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Overcoming gaslighting: Seeking help for domestic abuse

Gaslighting: A form of mental and emotional abuse akin to brainwashing, where an individual or group are convinced by someone close to them to question their memory, perception, or sanity.

The term “gaslighting” surfaced from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which husband Charles Boyer tricked his wife, Ingrid Bergman, into believing she was insane. “It’s really rooted in manipulation,” said Student Counseling Services’ Danielle Beasley. “The abused has a sense of what seems off, but the abuser turns the fault to the abused.”

headshot of Danielle Beasley

Danielle Beasley

This form of domestic abuse can present as the abused taking blame for the behaviors of the abuser. “For example, the victim might think, ‘If I wouldn’t have said this, then he wouldn’t have yelled,’ or ‘I know that she doesn’t like this outfit, so I shouldn’t have put it on in the first place,’” said Beasley, who added the abused often takes ownership for the unhealthy parts of the relationship. “There is no responsibility put back on the partner’s bad choices, bad behavior, or bad attitude.”

Forms of domestic abuse are one of the areas tackled in the Student Counseling Services’ Confidential Advising. The program provides support and advocacy services for survivors of sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and domestic bullying and abuse. “We might talk to students experiencing domestic abuse about power and control, and help them to gain  more insight into the dynamics of an unhealthy relationship,” said Beasley.

Domestic abuse can extend to relationships beyond dating, and be viewed in a broader context that can include parents, siblings, or even a roommate, noted Beasley. “It can be difficult to leave those situations for a number of reasons,” she said.

If a partner gets angry, it can be dismissed as ‘He’s just really into me.’ — Danielle Beasley

Fear and shame are two reasons people might continue to expose themselves to toxic relationships. “People think, ‘I’m intelligent. I’m capable. How did I let this happen to me?’” said Beasley. In other cases, people might not recognize the relationship as abuse. “If someone is not being physically abused, it’s easier to overlook the danger. It could be verbal abuse or financial abuse—anything that limits the freedoms of the victim.”

Younger college students are especially susceptible to intimate partner abuse due to emotional inexperience, said Beasley. “If a partner gets angry, it can be dismissed as ‘He’s just really into me,’ or ‘She’s just overly concerned because she loves me.’ Limiting where a person goes, how a person dresses, who a person talks to is being wrongly interpreted as love.”

Those who come to Student Counseling Services for Confidential Advising will find more than guidance around toxic relationships. The program also offers support and advocacy to help students find on-campus and off-campus resources, support, and information they need to safely continue their academic studies. “Confidential advisors can connect students to campus offices to provide accommodations and interim protective measures, such as changing class schedules or residences to avoid contact with an abuser,” said Beasley. “We can also connect people with local resources, such as the Midwest Central Community Action Countering Domestic Violence. If people feel the need for an order of protection, we can go to the police with them. We can also accompany them to the courthouse. If they are scared, we can help every step of the way.”

A majority of staff members at Student Counseling Services are trained in confidential advising. Beasley encouraged all students who believe they could benefit from Confidential Advising to reach out, even just to talk. “We are really committed to helping every survivor, every victim, to help re-empower them and reconnect them,” she said.

Find out more on the Student Counseling Services website, or call (309) 438-3655.

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