Gaslighting with Dr. Deborah Vinall
The term “gaslighting” is becoming more commonly used as people come to understand the psychological impact. It is important to identify the techniques used by someone to maintain an unhealthy relationship so you can avoid it or change it.
Today’s guest is Dr. Deborah Vinall. Dr. Vinall is not only a licensed marriage and family therapist, but also a doctor of psychology. She is a certified trauma therapist that uses EMDR and brain spotting. Dr. Vinall is the author of Gaslighting: A Step by Step Recovery Guide to Heal From Emotional Abuse and Building Healthy Relationships.
- [1:18] – Dr. Vinall explains why she wrote her recent book as gaslighting is something a lot of people experience but don’t understand.
- [2:42] – What is gaslighting? Dr. Vinall gives an example.
- [3:18] – Gaslighting can happen anywhere and with anyone.
- [4:06] – There are different types of gaslighting that range from fully calculated to more defensive in nature.
- [5:01] – Many people exhibit gaslighting at some point in their lives, but patterns are when things get problematic.
- [6:19] – Insecurity is one reason many people tend to gaslight.
- [7:29] – What are some signs for pattern gaslighters?
- [8:22] – Pattern gaslighters are often very charming in public but are much different behind closed doors.
- [10:00] – What is “normal” and what is problematic? Look inside and see how you feel around this person.
- [11:03] – Dr. Vinall gives tips on how to manage situations where it is a co-worker that you can’t make a break from.
- [12:53] – When confronted, pattern gaslighters may dismiss accusations or could “fly off the handle.”
- [13:49] – In relationships, gaslighters tend to move very fast.
- [15:22] – In cases where relationships are deeply connected, Dr. Vinall suggests reaching out to a lawyer. She also discusses the impact of violence escalation.
- [18:02] – There is a distinction between occasional gaslighting and chronic pathological gaslighting.
- [19:39] – Try some different strategies in the workplace and think of an exit plan in case a change is needed.
- [21:12] – Journaling is an excellent tool to help you release and sort through your thoughts and can also be used later to confirm to yourself that you are not crazy.
- [22:58] – A red flag of gaslighting is someone trying to pull you away from your support system and external relationships.
- [24:11] – It’s important to grieve the loss of a relationship and all the things that go with it.
- [25:26] – Notice your self-talk. You can start internalizing the negative talk that you hear from someone who gaslights you.
- [27:19] – Being a gaslighter may be difficult to overcome as there’s something deeper going on and you must want to heal.
- [28:07] – Take your time in a relationship and listen to your intuition.
- [29:49] – Figuring out your boundaries for those in your life who you don’t want to cut out.
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Can you give myself and the audience a little background about who you are, what you do, and how you got involved in discussing gaslighting? Not that you’re an advocate of it
Definitely not an advocate. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and doctor of psychology with a private practice in Upland, Southern California. I’ve been working with different populations that have been through various traumas throughout my career, which began probably around 2004.
I wrote this book on gaslighting that came out May 4th of 2021—just several months ago. It’s an important topic that not a lot of people really understand, but it does impact a lot of people. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of literature out there on it, so I thought this would be a way to extend the reach of people that I can help because I can only see so many people in a week. I’m hoping that’s what it is. I hope it’s really helpful and practical to people.
That’s awesome. Let’s talk about gaslighting. What the heck is it?
It often accompanies other abuses—sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse—and it’s a way of gaining the upper hand and of gaining control by making you doubt your own self, your own memories, and your own perceptions.
It involves pathological lying but with an added edge of really causing self-doubt, making you feel like you’re crazy.
Can you provide an example of what a conversation or what an interaction might sound like?
A simple example would be maybe you did something. Maybe you just swept the floor right there with your partner at home, and then they start berating you for not having swept the floor. You know they saw you do it and you know you did it, but they just insist on this to the point where you think, “Am I confused? Did I do that yesterday? Am I losing my grip? Am I going crazy because they’re just so sure of themselves?” A pattern of that over time can obviously really break a person down.
I can imagine. Is it mostly in interpersonal partner relationships or is this a thing that you even see with coworkers, bosses, and just random people out in the public?
You’re going to see it anywhere, unfortunately—intimate partners, parent-child dynamics, politics, bosses, or friendships, even. Anywhere where there’s a pre-existing power imbalance or the person is trying to create one to gain the upper hand is where there’s a ripe opportunity for gaslighting to happen.
One of those pandemic questions: do you see more of it as a result or more visible during the pandemic when people are cooped up a little bit more together or have a little bit less impulse control that this thing comes out more?
I wouldn’t say that gaslighting is a result of impulse control. It’s actually very calculated. There are different kinds of gaslighting. I talked about it a bit in the book, but the worst classic form is a real sadistic, narcissistic person who’s carefully cultivating this reality that puts him or her in control.
Then, there can be a gaslighting that’s more of a defensive posture of, “I just can’t bear being wrong, so I’m going to change the narrative and protect myself.” That could accompany impulsiveness for sure.
Is there more of a balance where one of those two is more common than the other?
It’s definitely easier to recognize this more sadistic, narcissistic type, and it’s more clear-cut there. I suppose in some ways, perhaps, most people may gaslight at some point. One thing that was really interesting to me as I started getting feedback and reviews on the book is people saying, “Oh, I want to make sure I don’t do that.” Or, “Yeah, I’ve done that sometimes.” I suppose perhaps we all do it at times, but it’s really problematic when it becomes a pattern of behavior or an intentional choice.
Before we jump into how to deal with someone else who’s exhibiting this behavior, you talked about people who are like, “Gosh, I want to make sure that I’m not doing it.” How do people stop themselves from the pattern?
I would say humility is really number one. You really see when somebody asks that question that they’re not the typical gaslighter because they’re not trying to gain the upper hand. When you have that humility and that desire to look inside, you’re already 10 steps ahead of everybody else.
Already on the path to resolving it once you realize I might have an issue.
Yeah. Gaslighting is so much about, like I said, power and control dynamics. But if you are able to recognize the inherent worth of every other person around you, see that everybody is just as valuable as you are, and hold that truth as you interact with people, you’re not going to gaslight because you’re not choosing to manipulate somebody in order to gain the upper hand.
Got you. You talked about this connection of power and control. What are the roots of that insecurity—a person just wants power?
There’s no just when we really delve into it. We all have reasons for being who we are and the way we are. Insecurity really tapped into something there. Whether it comes from a really maladjusted childhood with an inadequate affirmation, inadequate love, feeling a need to force or pull that out of other people. Whether that’s through crowds of adoration or intimate partners, and not wanting to let them make the choice to leave you or stay, there definitely tends to be pain behind it and insecurity that doesn’t say, “I’m enough.”
It seems to be a common theme that a lot of the ways that we act out is in response to something that happened in our childhood where we didn’t get our needs met as kids and we are trying to find odd ways to fulfill those needs now.
We talked about the very clear, of course, “You didn’t sweep the floor. I never saw you sweep the floor.” What are some of the other types of things that happen, and how do we identify it in people?
Some of the characteristics you might see is somebody who’s very entitled, somebody who can never be wrong, and somebody who’s often very charismatic and likes to tell stories about themselves, curating this reality of this persona they want others to accept. There tends to be a lot of self-focus in somebody who’s a pattern gaslighter. You might notice the way they talk about other people, not just the way they interact with you.
If they’re always putting people down, making comparisons, or nicknaming people, that’s a real red flag to watch out for. And how they interact with you as somebody who undermines your achievements while elevating their own. These are all definitely red flags.
Is there some point where it becomes specifically dangerous in a relationship?
It certainly can. Like I said, it often accompanies and serves to cover up for other abuses. It’s particularly insidious in that these are people who are often very charming publicly and then might have a really dark side privately. The charm can be so attractive. It can really pull you in and there can be such powerful good times that you may overlook the dangerous dark side.
Definitely, sometimes these people are also violent behind closed doors, but the public or even your closest friends might never guess because they have, again, changed that reality for everybody else.
They only talk about the good stuff when they’re out in public.
Yeah. You’re crazy is the number one narrative here if you’re crazy. Throughout time, we see this leveled at—especially at women—the idea that, “You’re hysterical, you’re too emotional, you’re crazy, or you’re mentally ill,” and using that as a way to dismiss the other person’s experiences.
How do we differentiate between someone who occasionally does this? Is there a process where a certain amount of gaslighting in someone’s life is “normal” and at some point where it crosses this line of, “OK, now this is problematic. This is a person you should avoid or stay away from.” Where is that line, or is there one?
A couple of things come to my mind. One is what is your proximity in your relationship? Is this somebody who is in your life and that’s something you just manage and you’re like, “Oh, they’re not healthy?” Or are they really an intimate close contact?
The other thing I would say is really looking inside. “How am I feeling? How am I affected in a relationship with this person? Do I always feel like I want to scream?” Then, let’s take a look at maybe pushing that person to the outer circle or even making a clean break.
Got you. Before talking about the clean break, how do we manage if it’s a coworker, a boss, or someone that we have an obligation to interact with on a semi-regular basis? We haven’t decided that it’s significant enough to quit our job and go somewhere else, but we’ve decided, “I really like what I do. It’s just this one person or this one situation where this happens.” How can someone manage it under those sorts of circumstances?
Great question. Some things you can do, some techniques would be to take a witness to conversations. You might say to your coworker, “I keep remembering things differently than you, so I’m going to take notes during this meeting.” You’re just bringing that third person into the meeting if you have the possibility.
Recording audio, transcribing notes even, and doing more things in writing and more things by emails so that you’ve got that record. Unfortunate realities, but ways to manage that kind of person who’s always going to turn around and be like, “No, I did that whole project myself. You never said that.”
I remember talking to a specialist in HR employee relations. One of the things that he had said was—from a management problem side—anytime that you’re dealing with a problem employee, as much as possible, record the interactions. It was like, “Just to make sure that I didn’t mishear anything that you said. This is to aid you and to make sure that we’re both on the same page.” That sort of phrasing. “It’s not that I don’t trust you or I’m accusatory.”
Yeah, it doesn’t have to be confrontational. It can be to help me with my memory.
Maybe that’s a side question. People that are gaslighting as part of their behavior, when they get accused of it or confronted with it, is there generally a fairly negative response or is it kind of, “Oh, let me just try to figure out how to brush it away. You’re crazy for thinking that I’m gaslighting.”
It can be a little bit of both, really, depending on whether or not it’s private, they have an audience, or what they feel is going to be most effective because they tend to be quite calculating. The easy go-to is dismissing you. “You’re crazy. I never said that. You’re too emotional. You’re too whatever.” But they could also fly off the handle and be very disregulated.
When it comes to someone that was maybe a love interest—let’s talk about it in each of these stages. If it’s someone that we have an interest in, we’re dating them casually, or we want to date them, how do we get out of that situation with respect to the gaslighting? At what point do you see it and say, “Nope, I’m out.”
Gaslighting is a pretty big red flag. If you see it, don’t continue the relationship if you can get out of that in those early stages. That’s why it’s so good to know what the red flags are and know what the signs and the patterns that they follow are so that you can be really aware. Gaslighters also tend—in relationships—to move really quickly. They try to charm you, pull you in, love-bomb you, and then things can become dark.
My advice there would be to really slow down. There’s no need to rush. If they’re a quality person, they’ll wait. Don’t go from your first date to being in overnight. Have your date and then come home and reflect. “How am I feeling? What is my body, mind, and spirit telling me? What is my subconscious intuition saying?” Because if something feels off, spend some time with that and figure out what it is. Don’t just push it aside and be like, “Yeah, but he’s so cute.”
I like that. If something feels off, figure out what it is and why. So many times we want to avoid that thought. It’s, “Oh, I’ll push that aside. I like the butterflies. That’s fun. It’s exciting.” But thinking through why we’re bugged about something is a little too introspective for some of us sometimes.
Yeah, and it takes time and intention. That’s why it’s important to have times apart as well so that they can’t just keep flooding you with gifts, attention, compliments, and whatever it is that keeps you not taking time to say, “OK, why do I feel off?”
When it comes to someone who’s in a relationship, has kids, is deeply connected, and breaking free is not simple—“I’m going to take my car and my stuff and go live somewhere else.” There are kids, pets, family, and history; it becomes a lot more entwined of a life.
It really, really does. With all of those variables that you mentioned, it might be necessary to quietly consult with some legal aid or an attorney and figure out, “What are my options? What are my obligations? Where can I get stuck?” When safety’s in question—whether it’s your own or your children—you have to do what’s hard. You just do.
I would also point out that if you’re being abused in a relationship and your children aren’t, staying to protect them is not healthy for them because they are suffering psychological damage by being in that house. The vicarious trauma of that and always being on edge is very real.
I’m not saying every gaslighter is physically violent, but those two things do correlate sometimes. I think it’s important to mention if there’s violence happening to yourself or the kids, or it’s starting to escalate and seeming like it’s about to be there, it’s time to make a clean break and go from there.
What that looks like covers so many variables because, like you said, kids, dogs, homeownership, and do you have safety? Whether that involves going to your parents’ house, to a hotel, a shelter for domestic violence, or what that looks like is a pretty complicated process, but there are definitely hotlines to call that can be consulted.
I actually have a little flowchart in my book that can help with a decision tree of, “Where do I go from here with these different variables that are there in my life?”
That’s hugely important. I like that you have a flowchart of, “OK, if this then here’s the next step.” I’m a huge flowchart person. I love that it helps visually explain the thought process and guides that process. That’s totally awesome that you have that in there.
Because in a crisis, everything can be swirling around and feeling like, “Oh, but, but, but…” so I streamlined it a bit.
It offers some clarity that you might otherwise not have. I hear that for people that are narcissists, without an incredible amount of therapy and an incredible amount of willingness to change, that type of personality and that trait is very hard to work through and change. Is that the same for people who gaslight? Not the minor once a year, something happens, and they’re having a bad day, but when it’s a pattern is that really hard to change?
Typically, yeah. I’m glad you made that distinction because when there’s that occasional circumstance, the best response may simply be, “I’m feeling gaslighted here”—if they’re familiar with that type of terminology—or just calling it out. Maybe that relationship will shift, and you’ll know it quickly whether they double down or they’re like, “OK, let me reset.”
With somebody where this is a chronic pathological problem, they’re very likely also, like you mentioned, a narcissist or some other personal pathology. Personal pathology is not easily amenable to change. It only changes if there’s really a desire.
What you’re bringing up is so important because a lot of people will stay in an unhealthy relationship thinking, “I can make it better. I can fix them. I care about them. I know their story. They went through this in their childhood.” They care about them, but the problem is if you just stay, life is easy. They have no motivation to.
Maybe they’re rock bottom that gets them to actually get some help if you’re leaving. Maybe it’s not, but your responsibility is to care for yourself first because you can’t fix somebody else if you can’t even care for yourself.
Talking about caring for yourself, let’s talk about those different stages again. If it’s a coworker or your boss, how do you deal with it and not let that gaslighting control your life or spiral you out of control?
Try, first of all, with those strategies we talked about—taking notes, bringing a witness, trying not to have those one-on-one unrecorded meetings as much as possible—and see if that shifts enough of the balance so that it’s a workable situation.
At the same time, if it’s truly unhealthy, you might be looking for other jobs at the same time and you’ve got your exit plan that you’re working toward. Maybe you’re a few years away from retirement and you just feel the need to stay there, unless you’re in danger, which usually isn’t the case in a workplace environment. But it can be especially with a woman who is sexually harassed. It can happen to men too, but sexual harassment dynamics can make a workplace unsafe as well.
Typically, you’ve got a little more time and space in a workplace scenario to think of an exit plan and put it into place while trying out strategies to see if that can shift the dynamic. You mentioned HR earlier. If it’s not the boss, sometimes, it might be worth it to escalate the matter while taking records that you’ve got something to really show what’s going on.
Are there things that you can do to counter them? Mental exercises or thought processes, aside from the practical record, document, and things like that? I’m home at the end of the day. “How do I process that? I’ve been called crazy by this person a bunch of times. I know I’m not, but how do I get myself out of that headspace, which maybe causes me to go sideways?”
It sounds similar, but it’s different. One thing that can be a really practical strategy is journaling, just an unrestrained cathartic release of all of what’s been going on at work, in a relationship, in your friendship, when you visit mom, or whatever it is. Just getting it all out there. It can serve as a record to come back to and see what’s going on at the time, but it can also just be a release and a place to sort through your thoughts and see, “Hey, I’m not crazy. This is real.”
It’s so important to keep a strong support system. In intimate partner relationships and even family relationships where gaslighting is present, there’s often a real push to pull you away from other supportive networks or to insult your friends. You don’t really want to spend time with him and become jealous of your time with others, so you become more and more insular and lose the support system. It’s so important to keep them.
It’s usually easier in a workplace scenario, although they can suck up your time with heavy work 80 hours a week so you don’t have time left for support. By keeping those healthy relationships in your life—whether it’s a friend or a partner if the relationship is not your partner—and being able to talk with them, or just burn off stress by doing something different that’s nothing to do with the work, sometimes that’s what you need to do.
Go on a full run, just the decompression things that we do on a regular basis from the normal challenges of life.
Absolutely. Because stress is stored in our body, we need to do physical things to release it. Otherwise, it’ll cause health defects. Like you said, go for a run, do yoga—which is very calming—or do some kickboxing. Whatever your thing is that works for you, do that thing.
The one thing that you said that resonated with me—having talked about a lot of scams, frauds, and things like that—is that person trying to pull you away from your support system. Don’t hang out with those people anymore. They don’t really care about you. Don’t tell them about this. It’s something special for us. Just slowly undermining those external relationships.
Yeah. Like you said with scams and frauds, it makes me think about all the things that would be sold on TV late at night. Why then? Because everyone else is in bed. Nobody to run it by. Same idea. Get you when you don’t have anybody else to run it by.
I assume that if you have a friend that does gaslighting, you can distance yourself from them and just not interact with them as much. At some point maybe you decide you don’t want them in your life, how do you heal? What are some of the techniques of healing coming out of a marriage or long-term relationship once you’ve decided, “OK, I’m breaking free. I’ve got my support system. I’ve got my dog. We’ve been able to figure out the separating of the money and things like that.” What’s the process of healing look like?
The first important thing is to recognize what’s been going on and to name it because you can’t heal from something if you don’t really know what it is. With that, you can also allow yourself to release it, to grieve it, and to grieve all the losses that come with it. It’s not just, “Oh man, I lost my relationship, but maybe I lost me. I lost ages 25–35 with this person. Those were really great dating years. Now, I’m starting over. I lost pursuing a degree I wanted to pursue because they always discouraged me.” All of those tertiary tangential elements of life.
Recognizing that, allowing yourself to release that, turning inward and focusing on trying to find yourself again, and figuring out who you are. Because if you’ve been in a very controlling relationship with somebody who’s been always trying to curate your reality, you may lose a sense of who you are, even what you like, how you’d like to dress, and what you like to eat.
Getting to know yourself again and giving yourself permission to be yourself, to love yourself, and to do things that are good for you that you might have cut systematically out of your life. Going for those runs.
Try new things.
Yeah. Notice your self-talk. When you’ve got an abusive person in your life, they’re going to be speaking critically to you. Gaslighters are always very, very critical, so you can internalize those voices and start speaking to yourself in the same way.
“You’re so stupid. You always mess things up. I’m so crazy. I’m so forgetful.” Starting to really recognize that negative self-talk and counter it with compassionate, positive self-talk. And even writing that down at first if it’s really hard to do. If you’re always like, “I’m such a loser,” start to write down something that’s a positive affirmation to replace it. Write it on your mirror. Put it on a sticky note on your desk so you see it over and over until it starts to become a replacement inner voice.
I was just about to ask you about how to deal with the negative self-talk and documenting it, not necessarily a pros and cons list, but here’s the negative self-talk, and here’s why it’s not true. When you’re in a good headspace, providing that proof of documentation of, “No, I am a very accomplished person because I’ve done this, I’ve done that. I care about people.”
Or, “My worth has nothing to do with my accomplishments. My worth is forever. It’s immutable. It’s intrinsic. I’m a good person.” That’s it.
Then if it’s written down when you’re having a bad day, you could look at it and remind yourself, “Oh, while I feel this negative, here’s the real positive that the reality is.” That’s awesome.
If that’s really stuck and it’s hard to make that leap, then a therapist can really help too. That may be a good time to look into doing some deeper brain-based therapies.
Is it more possible to recover from being the target of gaslighting versus being the gaslighter?
Great question. I would say probably yes, in that being a gaslighter probably means that you have such deeply entrenched pain in childhood that goes back very far, and you have to want to heal. That’s the first step of healing is wanting to, whether that’s walking through that therapist’s door, picking up a book, or just taking the time to admit something’s off. If you’ve got those steps, you’re already down the road. You’re already healing.
Got you. What are some of the things that we can do to build better relationships going forward, whether they’re coworkers, friends, or partners?
One is, as I mentioned, going slowly into relationships. Not in a way of avoiding them. We really don’t want to fall into that trap of self-protecting by saying, “I’m never going to trust again,” but taking your time as you get to know somebody. Again, you can use journaling. You can talk it over. You can just stop and listen to your gut feeling about a relationship so you don’t jump into the exact same pattern with a new person.
Putting yourself out in places where you might meet new people because, especially after the college years, it can be hard to meet people, whether that’s just a friend or a dating partner. Looking for volunteer opportunities. Is there a sport or activity that you’re interested in that you could do in a communal way through a meetup group?
Maybe you like hiking; you can find a hiking group. Or you care about the environment, and there are groups where you can go with others. Clean up the beaches and do things that put you out there where you can connect with other people as well. Realizing that you are worthy of healthy relationships and that they do exist.
That sounds like a great start. The key we talked about is going slow but not too slow, introducing yourself to new people, getting back out there, and not isolating yourself any further.
And having boundaries as you develop relationships where you know what you want and what’s good for you, and you give yourself permission to say that.
Is that the thing that people should also do in some sense, like think about their boundaries before they’re in a relationship and document what their boundaries are so they can even know what they are?
Yeah. If you’re still in a relationship with a gaslighter and it isn’t something you’re deciding to push out of your life—maybe that’s an unhealthy, tricky relationship with a parent but you still want to have them in your life—figuring out what your boundaries are. Like, “I’m not comfortable with you talking about my weight. If that’s how it keeps coming up, I’m going to go home.” With the boundary, you have your limit and your action. Otherwise, it’s just an idea.
That can be useful in a relationship with a gaslighter. It’s also important as you start to meet new people and date new people to figure out what you need to feel comfortable and healthy in that relationship, and what actionable steps can you take to make sure that happens.
I know someone who has some family challenges. They have specific things they’ve told family members. “If you talk about X, Y, or Z, I’m just not going to have a discussion about it. I’m just going to pick up my stuff, leave the house, and say, ‘I’m leaving the house because we agreed not to talk about it.’” There is no conversation. There are no goodbye hugs. There’s no, “Let’s talk at the door.” They said, “I’m just going to get up and walk out, even if it’s in the middle of dinner, in the middle of a restaurant, or a movie. Nope.”
That has actually really helped them a lot with their interaction with their family because they know there’s a limit.
I have no background. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a psychology class in my life, but I love talking to therapists and people who could talk from a psychological background because it’s so different from the IT, the security, and the technology aspect that I normally talk about. I really appreciate these times. I’m really excited for them. These episodes usually do amazingly well.
I hope it’s valuable with your theme. It seems like you really focus on people being manipulated.
Yeah, so this gaslighting seems to be right up that alley, “We’re manipulating you.”
Yeah. It’s what it’s about.
Is there anything that I can do for you before we head off today?
Just let me know when it comes out. I’d love to have that link to share it.
Absolutely, Deb. We’ll follow up with an email once we know the schedule when that’s happening. If there’s anything that you ever need, feel free to reach out.
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