- An interview with Cllr. Clodagh Higgins, Fine Gael, a practicing Psychologist
Our health section aims to provide informative content that can be easily understood. This week Aoife Burke interviewed Cllr. Clodagh Higgins, Fine Gael, a practicing Psychologist with over 14 year’s experience in the mental health field to discuss gaslighting in relationships. She has worked in a variety of settings including adult mental health and disability services prior to taking the leap into self-employment. Her particular interest areas are now child and family and helping people through mental health challenges including attachment issues and supporting families experiencing relationship and communication challenges. Her other areas of special interest include eating disorders and addictions. We asked her some questions about the issue of gaslighting, here were her responses.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse which can be devastating for the victim. Gaslighting is hugely manipulative and leaves a person questioning their own reality, perception and indeed, sanity. Typically, it begins at a gradual pace and as a result, victims do not recognise it, for what it is, and this is what helps the abuser to gain control over their victim’s life and isolate them from others.
Working with families, I see first-hand examples of gaslighting regularly. Undermining a partner’s emotions and feelings in a way that denies their reality is a common example. This can be seen when a partner does something abusive and then denied it ever happened which causes a victim to question whether it happened or not. Another example is if the perpetrator of gaslighting tells their partner they are too sensitive if they get upset. This is an attempt to invalidate that victim’s feelings and makes them feel they are making a big deal about nothing.
Gaslighting is best summed up as a toxic relationship.
What are the consequences for the victim if they are gaslit?
Being a victim of a gaslighter can erode a person’s trust in themselves and it makes them forget what they once valued about themselves. It can essentially strip a person’s sense of identity due to constant self-doubt and confusion. Being a victim of gaslighting can have a real impact on your mental health (e.g., trauma, anxiety and depression). Also, some victims become so dependent on their abuser that they suffer feelings of isolation from their peers and family.
Can gaslighting happen in relationships?
It can happen in all relationships, intimate relationships, professional relationships, and friendships. However, it is most common in romantic relationships.
How does someone know they are being gaslit?
There are many signs of gaslighting which may be easier for others to spot than yourself. It is important to learn to spot the signs and shut them down because you are minimising the psychological impact by doing so. Campaigns have definitely raised awareness around Gaslighting and Coercive Control and it is great to see policy and legislation evolve to help minimise this behaviour.
Seeing a normally confident person become more anxious and less confident is one of the key signs. When you begin questioning yourself such as posing questions like; Am I being too sensitive? Am I overreacting? Did I really see that? That is when you know there is a problem. However, the victim is usually the last person to see it as they continuously make excuses for their partner’s behaviour and say things such as “sure it’s just our banter.”
Why do people gas light? Is it about power?
Good question! Manipulative people who engage and participate in gaslighting do so to attain power over their victims for two reasons. Either they simply derive warped gratification from the act, or they wish to control their victim emotionally, physically or financially. It is important to note that manipulation is a key feature of gaslighting, but it is not just manipulation, the behaviour isn’t just about influencing someone, it is about controlling them.
Can gaslighting happen in journalism or politics?
Gaslighting can happen in any form of relationship; professional or personal.
What should someone do if they think they are being gaslit?
The very first thing to do is identify the problem because recognising it is the first step.
It’s really important to reach out if you feel you are a victim of gaslighting. Call a domestic abuse helpline to get advice. Tell your doctor, friends, and family because the more people know, the more they can help you. And you need that support because leaving a gaslighter is difficult because they may try and lure their partner back with positive reinforcement.
Having compassion for yourself is so important because recovery from gaslighting may take some time because in most instances gaslighting may have taken place for a period of months, years or even decades. Victims will need some time and numerous approaches to rebuild their sense of self after being a victim of gaslighting.
Is gaslighting now a criminal offence in Ireland?
Coercive control has been a criminal offence since 2019 and sometimes gaslighting fits within this description.