Gaslighting written on a fogged up window

If you or someone you love has been emotionally abused by someone, you’ll recognise the terms ghosting or gaslighting. These are terms used for how we are treated by people who reject or ignore us, and then make it seem like we’re overreacting.

Some of us are not even aware that we are gaslighting other people, including our own children. So this guide for everyone, to help identify and avoid ghosting, gaslighting, and other forms of emotional abuse in relationships. 

Read on to find out what educational psychologist Claire Maher has to say about gaslighting, ghosting and other terms.

Ghosting meaning

What is ghosting?

Ghosting has been defined as “the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and, without explanation, withdrawing from all communication”. While the term may be new to some, the concept and practice is not new and has taken place in many forms for years.

There are a number of other terms used to describe ghosting – simmering, icing, ninja’ing, blocking, unfollowing, unfriending or blue ticking (think WhatsApp). Some may refer to it as a temporary process, and others to a more permanent situation where connections are never regained. 

It has become much easier to ghost somebody nowadays by simply not replying, cutting a call, or blocking the person rather than facing them in person.

ghosting as punishment

Why ghost?

Avoiding emotional discomfort seems to be a very common reason, but there are other reasons too:

  • The person may be conflict-averse or have difficulty communicating their feelings or thoughts appropriately.
  • They may also be afraid of a negative response or outcome from the person they need to end a relationship with.
  • They may wish to punish another person, teach them a lesson or inflict emotional pain in response to pain they’ve experienced at the hands of the other person. A person ghosting to punish may do this in order to feel powerful and in control of the relationship.
  • Ghosting may also be a result of feeling in danger, or to protect emotions and avoid any possible abuse – verbal, physical or otherwise. Here, ghosting is protective and necessary in nature as there may be no need (not upfront anyway) to have a conversation about the ending.

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Is ghosting emotional abuse? And how does it affect someone?

Ghosting is not only a loss, but a rejection without reason (or at least reason known to the one being ghosted). It leaves a lot of situations open, and individuals without closure need to move on and make peace with a situation. 

There is also no cue or clue on how to react about being rejected – should you be angry, sad, grateful, or even relieved?

Being ghosted prevents you from being able to express specific emotions towards the ‘perpetrator’ and to be heard – two factors that are very important for self-esteem and self-understanding – and can lead to greater anxiety and fear when approaching other new relationships. 

If you are already insecure, you may dwell on your every fault as the likely reason for being ghosted.

gaslighting and other terms: young girl crying

How is ghosting abusive?

Ghosting can be equated to the silent treatment, and any adult or adolescent knows that the silent treatment is considered to be one of the most serious forms of emotional cruelty. 

Research has shown that social rejection of this sort activates the same pathways in the brain as physical pain, leaving the victim wounded and in need of healing and recovery. Further research has shown that a teenager’s online and offline presence is considered to be one and the same. Therefore, when they are rejected online, or ghosted in the same way, they see this as very personal and very real.

As mentioned, in this day and age the majority of ghosting takes place online, because the break in connection and communication is so clear – one day you’re speaking to somebody on WhatsApp, the next day your messages to them aren’t delivering. 

Online dating for teens and adults is a prime example. It’s much easier to just stop talking to somebody you’ve ‘matched’ with because you haven’t established a proper connection as you might with somebody in person.

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Gaslighting defined: Ghosting in its extreme form

Extreme ghosting can be considered gaslighting, which is the practice of manipulating somebody psychologically so that they doubt their own sanity or understanding of a situation. Gaslighting is psychologically abusive, and often undetectable within relationships.

An example of gaslighting can be seen in the story of teenager Marie Adler (currently on Netflix: Unbelievable), who is accused by police of lying about a rape, and even made to doubt whether the event was a dream or really took place.

Gaslighting can take a variety of forms, namely (source: Tracy, N. Gaslighting Definition, Techniques and Being Gaslighted):

  • Withholding: The abuser fails to share their emotions, or to listen to their partner/friend.
  • Countering: Calling into question a victim’s memory to get them off the subject at hand, and focus on doubting their memory etc., rather than on the current issue.
  • Blocking and diverting: The abuser changes the topic, moving the focus to another issue, or stopping the victim from talking about their feelings or issue.
  • Trivialising: Where the abuser makes out the issue is not an important one.
  • Forgetting or denying: Abuser pretends to forget issues or promises that have been made.

emotional ghosting: man with his head in his hands

Gaslighting or ghosting in dating scenarios

Gaslighting can also take place in the dating world – where you make somebody feel that they have a chance, or that there will be another date, only to stop contacting them and they never hear from you again. It’s manipulating them into thinking that they have a chance, and then ghosting them. 

It also creates doubt about a person’s ability to read a situation. They may think things are going well, and then suddenly it’s over. And they think, “how did I miss this?” (The worst part is when they continue to view your Instagram Stories despite not replying to your texts!)

When children are gaslighted

Gaslighting can affect children too. For example, a child who experiences their parents arguing and fears they will get divorced may approach their parents, only to be told that that’s never going to happen, and that they’re silly for thinking as such. This may be seen by parents as an attempt to reassure their child, but also negates and neglects the child’s very real feelings about the situation.

ghosting is abuse: young girl covering her ears

Sheknows.com provides parents with six ways to identify that they may be gaslighting their children:

  1. You exaggerate, and get upset about every small issue or conflict your child brings to you.
  2. You don’t allow change in your household routine.
  3. You mock your child’s behaviour, humiliating them for having a certain feeling.
  4. You clamp down when your child tries to spread their wings – overexerting your power.
  5. You trivialise how your child feels and insist you know them better than they know themselves.
  6. You don’t apologise to your children – thus always leaving them in the wrong and you void of responsibility.

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Avoiding gaslighting and ghosting in our relationships

Self-esteem is an underlying buffering factor for both of these situations – for somebody being ghosted or gaslighted. If your self-esteem is good and sense of worth high, these processes will be hard and rejecting, but will not be detrimental in the long term. 

However, for somebody with an already lacking self-esteem, being ghosted or gaslighted will exacerbate that feeling and create more hurt and self-deprecating behaviour or thoughts.

It is important for children, adults and parents of children to ensure that their child feels safe and comfortable when these situations arise. Children should be encouraged to talk to their parents when somebody rejects them, or if they’re feeling vulnerable. 

ghosting abuse: child holding teddy bear

And parents are encouraged to look out for signs with their children and take them seriously when they talk about how they felt or feel about a certain situation. Adults are encouraged to talk to people with who they feel safe if their partner exhibits any of the characteristics of a gaslighter.

Parents should also encourage their children to handle ending relationships respectfully and empathically, and to seek help if they identify themselves in the gaslighter position, unintentionally. Take your child’s feelings seriously, let them express themselves, and give them a break when need be. 

No relationship, whether parent-child, parent-parent, child-child, adult-adult is perfect, and everybody brings to it some of their own insecurities and interpersonal difficulties. Sometimes empathy needs to be remembered and learnt to avoid harming somebody more than necessary in your relationship with them.

I am an HPCSA registered independent Educational Psychologist. I work at a school and in private practice. I offer short and long-term therapy for children, adolescents and young adults, as well as parental guidance. My method is primarily non-directive and psychodynamic but I will take the unique nature of every client into consideration when making a choice on how to proceed with therapy. I offer therapy for (among others) anxiety, anger, bereavement, depression, children struggling with divorce or parental conflict, adjustment and learning difficulties, self-esteem, eating disorders, self-injury and trauma.