Since a few decades ago, the use of this manipulative technique has expanded to include a wide variety of situations where a person’s experience is being minimized, dismissed or invalidated,” added Dr. Varma.

We tend to think of gaslighting in romantic relationships, but one of the most common scenarios where gaslighting is present is actually in the context of friendship. 

If you’ve ever experienced a friend riling people against you, instigating rumors, or creating gossip or lies that are far from the truth, guess what? That’s a form of manipulation. 

Why might a friend do this? It may be because of underlying jealousy, increased comparison amongst friendship groups, or narcissistic characteristics within a person.

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Signs a friend is gaslighting you

Sometimes the signs of gaslighting are very apparent and over time, patterns of behavior can further clarify if someone is being gaslighted. According to Dr. Varma, some red flag phrases in friendship include:

–  “You don’t know what you are talking about” 

–  “You’re crazy” or “you’ve always been crazy” 

–  “It’s all in your head.” 

This form of psychological manipulation (which differs from disagreeing with someone) can be damaging because the accuser is trying to shift blame on you or attack your perspective instead of accepting responsibility or meeting you halfway. 

To make things worse, trying to defend or confront the other person can often instigate them further.

How to deal if a friend is gaslighting you

If you, or someone you know, are in a situation where a friend or a romantic partner does something that crosses a line, excludes you from plans, or even makes fun of you at your expense, there are ways to handle gaslighting. 

1.  Spot the signs

Notice any gossip or untrue statements about you that are being said by others. If you worry that a friend is responsible for spreading this misinformation, start by limiting how much personal information you are providing that person and take a step back from that relationship. 

2. Establish boundaries

Say no if that person is trying to contact your spouse or your partner or others that are close to you. If a person constantly disparages you, avoid being in the same space as them to give them further opportunities to make negative comments. And if all else fails, cut contact with that person and break off that relationship.

“If gaslighting is a constant theme in the relationship, it signals the need for considerable boundaries. It’s very hard to have a mutually satisfying relationship when someone doubts your entire world view and life experience. For me, the basis of a relationship includes respect and validation. In a gaslighting situation, the other person lacks empathy so limit further engagement if possible. Keep it short and to the point.”

The power of social media

It’s not only Crisscross Hourglass Leggings and Amazon dupes that go viral. The exploding search traffic for ‘gaslighting’ is proof that social media can be helpful in creating awareness about important topics too. There’s now more awareness than ever about what gaslighting is, especially for those who did not know how to define or phrase the emotional abuse. 

By spotlighting certain behaviors associated with gaslighting, platforms like Instagram and TikTok are giving users the ability to empathize with others in similar situations. Or, at the very least, it gives those who are unfamiliar with this manipulative technique a chance to recognize red flags as a preventative measure.

Another thing we can learn from social media: You are never alone! And if you think you are being gaslighted, stand up for yourself.

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