What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting describes a set of behaviors by people and organizations that cause someone who interacts with them to question their own information, feelings, thoughts, and body sensations. It is usually part of a pattern of abuse. Gaslighting helps abusive people and organizations control their victims by causing them to question their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. in a way that makes them feel “crazy”.
The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the movie, Boyer’s character attempted to make Bergman’s character think she was “crazy” by turning the gas lights in the house up and down to make her believe the house was haunted.
Like in “Gaslight”, an abuser who is gaslighting will use various techniques to cause a person to question everything they know and make them feel like they can’t trust their judgment, senses, and abilities. The abuser or abusive system can then convince the abused person that they deserve the treatment they are getting, or that it is normal.
What are the Four Types of Boundaries?
Last week I discussed the four types of boundaries that people set. That article is at On Boundaries: Defining Boundaries.
To review, people set four kinds of boundaries between them.
People set physical boundaries when they decide how close to let people get to them, including who can touch them, when, how, and under what circumstances.
A person sets a material boundary when they decide how much of their time, money, influence, and power they will invest in someone.
A mental boundary defends a person’s right to their thoughts, opinions, and preferences.
Emotional boundaries ensure that a person is allowed their feelings without being put down.
What are Boundary Crossings?
Boundary crossings happen when a person or organization doesn’t respect your thoughts and opinions, physical space, investment in time and money, or emotional space. They then ignore the “line” and do something for their benefit that in some way harms or disrespects you. They step out of their physical, mental, emotional or material space, and into yours.
13 Ways Gaslighting Crosses Boundaries
When I was researching for this article, I realized that, at least in publicly available writing, people don’t often talk about the relationship between gaslighting and boundary crossings that I see so often in my practice. So I spent an afternoon counting up all the different sorts of boundary crossing I’ve seen in my therapy practice. I then looked at them in relation to the ways people are gaslighted. It became very clear that they were closely related issues. I worked on the issue until I came up with this list of 13 ways gaslighting crosses boundaries:
Lying sets the foundation for almost all gaslighting techniques. The gaslighter will lie about meaningless things, or about things you can prove they’re lying about. For instance, they might say “I didn’t do the thing” or “I did do the thing” even though they know you have evidence. Lying crosses your mental boundaries, calling into question your five sense and how you know what you know about things. It tries to make you doubt the evidence of your eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and fingers, as well as your ability to reason.
2. Labeling/”Joke” pair:
The labeling and joke pairing goes like this: First, the gaslighter will say something offensive or hurtful about you. Then, when you call them out on it (or someone else does), they will tell you they were “just joking,” and that you shouldn’t be “so sensitive”.
What the gaslighter is doing here is giving you a truth, and then immediately denying it with a lie. When they said “You’re such a pig” or “Your work is garbage” or “I hate the way you dress”, they were deliberately trying to hurt you. When they then say “I was just joking”, they are lying. They want you to believe the opposite: that the first part was false, and that it was a joke.
Again, this is a crossing of your mental boundary. When you collect evidence as to whether someone is being honest with you, that includes body sensations and subtle things we don’t realize we’re paying attention to. We usually know, often without knowing how we know, when someone is being deliberately cruel vs. teasing. Saying “I was just joking” attempts to make you deny that evidence that is hard to put into words. This makes it an especially powerful way to gaslight.
3. Vague accusations of not meeting expectations:
The gaslighter will accuse you of not doing what you said you would do. They’re going to accuse you of something without defining the thing they’re accusing you of. This usually happens when you have done something that meets one of your needs or wants and threatens what the gaslighter wants. The definition of the thing they’re accusing you of becomes slippery.
For instance, suppose you have children with your gaslighter. You just got a part-time job. Suddenly your gaslighter says “I thought you were going to be a good mother to our kids.” You try to defend yourself by saying “I’m only working while Kid is at daycare. The money I’m making will help us save for Kid’s future.”
Your gaslighter will then say that’s not what they meant, and you will have to guess what they meant by “good mother”. Even if you ask them, they are going to change the definition. Typically they’ll use a judgment word like “good” or “bad” with a role such as “boss” or “mother”.
This is, again, a crossing of a mental boundary. Your gaslighter is trying to make you question what you know about the thing you’re accusing you of doing or being. They are trying to make you think you may have made promises in the past that you’re not meeting now. This can also cross material boundaries, demanding more time, money, influence or power be devoted to their needs than you are willing to give right now.
4. Changing expectations after the fact and claiming they were always that way:
Similar to making vague accusations, when a gaslighter changes the expectations of your relationship after a time without discussing it with you, it’s a mental and often material boundary crossing. For instance, suppose you have a roommate and you had both agreed to split the bills and housecleaning fifty/fifty.
Suddenly your roommate is insisting you do all the housecleaning because they are “too busy”. When you object, they will tell you “that’s how it used to be. I don’t know why you’re upset.” Incidentally, this is a good reason to get all roommate agreements in writing.
This is both a mental and material boundary crossing. You are being asked to question your memory, and to give more than you had agreed to give.
5. make you responsible for their feelings, thoughts, and actions:
When a gaslighter has a disagreement with you over your roles in each other’s lives, they will often try to blame you for how they act, think, and feel. This is especially true when you have attempted to set a firm boundary.
For instance, suppose you have just signed up for a class on Wednesday nights. This interferes with a regular “date” you set with your parent for dinner. If your parent is your gaslighter, they might call and say “I feel abandoned. I’m not sure our relationship can survive. If this is what you think of me, our relationship is ruined and it’s all your fault.”
Now, you may have told that parent “I’d like to set our date up for a different night”, or “the class is only eight weeks long and then we can have our dates again”. However, if your move to do something for you is interfering with what the gaslighter wants, that doesn’t matter. The gaslighter’s demands often have nothing to do with reason or logic. They have to do with making sure you meet their needs and that you are under control.
This is again a mental boundary crossing, and often an emotional and material one as well.
6. Will use body proxemics to intimidate you:
“Body proxemics” is a term that means “how close two people are”. Your gaslighter will crowd you physically, getting inside your “bubble” where you feel uncomfortable and threatened. If you object, they will often pretend they don’t know what you’re talking about or use that old excuse of “just joking” or “just kidding around” or “I didn’t mean it.” this can include touching you without your permission or in ways you aren’t okay with.
This is a violation of your physical boundary.
7. Expect you to maintain False, idealized versions of themselves in public:
This is an extremely common way that corporations gaslight their employees. The business will give you a song and dance about how much they value their employees, but it doesn’t usually take very long to realize that they don’t actually do the things they say they do and are much less responsive to feedback than they say they are. However, it becomes part of your job to play up how wonderful XYZ Corp is to its employees and customers, even though you know it’s a lie.
Gaslighters, in this case, are crossing your material boundaries foremost, by expecting you to lie for them. Secondly, they are crossing your mental boundaries, by simultaneously lying to you about your role in their existence.
8. Breaking rules and laws and expect you to accept/cover for them:
Gaslighters in this category could be the co-worker who keeps stealing lunches and asks you to cover for them. Or a spouse who steals a couple of boxes of good off each delivery they make and expects you to help sell them. Perhaps a sister who stashes her stash at your house to cover her drug use from Child Protective Services.
I don’t think I can emphasize enough how damaging this particular type of gaslighting hurts people. It serves to keep abusive systems in place and also makes the gaslighter’s victim partially responsible for the gaslighter’s abuse. The gaslighter then uses this: “If you turn me in, you’re in trouble too.” or “You’re the one who started this.” This is how abused children can have numerous relatives know they’re being abused without anyone reporting the abuse.
This is a huge material boundary violation. You are putting your reputation on the line, plus sometimes your time and/or money, You are covering for something that harms someone else. And the gaslighter will insist you owe them this.
9. Public shaming and humiliation:
A gaslighter may publicly put you down and humiliate you to convince you that you are “worthless” and that they are generous to put up with you. This is one of the most abusive tactics in their quiver. They are demonstrating to others that you are “incompetent” or “worthless” and they are demonstrating to you that you are “incompetent” or “worthless”. This is a far more common tactic in the business and education worlds than most people think, and of course it’s also common in domestic violence.
This tackles your emotional boundaries, particularly how you feel about yourself in a deeply harmful way. In addition, it violates the privacy of your relationship, which is a mental boundary violation.
10. Telling you what you can think, feel, do outside their role in your life:
When you have a relationship with a person or organization, you and they can agree to some restrictions as to how you’re going to act in relation to each other and sometimes even in your private lives. However, when those restrictions start to interfere with the day-to-day activities of your life, it’s a significant boundary crossing. For example, a partner and you might have an expectation that you won’t have sex with other people. But if your partner insists you can’t be friends with members of the sex you prefer to have sex with or work with them, that’s a huge boundary crossing. It’s also a boundary crossing for a business to tell you that you can’t unionize or even talk to union organizers.
The gaslighting piece is that the person or corporation will work to make you feel like you have agreed to or that it’s part of your responsibility to accept this boundary crossing. If you try to say “this wasn’t part of the deal,” they will assure you that it’s “normal procedure” or “yes, it was part of the deal”. This is again a mental or emotional boundary crossing, sometimes a material or physical one as well.
11. Always/never statements:
Gaslighters will frequently say things that start with “You always…” or “You never…”. They look at something you do often, or don’t do often, and switch it to “always” or “never”. And if you try to point out the times you didn’t do the thing (always) or the time you didn’t do the thing (never), they will shift to point out how that doesn’t count and their version is correct. Always/never statements are very rarely true and are best left out of conversations as much as possible.
Because again always/never statements attempt to mess with your memory and your sense of self, they are a mental boundary crossing.
12. Blame victim for their own victimization:
This particular form of gaslighting is one I find personally particularly disgusting. A gaslighter will do something harmful to a person, and then, often without being asked, will claim that the person they harmed made them do the thing.
“If you wouldn’t X, I wouldn’t have to Y”. “If you’d cleaned the kitchen when I asked, I wouldn’t have had to break all the dishes.” “If you had only told me, I wouldn’t have donated your priceless art book without asking you.”
The gaslighter will do something harmful, and then, both to absolve themselves of guilt and to further confuse their victim and shift responsibility, they will say that some small thing the victim didn’t do or did do caused their action.
This is a gross mental and emotional boundary crossing. It’s also straightforward mental abuse.
13. Micromanaging the victim’s relationships and Activities:
A gaslighter will often try to insist you can’t be trusted to manage your own relationships and daily activities because you’re “crazy” or “irresponsible” or “untrustworthy”. It’s the judgment word part of this that is gaslighting, defining you as someone who can’t do things and have relationships without supervision. The rest of this micromanaging is straightforward abuse again. An adult is responsible for choosing their relationships and activities outside of those needed to sustain their lives.
The gaslighter will use this fiction that you aren’t able to manage your own people and things in order to further erode your self-esteem. They will also be able to gain more control of your day to day life using this tactic.
This is a significant mental, emotional, and especially material boundary crossing.
Gaslighting is one of the key components of abuse
As you may have noticed, some of the examples of gaslighting behavior can also be physically or emotionally or economically abusive. Gaslighting is one of the ways that abusers gain power over their victims, using these tactics to undercut the victim’s senses of reality and self so that the victim looks to their abuser to figure out what is real and what is unreal. It’s one of the things that makes it so hard to escape abuse because after years of being told you’re “crazy” and “worthless” you both feel you deserve the abuse and that you are fundamentally unable to take care of yourself. This is true in work and community situations as well as in domestic violence situations.
Almost all abusive situations involve repeated and extensive boundary crossings. They also involve repeated and extensive gaslighting. When you are trying to decide whether a situation is abuse or not, ask yourself these questions:
- Do the people in the situation have basic respect for each other that goes in both directions?
- Does everyone in the situation try to be honest with each other? And when they can’t be honest, are the lies told to spare feelings and be kind?
- Does everyone in this situation generally accept responsibility for their actions, thoughts, and feelings?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no”, you might want to explore getting out of the situation (kill the relationship), keeping your physical and emotional safety in mind as you do so.
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