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You might have heard the term “gaslighting”, which is being talked about more and more on social media, in entertainment, and in therapeutic and support groups.  Recently, it was used by Rebecca Humphries to describe the behaviour of her ex boyfriend, Seann Walsh.


What is ‘gaslighting’?

Gaslighting, first and foremost, is a form of mental/emotional abuse.  Gaslighting is a type of manipulation used to cause someone to doubt their feelings, memories, and sanity.  The term comes from the 1944 film Gaslight in which a husband does a number of things, including dimming and brightening the gas lamps, and convinces his wife that her perceptions and memories are faulty and that she is going mad.

Gaslighting can take many forms in modern relationships.  It usually creeps in gradually, so it is hard to recognise it as it happens.  It usually occurs in parallel with other forms of abuse, and is covered by coercive control laws.  However, gaslighting isn’t confined to romantic relationships – it can happen in any relationship including family, work, and social organisations.

Gaslighting can involve claiming things happened that did not (or that things did not happen which did), saying the victim is imagining things, labelling the victim’s feelings as irrational/”crazy” or wrong, and false accusations.  Eventually, the victim is unable to trust their own feelings, memories and judgements – and has to defer to those of the abuser.  This gives the abuser a lot of power, and leaves the victim lost, confused, and unable to work out what has happened or why.

Anything which makes you question your reality can come under the banner of gaslighting.


What can you do if you think you are a victim of gaslighting?

  • First of all, remember that this is not your fault – but you can do something about it.  You have value as a person and don’t have to live like this.
  • Confide in a friend or relative, someone who won’t force you to do anything until you are ready and won’t interfere.  Stay safe.  If you don’t know anyone you trust enough, try one of the helplines on my Useful Links and Other Sources of Help page.  Talking to an organisation such as the National Centre for Domestic Violence can also be very useful if you choose to end the relationship.  They can offer advice on how to do it as safely as possible.
  • Try to build a support network that isn’t influenced by the gaslighter.  Gaslighting, as with other forms of abuse, flourishes when the victim is isolated.
  • Listen to your gut.  Learn to trust yourself again.  Do you feel on edge, confused, frightened?  Ask yourself whether or not you trust your perceptions, and if not, when and why did you start feeling that way?  Who convinced you not to trust yourself?  Is your confusion or fear centred around a person?  Ask yourself why they are ‘right’ and you are ‘wrong’ – look at the evidence.  Look for patterns of undermining and manipulative behaviour.
  • Seek a therapist who can help you untangle what is happening.  You may need help to see your feelings as valid, and learn to trust your own judgements again.  Find ways to rebuild your self-esteem – you are a valuable and worthy person!  A therapist or counsellor won’t tell you what you ‘have’ to do, but will help empower you to find your own way and live your own best life.
  • Decide whether you want to stay in the relationship with the person who is gaslighting you or not.  Seek ways to draw stronger boundaries and reduce their hold on you.  If you think you cannot continue to have any relationship with them at all, that is fine.  We don’t have the power to change other people, or ‘make’ them see their behaviour is wrong.  We can only control what we do.  You can’t “win” against a gaslighter, but you need not “lose” yourself.



Psychology Today: 7 Stages of Gaslighting In A Relationship

Relate: Gaslighting – what are the signs and how can it be addressed?

Psychology Today: 11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting

Medium: 10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Gaslighting

Useful links and other sources of help

Contact me/office hours

There are also various directories online to help you find a counsellor if you are unable to see me, or I might be able to recommend someone.

What is “emotional blackmail”?

emotional blackmail
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“Emotional blackmail” is a term coined by Susan Forward, a psychotherapist and author who has written a number of books on the dynamics of unhealthy relationships.

Emotional blackmail is the use of threats and punishments to control the behaviour of someone else.  The emotional blackmailer manipulates and uses the victim’s emotions to get what they want.  “Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship” is a crime.

But what does it look like?

“Emotional blackmail” covers a range of behaviours, from mild (“You’re not my friend if you don’t give me money”) to extreme (“I’ll kill myself if you dump me”).  It can be false accusations, intimidation, threats and non-verbal displays (such as ‘moods’, sulking or violence towards objects).

The goal of the emotional blackmailer is to manipulate their victim into giving them something they want – be it money, property, time, attention or love.  Often the emotional blackmailer knows their victim very well, and will know which ‘buttons to push’ to get the most effect for least effort.  For example, if the victim is someone who is a people-pleaser who needs approval of others, the emotional blackmailer will play on that the most by threatening to damage friendships or the victim’s reputation.

At the root of emotional blackmail is blame.  The emotional blackmailer wants to place the responsibility for their actions on their victim.  This may be entirely deliberate and conscious, or could be the result of upbringing.  If their families related to people in this way, they may be unable to see beyond it.

The important thing to note is that, whatever the reasons for the emotional blackmailer’s behaviour, it is not the victim’s ‘fault’ or responsibility.

So how can you escape emotional blackmail?

  • Recognise what really falls within your responsibility and control and what does not.  The Circles of Influence and Concern exercise may help with this.
  • Develop self-esteem and resilience to resist the emotional blackmailer’s demands.  This will help you maintain a strong sense of your own self-worth.  You are not a bad person just because they say you are. Having strong self-esteem can help you hold on to that belief.
  • Work on your feelings of guilt and where they come from – are they reasonable?  Have you actually done something wrong – or is someone just insisting you have to get something from you?
  • Remember that “no” is a neutral word – it is not unkind, nasty, cruel or harsh.
  • Limit contact – there is nothing wrong with avoiding contact with someone who hurts you.
  • Seek support – a trusted friend, a relative, a counsellor, a support group, a specialist organisation.  There are a number of such organisations listed on my “Useful links and other sources of help” page.

The emotional blackmailer may increase their abuse when you start to slip from their control.  Your safety is paramount.  If you feel at risk, organisations such as the National Centre for Domestic Violence, WomansAid and The Mankind Intiative can offer advice – or the police on 101.  If you are at immediate risk of harm, call 999.