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The Short Version: People who find themselves in emotionally abusive relationships may question their own instincts or realities — a scenario often referred to as “gaslighting” today. Psychotherapist and author Dr. Stephanie Sarkis creates individualized treatment plans for clients who have endured gaslighting and other forms of emotional abuse. Dr. Sarkis also works with clients who are dealing with ADHD or mental health issues. Along with in-person and remote sessions, she shares her knowledge through published articles, podcasts, and best-selling books.
In the 1944 film “Gaslight,” based on the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, the main character is a woman whose controlling husband makes her doubt her own sanity. One way he accomplishes that is by making her believe she is seeing and hearing things that aren’t real. He claims not to believe her when she tells him the gas-powered lights in her room are dimming and brightening without apparent explanation.
“Are you trying to tell me that I’m insane?” she asks her husband in the movie as she begins to wonder herself. “That’s what you think. Isn’t it? It’s what you’ve been hinting and suggesting for months now.”
And yet it’s all part of the husband’s plan of mental and emotional abuse to upset her. That’s why the same type of behavior is commonly known as “gaslighting” today. Just as the female protagonist struggles to understand what is happening, so many people in relationships find themselves in similar confusing and hurtful situations.
Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, a psychotherapist and author, works with those who have endured gaslighting and other forms of mental and emotional abuse, and she understands how challenging it can be for people in manipulative relationships to stop doubting themselves and reclaim confidence in their intuition. However, she said it’s possible.
That’s why Dr. Sarkis wrote an article and accompanying book on gaslighting that highlight common patterns and help readers find ways to move past those relationships.
“My training is in cognitive behavioral therapy and finding solutions. I focus on what’s going well for you and emphasize that,” she told us. “We also look at what are some of your challenges, so we can put some tools into your emotional toolbox. The goal is to have someone feel like they no longer need to talk with me to make life decisions. Therapists should be happiest when a client no longer needs to talk with them.”
Through her best-selling books, podcasts, articles, and other media appearances, Dr. Sarkis is trying to help as many people as possible find that happiness in their lives.
Dr. Sarkis has been licensed as a mental health counselor since 2001 and has a Ph.D. in mental health counseling from the University of Florida. She’s also a clinical specialist in child and adolescent counseling and works with those who suffer from ADHD and anxiety — as well as their partners.
“I see people who have ADHD — adolescents through older adults — and the goal is getting them to function to the best of their ability. I also work with couples where one or both partners have ADHD,” she said. “Also, I see a people with anxiety disorders.”
Many of Dr. Sarkis’ clients are individuals and couples who’ve endured emotional abuse in their relationships. Her work in the area inspired her to write a book titled “Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free.”
In an online review, The New York Journal of Books wrote that the book will “bring gaslighting victims and survivors out of the darkness and into the light, helping them heal.” It is available in the U.S., and will soon be released in the U.K. and Australia, too.
“With emotional abuse, part of it is identifying the experience. Sometimes people aren’t aware that they’re dealing with emotional abuse, and that’s where the gaslighting comes in,” she said. “I work with quite a few people who have been in relationships with gaslighting and emotional abuse as components.”
The treatment is individualized to each client. After an initial 90-minute session, clients can meet with Dr. Sarkis either in person — or by phone or Skype — for an hour at a time. Sometimes she even works with couples who are going through collaborative divorce.
“I ask the person what they need, and we set up some goals,” she said. “We then discuss how often we should meet. Maybe they need to come in once a week for a while, or just once a month. It really depends on the individual situation.”
Dr. Sarkis is a frequent contributor to media outlets including Forbes, The Huffington Post, and Psychology Today. She is regularly booked as a speaker for events and holds continuing education training sessions for fellow therapists and professionals.
“I also have a podcast called ‘Talking Brains,’ where I interview people in the mental health field as well as others who have an interest in psychology and the human brain,” she said.
The goal of “Talking Brains” is to share information about mental health with listeners so they can learn strategies for self-care and find more happiness in their lives.
She was recently a guest on the “10% Happier” podcast with Dan Harris, and is also a relationship expert on the “Three Angry Nerds,” which is billed as the “world’s nerdiest dating advice podcast.”
“People write in with questions about relationships, breakups, and dating. I answer those questions along with the other host,” she said.
She also connects with clients and others who need help through other channels.
“In addition to the podcast, I have a newsletter about mental health issues. I continue to do therapy and coaching and assessments, and I have a YouTube channel,” she said. “I use different outlets to share updates about new research in mental health. I’m also gearing up to do interviews for my book release in Australia and the U.K.”
The term “gaslighting” has seen a resurgence in recent years, and it was runner-up to “toxic” as the Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 Word of the Year. But the emotional abuse characterized by the term has been around for a long time — well before it was brought to the silver screen in 1944.
Dr. Sarkis is working to bring the actions behind gaslighting into the open. She’s received plenty of feedback from clients with whom she’s worked over the years, and she finds herself humbled by some of the results.
“I’ve had clients and readers tell me that the gaslighting book and counseling sessions saved their lives because they didn’t realize that they were in highly abusive relationships,” she said. “People often leave me messages and send me emails telling me that. That’s been pretty intense.”
When she speaks about making a difference in people’s lives, Dr. Sarkis turns the focus back where it belongs: on the people who seek her help. It’s her clients, she said, who should be most proud of the difference they are making themselves.
“I believe that my clients work incredibly hard at making their lives what they want them to be. I’m just kind of the tour guide for that,” Dr. Sarkis said.