How to Scorch a Casual Gaslighter
Once as a kid, I watched a bird in the sky. “Look at the raven,” I told my mom. She ignored me.
The next day I asked, “A raven’s a crow, right?”
That’s when she studied my face. “It’s really too bad,” she said. “I was starting to think you were smart.”
Then she got up and left.
That’s what it feels like to be gaslit as an 8-year-old.
One day, years later, my dad offered me some advice over a cigarette. He said, “You don’t have to tell your mom everything.” What he meant was that I had to stop being vulnerable around her.
It was tough, but I learned how.
Last weekend, I was at one of those office parties when that guy walked up. The first thing he did was ask me, “Where’s the family?” My answer didn’t satisfy him, and he walked off mid-sentence.
His favorite thing to do in meetings is wait until I’m done offering an opinion. Then he’ll say, “Well, that sounds like a good idea…”
He leaves it at that, an ellipsis.
This guy has one goal — to make me feel self-conscious, to make me doubt my own mind, and to subtly remind me that I don’t belong out in public by myself — not without my family.
He wants to do it without getting caught.
Just like my mom…
This is an example of everyday gaslighting. A gaslighter tries to do more than simply insult or bully you. They’re trying to get inside your head, to make you question everything about yourself. They want to make just the right passive-aggressive remark to cause your public meltdown.
1. Learn what gaslighting is…
The word comes from a 1938 play and subsequent film adaptation called Gas Light, about a murderous thief who tricks his wife into thinking she’s insane in order to cover up his crimes.
In the 1980s, psychologists started to describe gaslighting as a set of strategies used by abusers to manipulate their victims. They work to undermine another person’s confidence and perceptions. Everything gaslighters do is subtle, passive-aggressive, and easy to overlook.
Here’s what gaslighters do:
- Hide an evil intention behind a friendly gesture
- Subtly undermine your confidence and self-esteem
- Make you second-guess yourself
- Devalue you as an individual
- Trivialize your opinions and ideas (and experiences)
- Force you to justify yourself to everyone else
- Infest you with guilt for no good reason
The word has evolved since the 1980s. A couple of years ago, Sarah Cooper wrote a hilarious piece on workplace gaslighting. You can be gaslit by anyone — a parent, a spouse, a friend, a coworker, even a total stranger. Turns out, we live in a pretty abusive society.
2. Understand its insidious nature
Anytime someone tries to throw you off, get under your skin, or make you overreact, they’re gaslighting you. Maybe they’re trying to make you feel crazy, or just plain insecure.
It’s a sophisticated form of bullying, one you don’t always spot right away — because it goes right to your core.
It doesn’t look like bullying at first.
That’s the point.
Last year, I wrote a piece on how to deal with gaslighting. It racked up about 45K views, and 129 comments. About 2/3 of those comments were written by angry folks. They all said something like this:
This was a funny article. I enjoyed it. But this stupid girl confused gaslighting with bullying. Rather than rethink my assumptions, or re-read the article, I’m going to post a comment to make her feel dumb.
You’d think someone who really understood gaslighting in all its insidious forms wouldn’t write something like that.
3. Learn how to spot the signs
Anyway, what strategies do gaslighters use?
Some of them include…
Presenting lies and half-truths as total honesty
Let’s say you catch someone in a lie. A normal person apologizes and begs forgiveness. Maybe they try to explain what they were thinking. A gaslighter falls back on technicalities. They say things like, “I didn’t tell you everything because you’d get upset, like you always do.” Somehow they find a way to make the lie your fault.
Saying something that only you interpret as an insult
They won’t insult you outright. That doesn’t hurt as bad. Instead they’ll study you for a little while. Somehow they figure out the perfect comment to make, something that digs into all your self-doubts.
Couching insults inside jokes and fake compliments
Gaslighters lack the courage to say what they’re really thinking. Instead they give you a nickname. They bury criticisms in phrases like, “I love you anyway.” They make insults in the forms of compliments and observations. When you ask them to stop, they call you sensitive.
Fact-checking you on trivia
So you offer an opinion during a conversation. A normal person either agrees or disagrees. You can debate them. A gaslighter doesn’t engage you on the issues. They quibble over factoids (they’re not even right half the time). They can’t win the argument, so they try to throw you off — usually for no reason other than validating their fragile egos.
Trivializing your opinions and emotions
In healthy relationships, you can tell someone what bothers you. A conversation happens. Not with gaslighters. They want to convince you that you’re being unreasonable.
Gaslighters want to see you lose your cool in front of everyone else — because it gives them a strong alibi.
That’s why they go for the sneaky insult.
Why casual gaslighting is so insidious
It’s not a generic attack. Nope, they special order it for you. They deliver it in stealth mode, and leave you guessing:
Did they just disrespect you, or what did they mean? They leave room for ambiguity. As such, they can say it front of a room full of people. Nobody else will know what’s going on.
It’ll make you want to cry. It’ll make you want to clam up and leave. Or maybe it’ll just leave you sputtering in front of all your friends.
Everyone will wonder, “What’s wrong with her?”
This is how the everyday gaslighter wins — by tearing you down in broad daylight, and turning you into a public spectacle. Even if you don’t break down, you’ll spend the rest of the week in a puddle of self-doubt. They don’t even have to know you that well.
4. Respond with nothing
You have to go with the flow. You can’t react the way they want. So do whatever social norm dictates.
The best way to go about this is to proceed as usual. Act like they didn’t say anything. Pretend they don’t exist.
Pretend they said nothing.
In reality, they didn’t. They didn’t tell you anything of substance. All they did was zoom in on one thing you feel bad about.
5. Hold your own
I’m thinking about that guy again — the one who asked me where my family was. Later on, it occurred to me that guy didn’t ask anyone else at the work party where their families were. Just me. He didn’t do it for any other reason than to make me feel bad.
And I handled that guy wonderfully. While I was dying inside, everyone else saw me give a plausible explanation.
They’re at home. They’re tired — and didn’t feel like coming. I’m tired, too. But I came here to put in a little face time…
Everyone else saw that guy turn around abruptly and walk off. What I kept seeing as a defeat was actually an enormous victory. I treated that guy like anybody else. He asked a question. I delivered an answer. He saw that he wasn’t going to undo me, so he left.
6. Reclaim your confidence
A gaslighter simply wants to deflect attention away from themselves, and onto you. They want you to feel insecure, they want you to question your grip — which today means tearing you down passive-aggressively.
It means figuring out what triggers you, and then doing exactly that in front of as many people as possible.
It means trying to discredit you, under the surface.
It means making you sound paranoid and delusional when you try to call them out on their behavior.
So, see #4 — don’t call them out. Don’t even try. That’s what they want. The best way to deal with a gaslighter is to outsmart them. Understand they’re trying to blow you up from the inside. Don’t do it. Don’t blow up. Just go on being awesome you. Gaslighters hate when that happens.