Gaslighting and caught up in Stockholm – emotional abuse

© Jorgan Harris. jorganharris.co.za

1. Introduction

You have met this incredible man or woman and their charm totally rocks your boat.  Soon after moving in or getting married to this person, the abuse begins. The victim of the emotional abuse begins to wonder what is wrong with (him/her). Newspapers and magazines report daily about emotional abusers that becomes violent and assault or even kill their loved ones. There are also more subtle forms of abuse – abuse where there are no visible wounds but just deep emotional scars, invisible to the outside world. Since the abuser is perfect and wonderful and when you tell other people about what is really going on, they just won’t believe you. You are a victim of emotional abuse.

2. Gaslighting 

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser manipulates situations repeatedly, to trick the victim into distrusting his/her own memory and perceptions. It causes victims to question everything they have counted on their whole lives, making them unsure of anything. Gaslighting makes it very likely that victims will believe whatever their abusers tell them, regardless as to their own experience of the situation. Gaslighting often precedes other types of emotional or physical abuse, because the victim of Gaslighting is more likely to remain in other abusive situations as well.

In 1938, the stage play Gas Light has seen the light. In this play the husband attempts to drive his wife crazy using a variety of tricks causing her to question her own sanity and perceptions. The husband is using gas lights in the attic to search for treasures, thus dimming the rest of the house lights. When his wife noticed the dimming, he insists she is imagining things. By doing so, he is trying to convince her and others that she is crazy and remembers things wrongly. Due to this, she can’t see true reality in the darkness and starts to doubt her own judgment. She begins to believe that she is in the wrong.

By now the wife is too scared to bring any issue to the forth, because of fear that she might be “wrong” or not remembering it correctly. She might just be “helped” to remember things correctly.

3. What happened in Stockholm?

Several bank employees were held hostage in a bank vault from August 23 to August 28, 1973, while their captors negotiated with the police. During the stand-off the victims became emotionally attached to their captors, rejected assistance from government officials and at one point even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal.

The victims became loyal to their captors as they were dependent on them for food, medicine and permission to go to the bathroom. They became loyal to their captors since they were the ones who “helped” them against the “enemy” (the police). One woman got engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defence fund to aid in their criminal defence. The hostages had bonded emotionally with their captors.

4. What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is any behaviour that is designed to control and subjugate another human-being through control and power. The abuser tries to control your life using a variety of methods including the use of fear, humiliation, intimidation, creation of guilt feelings, force, constant criticism and even physical assault to subjugate you to him or her.

Emotional abuse is like brain washing, in the sense that it systematically wears away the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions and self-concept. Over time the abused loses all his or her self-confidence. Emotional abuse is when you constantly hear how bad you, your family, your job, your values and everything that is important to you are. Eventually, the abused loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value, even though the facts show the opposite to be true. You eventually begin to believe the abuser, despite the facts suggesting otherwise. This is called Gaslighting.

A professor in psychology wanted to demonstrate to his students how conditioning works. The students had to identify one healthy person on campus. Every time they saw him they had to tell him that he was looking pale and they had to ask him whether he was feeling nauseous and whether his stomach was running. After hearing this numerous times that particular day, he started to believe that he was not well – without any rational reason. Towards the end of the day he started to vomit accompanied by diarrhoea, even though nothing was wrong with him. This is exactly what happens to the person being abused. He/she starts to believe that he/she is wrong or has done something wrong.  Even though this is not the case, it still caused the abused individual feeling that everything was their fault.

  • You are intimidated in many ways, even with the threat of physical damage to your-self, your children, your family and friends, even your pets and belongings.
  • They attempt to destroy any outside support you receive by belittling your support structures and then try to alienate you from them to gain exclusive control over you.
  • You are expected to understand their feelings but they never attempt to understand yours.
  • They dismiss your problems or issues as unimportant, irrelevant or an overreaction.
  • They always put their needs before yours.
  • You “walk on eggshells” in an attempt not to upset them and it is your fault if you do upset them.
  • Their emotions and feelings remain the centre of attention.
  • They never take responsibility for hurting others. It is always your fault. The argument will always be twisted and turned. They will manipulate you into feeling guilty for things that have nothing to do with you.

These things happen over a period of time. The abuser initially overwhelms you completely by being attractive, charming and on his or her best behaviour. This person’s behaviour however starts to change gradually and you feel yourself literally being caught up in this attractive web – like an insect in a spider’s web. You may not even realise that you are losing control.

5. The effect of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can lead to psychological problems in the long run. Emotional abuse happens mostly in intimate relationships but it can also happen in different contexts; like the working environment, between friends or between parents and children.

The self-image and self-confidence of the abused is broken down to such an extent that the abused starts to believe that it is his or her fault, resulting in them staying with the abuser.

  • The abused is being lead to understand that his or her needs are unimportant.
  • The abused also struggles with problems such as anxiety, chronic depression, hurt feelings, fear, anger, crying fits, feelings of withdrawal, low self-esteem, sleeping disorders, chronic illness, premature ageing, dependence on the abuser, loss of performance, lack of trust and a feeling of helplessness.
  • You are being convinced that you are worthless, to such an extent, that you start to believe nobody will ever love you again – that you have to cling to what you have and that you should be lucky to have his or her as your greatest fear is being alone. You are being convinced that you will be alone, that nobody would ever want you again and that you will have nowhere to go. This keeps you from leaving the abuser which makes you grateful for the fact that his or her will still “be there” for you.
  • You might even develop a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Everything that goes wrong in the relationship is your fault and that contributes to your feelings of worthlessness, uselessness or self-blame. They are being conditioned, just like the example of the professor in psychology – just like the example of the psychology professor I told you about.
  • Everything you do is wrong and you are being criticised from your appearance to your choice of clothing.
  • You isolate yourself, feeling lonely and ashamed, causing you to keep the abuse ‘secret’.
  • You start getting used to it, believing it is normal.  The abuse becomes your reality, your point of reference. This is possibly the worst effect.
  • You are progressively beginning to consume more alcohol or tablets, even drugs to reduce the tension and numb the emotional pain.

If you can answer positively to most of the above-mentioned, you are indeed/most probable being Gaslighting.

6. Different forms of emotional abuse

According to literature there are different forms of abuse:

  • Physical abuse, like physical assault, even rape and murder;
  • Verbal abuse, like berating, belittling, criticising, name calling, screaming and threats;
  • Psychological abuse like manipulation and threatening the abused with the loss of his or her children or financial security. You may need to see a lawyer in this regard. A woman usually loses her children only in extreme cases;
  • Emotional abuse like gaining total control of you;
  • Jealousy where you are being getting constantly accused of illegitimate relationships.

The above-mentioned forms can be divided in two different categories:

  1. Overt abuse. Overt abuse is abuse which is visible for others. You can physically see the other person being physically or verbally abused.
  2. Covert abuse or Gaslighting. Covert abuse is extremely subtle. (Not necessarily visible to others.) You are being manipulated in a covert way. Control of your life is being taken away in a very subtle way.

Looking at the two types it becomes clear that all types of abuse contain a covert element. Both types make the abused believe that there is something wrong with him or her.  That he or she is doing something wrong or that he or she is bad and that his or her interaction with other people should be stopped.

It all boils down to the fact that there is something wrong with the abused and everything wrong in this relationship is his or her fault – you are being emotionally abused.

The ultimate goal of abuse is to get total control over the life of the abused. The reason for this will be made clear later.

7. Types of Gaslighting

7.1  Aggression 

  • The most overt form of aggression is where physical aggression is present. Physical aggression can be directed towards you, your belongings, your children or even your pets being assaulted or even murdered.
  • Verbal aggression can manifest as name-calling, sarcasm, accusing, blaming, threatening, belittling, criticism and ordering. The abuser puts him or herself in a superior position and assumes the right to judge or criticise the recipient. Verbal abuse can also take on more covert forms and may even be disguised as helping, criticising, advising and questioning another person in what may seem to be a sincere attempt to help. Although it may seem like help, it is just a more subtle attempt to make you feel inferior. “I know better and you can’t live without me”.
  • Subtle aggression. All forms of abuse are actually different forms of aggression. It will become clear to you as we go.

7.2  Denial 

  • Your perceptions and opinions are being seen as inferior. You are being denied as a person as well as your opinion which can be particularly damaging. In addition to lowering self-esteem and creating conflict, the invalidation of reality, feelings and experiences can eventually lead you to question and mistrust your own perceptions and emotional experience.
  • When the abuser is being confronted, he or she may deny that certain events occurred or that certain things were said with statements like: “I never said that,” or: ”I don’t know what you’re talking about,” etc. Even though you know differently.
  • Withholding is another form of denial.  Withholding includes refusing to listen, communicate or emotionally withdrawing as punishment.  Well known as the “silent treatment.”

7.3  Minimising 

  • Minimising is a less extreme form of denial. When minimising, the abuser may not deny that a particular event occurred, but he/she questions the recipient’s emotional experience or reaction to an event. Statements such as “You’re too sensitive,” or “You’re exaggerating,” or “You’re blowing this out of proportion” all suggest that the recipient’s emotions and perceptions are faulty and not to be trusted.
  • Trivialising occurs when the abuser suggests that what you have done or communicated is inconsequential, irrelevant or unimportant.
  • Your self-esteem is minimised in the process or broken down. Your feelings are regarded as unimportant or silly.

7.4  Constant Chaos

The abuser may deliberately start arguments and be in constant conflict with you. The abuser may be “addicted to drama” since it creates excitement.

7.5  Domination

The abuser wants to control your every action. He or she wants to know everything you do, where you are, who you see etc. They have to have their own way and will resort to threats to get it. The abuser, however, is free to do whatever he or she wants to, to see whoever or whenever he or she wants to see someone else.  You’re not allowed to questions the abuser’s actions.

7.6  Emotional blackmail

The abuser is playing on your fear, guilt, compassion, values, or other “hot buttons” to get what he or she wants –  want. He or she would threaten you by making threats to end the relationship, to totally reject or abandon you, giving you the “cold shoulder”, or using other fear tactics, like someone else is interested in him or her. Anything to control you and to make you fearful of potentially losing them.

7.7  Unpredictable responses

There are drastic mood changes or sudden emotional outbursts. Whenever someone in your life reacts very differently at different times to the same behaviour from you, tells you one thing one day and the opposite the next, or likes something you do one day and hates it the next, you are being abused with unpredictable responses. You never know what to expect and you can never know what’s expected of you. You always remain hyper vigilant, waiting for the other person’s next outburst or change of mood. This causes fear, even anxiety within you. You stay terrified to do or say the wrong thing.

7.8  Rejection

Your presence, values or self-worth is being rejected. Your thoughts and views are trivial.

7.9  Isolation

Isolation is the final destiny of emotional abuse. You are being cut off from your emotional support systems who may tell you that there is nothing wrong with you. You are being isolated from potential new friends or companions. Isolated from family, friends and anybody else who might convince you of something different. You are being isolated from everything, even your finances are in total control of the abuser and there is NO way out. The end goal is to ensure you’re so isolated you’ll never be able to leave him or her. It may involve physical confinement where normal contact with others is restricted; limiting freedom within a person’s own environment. For example, excluding a senior from participating in decisions about her or his own life; locking a child in a closet or room alone; refusing a female partner or senior access to her or his own money and financial affairs; withholding contact with grandchildren; depriving a person of mobility aids or transportation.

The abuse never gets better, it worsens progressively. It has a debilitating effect on your self-esteem and self-worth. Keeping the psychology professor in mind – you may start to believe that nobody else would be interested in you again. You keep on hoping that things will get better, but it never does. So many people believe that a marriage, wedding or having children may solve the problem, it never does. In actual fact, it aggravates it. It is not solving the problem; it just makes it worse.

8. Traits of the abuser

The abuser is suffering, ironically enough, from the same issues you are suffering from. It is almost as if his or her issues have rubbed off on you. The abuser is a human being with his or her own issues. This person, appearing so self-confident and convincing, is at its’ deepest, a very insecure soul.

  • The abuser is jealous, possessive and constantly interrogating his or her partner.
  • The abuser controls his or her partner’s whole life – whom you may be friends with, what you may wear, what you may do, even your finances are being controlled by the abuser.
  • The abuser can become friends with people like policemen, lawyers, even your own family to get you into trouble, should you act “in the wrong manner”.
  • The abuser invades your privacy, by doing things like cracking your passwords on Facebook, Twitter and your e-mail to read your private messages.
  • Abusers are also likely to have been raised in emotionally abusive environments.  They learn to be abusive as a way to cope with their own feelings of powerlessness, hurt, fear and anger. Consequently, abusers may be attracted to people who see themselves as helpless or who have not learned to value their own feelings, perceptions or viewpoints.
  • They have negative opinions about themselves and about their abilities.
  • They hold a general negative perception about the world around them.
  • The abuser most probably struggles with issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and anger.
  • He/she learns that abuse is a way of coping with his/her own feelings of jealousy, mood-swings, low self-esteem, fear, hurt and anger.
  • The abuser is consequently attracted to people who view themselves as helpless and those who don’t appreciate their own feelings, perceptions or points of view.

9. What you can do

You never wanted to be in a relationship like this. You never asked for it. Anybody could have gotten involved in a relationship with such a person and you did. These people are initially “too good to be true”. They are just too incredible, too wonderful and you have discovered that it is indeed just too good to be true.

  • Firstly, recognise your own feelings of powerlessness, hurt, fear and anger. Then acknowledge to yourself that this is how you are currently feeling.
  • Realise that it is not your fault.
  • Identify the reasons why you do not recognise your own true value. Maybe you received messages as a child that you were not good enough. Have your problems developed because of those messages? Did your denial, isolation, unnecessary guilt feelings develop from there and is this the reason why you do not feel good enough? Research shows that up to 43% abusers were abused as children themselves.
  • Do you experience feelings of insecurity regarding intimacy, trust and commitment?
  • Are you so desperate for love and approval that you will do anything to get somebody to love you?
  • Are you being intimidated by someone else’s anger and criticism?
  • Learn to value yourself. You are created as a perfect human being, equipped with everything you need to be successful. In the core of your being there is nothing wrong with you.
  • You have certain rights as a human being and nobody deserves to be abused.
  • Once you start to recognise the abuser’s own emotional issues, you will realise that this person is experiencing his or her own feelings of intense rejection or inferiority. They are constantly trying to keep you under their thumb in an attempt to avoid similar feelings.
  • You may start to realise that the abuser is projecting his or her own issues unto you. Projection means the person is accusing you of weaknesses he or she is actually sensing in him or herself.
  • You could make an appointment with a psychologist to assist you with the ramifications of an emotionally abusive relationship. A psychologist can teach you new and healthy methods of handling these people. They can help you look after yourself, your needs and help you to realise that it is not your fault.
  • You can get legal help since abuse is seen as a form of criminal abuse. See your lawyer about this.
  • Remember – you are not alone. Help is available from your psychologist, psychiatrist, general practitioner, legal advisor and even the police.

10. The reaction of the abuser

When the abuser realises the abused is busy taking back their control or busy leaving him or her, the abuser might expect a miracle or tries to convince the abused that he or she has undergone a radical change.

The abuser:

  • will see a psychologist or life coach and then presents radical changes;
  • will try to convince his or her psychologist or life coach that radical changes have indeed taken place;
  • will try to convince the psychologist, life coach or the other party that these changes have indeed taken place;
  • will write the most beautiful love letters or will say the most beautiful, compassionate words of love;
  • will expect you to understand immediately and return to him or her without delay;
  • will pressurise you to make an immediate decision;
  • will try to prove to everybody, including your family, what a good person he or she really is;
  • will constantly fall back on his or her role in the marriage or family, like for instance doing the washing or doing favours for his or her partner;
  • will revert excessively back to religion. Suddenly going to places of worship and constantly talking about God;
  • is overly devoted and remorseful;
  • will promise a total change of life style and behaviour;
  • will admit blame of all that went wrong – even denying that you had any blame in the situation;
  • will say or do things that sounds right to you, although it still seems too good to be true and your gut tells you that something is not right.

I am not trying to convince you that the abuser cannot change. I have experienced many abusers who have changed and persisted with their change, but there are also the abusers who will over time, go back to their old ways. A road to Damascus experience is rare and it takes time to work through these experiences. There is no quick fix. Only after a lengthy process where the abuser works through his or her issues, is there any possibility of change.

If the abuser really loves you as much as he or she claims, he or she will wait for you until you are ready.

If the abuser really cares about you, your feelings and well-being, then he or she will respect your choice regardless of whether you stay or go. If not, it is once again only about his or her feelings and this is not love but an obsession where the abuser keeps on denying your feelings.

11. Final word to the abuser

You may think you have your partner under your control. If you‘re under this impression, there is upsetting news for you. You can never break your partner’s spirit. The harder you try, the more determined your partner will be to escape from this. And this will happen when you least expect it.

All human beings are created resourceful.  Perfectly with everything needed to make his or her life a success. No-one can be denied this principle.

Rather confront your own issues. Psychological games never work. You will some-where fail.

Your partner will somewhere withdraw him- or herself from this game.

I can mention endless examples where the abuser thought he or she has the abused under his or her control, just to realise one day, out of the blue, they decide to leave, without any warning.

John (not his real name) abused his wife. She had pleaded with him for years to treat her differently – she even pleaded with him to go to church with her only once a month. He thought he had her under his control and ignored her requests. One day she had enough and left him. John then turned his whole life around. He did everything and more that was needed, but it was too late. She could not be convinced and although John got involved with the church, converted and was baptised. It was too late.

Mike’s wife (not his real name) abused him emotionally. She went for therapy and she worked through all her problems but for Mike it was too little, too late. On New Year’s Eve, he realised that he had enough and was done with this marriage. Although she changed, it did not matter to him. Unexpectedly, he just walked out the front door and never returned. If it is your goal to break your partner’s will, your partner may also lose the will to rescue the relationship. When your partner reached the phase of: “I don’t care anymore”, that is when you have lost him or her forever. At this stage, nothing matters anymore. Once your partner reached the phase of: “I don’t care anymore,” is when you have lost him/her forever.

You can abuse and manipulate as you like – you will fail. Admit your own problem and work on it.

There are, however, people who realised what they were actually doing and by addressing their emotional issues saved their relationship just in time.  Not only have they saved their relationships but they have also addressed their own issues. Their relationship becomes even stronger as a result of this.

Be honest with yourself. Be honest with your feelings. Work through it first and you will have your partner forever with you – in a good way where everybody wins – in mutual respect and trust.

After all, this is what love is all about.