'Emotional abuse is an attack on your personality rather than your body, and it can be just as harmful as physical abuse'

You are constantly second-guessing yourself, your confidence is shot, and you are questioning your perception of reality. Sound familiar? You may be a victim of gas lighting.

The term is used to describe a form of emotional abuse where one person gradually manipulates another in order to gain control. It could involve the abuser pretending to misunderstand their victim, or questioning how they remember events. They then dismiss their valid worries as “crazy” or “sensitive” until the person is confused and vulnerable. Google searches of the word have gradually crept up in recent months, and the tactic is incredibly common according to Penny East, a spokeswoman for the charity SafeLives told The Independent. 

“Abusers manipulate their victims carefully and purposefully; they switch readily between charm and rage, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Indeed, to an outsider, the perpetrator may appear to be the perfect, caring partner,” Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge told The Independent.

“It is the kind of mental torment used so successfully by torturers and terrorists who know that they can keep their prisoners compliant by frightening them and disorientating them with rapidly changing moods and situations.”

The more a person is filled with doubt, the easier it is to control them.

“Emotional abuse is an attack on your personality rather than your body, and it can be just as harmful as physical abuse,” she added.

"It is especially powerful when a man inflicts this on a woman as it takes advantage of the damaging notion of women being somehow hysterical or over emotional," said East. 

The process sends the victim into a spiral that starts with disbelief, and can end in depression. Their self-esteem at rock bottom, they question their thoughts and opinions, and distance themselves from others. With a skewed perception of reality, they wonder if they are “too sensitive” or “crazy”, apologise more often, and excuse and lie to cover up their abuser's behaviour.

Dr Robin Stern, the author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulations Other People Use to Control Your Life, described one such case where a woman called Melanie who was “frantic” because her husband demanded that she buy wild salmon rather than farm-raised salmon the local grocery store offers for a dinner party for his company.

“She knew her husband would accuse her of not caring enough about him to go to the store earlier in the day. Incidents like this were happening so much at home, Melanie began to believe he was right. After all, what was more important than her husband? Why wasn't she a more considerate wife?”

Her husband had trained her to question herself rather than his unreasonable behaviour, and attempt to understand how she had become an inadequate person.

But Horley’s message is clear: “If you alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react, you are being abused.”

If you think you may be experiencing domestic violence  visit www.refuge.org.uk for support and information or call the 24-Hour Freephone National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge and Women’s Aid, on 0808 2000 247