How We Continue Gaslighting Survivors of Psychological Abuse

by Shannon Cheung

When Frank asked me to write a piece for his website at the beginning of the summer, I was honored and horrified. Somehow, communicating to an audience of more than just a single professor (sorry) changed how I viewed my writing. Paralyzed by perfectionism, I waited a long time to decide on what to write. When Frank extended the offer, again, I sat down to critically analyze why I had put it off. Everything I was passionate about seemed to vanish from my consciousness to prevent me from putting my voice out. Why?

Being seen, read, or heard by an audience leaves you vulnerable to being scrutinized. I anticipated that my subject of choice would invite that bitter, reactive, and unfair scrutiny. That was exactly why I needed to write about it.

Content warning: This piece discusses domestic violence, sexual coercion, rape, and emotional/psychological abuse, gaslighting, and invalidation of survivor experiences.


The past years have seen a considerable increase in widespread conversation about sexual assault and abuse, with the Harvey Weinstein assaults, the Larry Nassar case, People v. Turner (the “Stanford Rape Case”), and the R. Kelly trial, along with many others. During the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing, the National Sexual Assault Hotline experienced a 201% spike in its call volume. Social media campaigns swept Twitter and Facebook, calling attention to the prevalence of sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as the many barriers that prevent survivors from coming forward with their experiences.

While cases of sexual assault and sexual abuse occupy the foreground of our collective attention, it is equally as important to remember that there are issues that we are leaving in the background. October is dedicated to Domestic Violence Awareness and the effects of relationship violence. For the most part, society has come to agree that violence between partners is bad, but we continue to see gaps in understanding what the word “violence” actually covers. When the mainstream definition of partner violence is shoehorned into meaning only physical and sexual violence, we fail to capture – and in doing so, end up gaslighting – the experiences of those whose lives have suffered or are suffering through psychological abuse.

Often used interchangeably with emotional abuse, psychological abuse is often a type of violence that is brushed aside or minimized. Survivors of psychological abuse will hear the same victim-blaming statements made to other survivors. These responses serve to rationalize the abuser’s decisions; minimize the severity of the abuse and harm done to the survivor; blame the survivor for the things said or done to them; and, ultimately, dismiss the uncomfortable idea that someone we know could actually be abusive. The one victim-blaming statement that most often comes up for survivors who try to tell their story of being psychologically abused, however, is one that pits their experience against that of other survivors: “It’s not like he hit/raped you.”

Gaslighting” is a common manipulative tactic that abusers use with their victims. By withholding, countering, diverting, trivializing, and “forgetting” and denying, an abuser leads an individual to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity. Of course, an abuser has a lot of power to gain in a relationship with someone who feels as though they cannot trust their own perceptions of reality.

Gaslighting, however, is not limited to romantic partnerships. It happens within families, friendships, and professional relationships. In fact, gaslighting is a cultural phenomenon in the context of how we treat people who have been disempowered in general. As a society, the way we treat survivors continues this pattern of gaslighting – the very pattern we applaud survivors for escaping. By trying to qualify the severity of the abuse, we question and trivialize survivors’ experiences. By equating the call for accountability and justice to a “witch hunt,” we are blocking and diverting. In doing so, we are complicit in carrying out the same goals that all abusers have: we silence survivors; we force them to question their reality; and we isolate them.

In early 2016, the second half of my freshman year in college, I found myself grieving the loss of a 3-year relationship. I knew it was normal to feel sadness after a break-up, especially a “first,” but the pain I felt seemed unbearable. I began to avoid any place around campus that I might see him – dining halls, dorm lounges, even buses. I missed meals and skipped classes. I was always watching my back. An outsider would likely attribute these behaviors to a different state of mind. I was afraid and I did not know it.

Two months later, a sudden realization hit me: my partner had coerced me into having sex with him multiple times. He had also raped me. After years of work to treat symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, I still live the aftermath of that relationship. Coercion and manipulation were thematic elements of our relationship, and they transcended our sexual interactions. I reported to my partner at all hours of the day. Where was I? With whom? Until when? My social network dwindled. I kept all friends at a distance because it was the easiest way to placate my partner. I desperately wanted to avoid accusations of cheating and lying. I became adept at reading his tone and emotions, and yet, I still cried daily because it seemed that I was always making mistakes and stressing my partner out to the point where he would threaten to kill himself.

While I will never know whether my behaviors and thoughts today are more a direct result of my sexual trauma or psychological trauma (it very well may be both in equal parts), I can say this: I hide behind my sexual assault because I know that it gets taken more seriously than psychological abuse, however marginally that may be. In the early days of my healing, when I chose to open up to my friends about what had happened, I was met with “You should’ve fought harder and stood up for yourself,” “You gave him too much power,” and “Why didn’t you just leave?” Certainly, survivors of any type of abuse are no stranger to any of these statements. Still, we continue to conceptualize psychological abuse as something that poses no imminent physical danger or threat, and therefore, is less severe and possibly even “easier” to escape.

This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we need to acknowledge a truer, more accurate definition of violence – one that honors the many forms that abuse takes on to wreak havoc on people’s well-being.

If you are currently in a psychologically/emotionally abusive relationship, here are some steps you can take, whether you are seeking to leave the relationship or not:

1) Get support. There is a reason one of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship is isolation. An abusive partner has much to gain by making you solely dependent on them. If you are limited in your network, you are also limited in the people you can look to for support. Building this system of support will help you stay safe.

2) Set boundaries. While it may be difficult to maintain boundaries in your relationship, it is still important to maintain boundaries with your support system. Be clear about the role that you would like your supports to play. If you are not open to advice, let them know.

3) Be prepared for strong reactions. Disclosing your experience to loved ones may be upsetting or shocking to them, and they can react in ways that were mentioned earlier in this article. Remember to communicate what you need from them. If they are reacting in a way that is hurtful, let them know.

4) Create a safety plan. Typically, domestic violence advocates promote safety planning that revolved around physical safety, but emotional safety is particularly salient in psychologically abusive relationships. In addition to building a supportive network and asserting boundaries with safe people, take time to identify and work towards achievable goals such as calling a local resource and being mindful of available services. Take steps as you find appropriate for yourself.

5) Remind yourself of your value and be kind to yourself. It is all too easy to forget this about yourself in the face of a partner who seems to be sending the opposite message. Find a space you can call your own. Make it your safe space.

6) Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 to speak with a confidential advocate about domestic violence, resources or information, or to discuss potentially unhealthy aspects of relationships.

If you have a loved one who you suspect is in an abusive relationship, refer to this list of common warning signs:

  • Partner is constantly putting them down or insulting them in front of others.
  • They are constantly worried about making their partner angry or upset.
  • They make excuses for their partner’s behaviors.
  • Their partner is extremely possessive or jealous.
  • They have unexplained marks or injuries. They may dress differently to cover them up.
  • They have stopped spending time with friends and family.
  • They seem depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality.
  • They are attached to their phone or seem to be in a hurry whenever their partner is not around.
  • They seem less engaged.

If any of the above is true for your loved one, call the Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 to speak with a confidential advocate about how you might be able to help. Do not confront the abusive partner. Express concern to your loved one, listen to and respect their decisions, and ask how you can best support them.

If you are in neither of the above categories, chances are that you actually do know someone who has experienced or is currently experiencing some kind of partner violence. In the U.S., nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking and report some related impact on their functioning. The numbers for psychological abuse are staggering as well: nearly half of all women and men in the United States (48.4% and 48.8%, respectively) have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Given this, steps that the general public can take to contribute to a community free of partner violence revolve around ridding ourselves of a culture that normalizes gaslighting:


  1. Throw away idea of the “perfect victim/survivor.” We have all internalized myths about violence: who perpetrates it, who is on the receiving end, how both parties act, and what it looks like. Anyone can be an abuser, and anyone can be abused. While domestic violence is known to disproportionately affect women, it does not only affect women. Similarly, while examples of abusive relationships are often given in terms of heterosexual relationship, abusers in LGBTQ relationships make use of the same tactics and can weaponize sexuality and gender identity to gain power and control over their partners.
  2. Believe survivors. The recent scandals, allegations, and trials have invariably been responded to with the cries of a crowd favorite red herring: what if we ruin innocent people’s lives as a result of false accusations? In the context of the past 20 years of sexual assault accusations alone, 2-10% of them were proven to be fake. Although these false accusations occupy so much of our attention, it turns out that these accusations very rarely lead to convictions or wrongful jail time. Remembering that these statistics are presented in the context of sexual assault, the numbers for psychological abuse are less certain. Believing survivors does not require us to abandon our judicial system. Rather, it is a call to listen to our experiences and respecting what we have to share, without questioning our perceptions and behaviors – to not be dismissive. When vulnerability is met with skepticism and vitriol, we learn, again, that we are not accepted as we are and that we are not safe.
  3. Challenge the normalization of abusive behaviors. Possessiveness, jealousy, and surveillance are frequently framed as indicators of a loving and romantic partner, as opposed to a controlling and manipulative one. As a consequence, we misrepresent abusive relationships and fail to pay attention to signs that are likely already there.


Shannon Cheung is an MSW/PhD student in the Addiction Counselor Training Certificate program at Rutgers University School of Social Work. A survivor of sexual assault and dating violence, she is passionate about advocating for marginalized and underserved populations. She currently interns at an addiction treatment facility. Shannon’s intersectional identity as an Asian American survivor with various mental health diagnoses pushes her to pursue a career in research on cultural stigma surrounding mental illness and treatment-seeking among children of immigrants in the U.S. She is particularly interested in the underutilization of mental health treatment services among Asian American diaspora. Shannon enjoys rock climbing and reading about cultural sociology.

My Favorite Articles About the Military and Veterans from the Last 18 Months

I’m currently in northeastern Poland, where I’m attached to the 3-278th Cavalry as the squadron’s behavioral health officer. When I’m not treating soldiers, I work out, read, write, and travel like mad on the weekends. I am continuing to do some work via the internet and telephone back in NY and NJ, and I (of course) am teaching an online course for Rutgers. I receive a lot of email each day; I was recently asked questions pertaining to the military by a few former students/supervisees.

I joined the Army on February 29, 1996 and went off to Ft. Knox for basic training in late April. I served with the 2-102 in NJ for the next six years. My unit was activated shortly after 9/11 to guard four Hudson River crossings (and really, provide assurance to commuters in a region that had experienced an intense collective trauma). I sat on the inactive ready reserve (IRR) list for another two years before earning my honorable discharge in March of 2004. That same year, I began working as a counselor and started treating veterans who were in treatment for addiction.

Basic training was wonderful. I adored my drill sergeants and learned that the single most important aspect of leadership is being a role model. I met two life long friends and one wonderful mentor. But I didn’t like getting up early, shaving, doing menial tasks, getting shit from people, cleaning my boots, and cleaning weapons. The Army was good for me from 19 to 21 and then a bit tiresome after that. I was glad to get out when I did.

I rejoined the Army in August of 2014 because I was so horrified by the story of one of my students at Rutgers. I was directly commissioned as a first lieutenant in the US Army and PA National Guard. My unit these last five years has been in Elizabethtown, which is about 20 minutes east of Harrisburg. There have been moments where I’ve been able to really help soldiers and do some excellent work, but much of the time has been spent reading and being slightly irritated that I was not being utilized more. On Aug 31st of this year, I was placed on active duty and sent to Ft. Bliss, Texas, for premobilization tasks before arriving in Poland.

I served six years as an enlisted soldier. I was a tanker who only saw the inside of a tank two or three times after basic, as I spent the remainder of my time in the battalion’s S-2 (intelligence) and S-3 (training/tactical operations center) sections. Then two years on the IRR and now a little over five years as a medical officer. In my 13+ years in the Army, my only active duty time (aside from annual summer training) since basic training was during that aforementioned period following 9/11, the 2015 Papal visit to Philadelphia, and my current time in Poland. My experience has provided me with a fairly limited view of the Army, but I believe I have a strong understanding of the institution and its strengths and flaws. That is certainly helped from talking to other soldiers, treating veterans, reading books, watching documentaries and movies, and devouring first hand accounts, news, and opinion pieces.

I have at least one play in me about the Army. I don’t know if I have any other military books in me, but I am sure that I’ll be talking and writing about the service for the rest of my life. All of this is a prelude to the purpose of this piece, which is to compile a list of my favorite articles from the last year and half into one place. For people who have a family member whom is in the military (or was in, or is thinking about joining), you might find this helpful. For current or aspiring therapists who want to work with servicemembers and veterans but have no background, I urge you to read all of them. And then contact me about books and other media to absorb.

I wrote four of the articles, and all but one of the rest come from either the New York Times or the Washington Post. You should be aware of my background and biases – I’m a social worker and college professor. I lean left on most social issues. I do not see glory in warfare but I am supportive of necessary killings. I am concerned about the politicization of the military and I get particularly irritated by politicians who claim to be supportive of servicemembers and veterans but then don’t pay those servicemembers properly and fail to fund the VA as well as other educational benefits. The modern fetishization of the military alarms me, because it ruins the term service and creates an elevated class – one that can neither be properly debated nor criticized.

When I rejoined in 2014, the Army specifically told me that the institution was serious about addressing untreated PTSD, sexual assaults, and suicide. I was thrilled to be a part of the potential solution. I soon realized that while the military pays strong lip service to alcohol problems, heavy drinking is still very much part of the culture. If it is not outright encouraged, it is often glossed over or covered up. From what I can tell, drinking, sex, shopping, gambling, playing video games, and working out seem to be the top methods of relieving stress. No major progress can be made on untreated PTSD, sexual assaults, and suicide without confronting alcohol abuse. I remain unconvinced that there is a change coming.

While these articles focus on some positives (three of my four do), most discuss the issues I’ve raised in the last several paragraphs, but in a more detailed and eloquent fashion.

I wince when thinking about my views when I was 20, but then, I was 20 and had met few people, hadn’t read many books, and seen little of America and almost nothing of the rest of the world. And I suffered from the virility, arrogance, impulsiveness, invincibility, and ego-centrism of youth. My focus is not just on what are military does or how servicemembers experience it, but how it affects them and their families. And our society. And what comes after.

October 4, 2019 – After the Niger Ambush, I Trusted the Army to find answers. Instead, I was Punished – New York Times

September 23, 2019 – What Civilians Can Learn From the Army About Death Planning –

September 6, 2019 – The First Marine in My Battalion to Die by Suicide – New York Times

July 23,, 2019 – As the world grows hotter, the military grapples with a deadly enemy it can’t kill – NBC News

June 1, 2019: Horrifying Responses on Army Twitter –

May 25, 2019: A Battle in Falluja, Revisited – New York Times

April 24, 2019: VA and Officials: Battling an Unrelenting Tide of Suicides – New York Times

April 13, 2019: Reading ‘Slaughter House Five’ in Baghdad: what Vonnegut taught me what comes after a war – Washington Post

December 17, 2018: Even a War Hero Is Not Above the Law – New York Times

November 3, 2018: A Veterans Day Story –

September 11, 2018 – A Soldier and a Wonderful Leader –

September 7, 2018 – Veterans Don’t Get to Decide What ‘Respecting the Flag’ Means – Washington Post

April 14, 2018 – The Warrior at the Mall – New York Times