Gaslighting is a manipulative and insidious method by which an abuser may subtly gain control over their victim’s thoughts and feelings. It is particularly prevalent in, but not limited to, intimate partner relationships and other interactions where there is an imbalance of power, such as boss/employee, student/teacher, child/parent, caregiver/person needing care. Gaslighting is possible in any relationship between individuals or even institutions and the public they serve. It is a term you have probably heard used but may not know exactly what it is or how it works. Let’s explore this form of control, particularly in the common context of romantic partners.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where the abuser attempts to brainwash their victim into believing they are crazy. This often plays out in many small ways, imparting false information or perhaps staging minor disorienting incidents. They may say or do something and then claim they didn’t or vice versa, swear they said or did something that never really happened. Insisting, for example, “I told you to make the reservation since I didn’t have time,” when in reality, they had promised to make it themselves. Gaslighters may also deny something is happening that they can clearly see or hear but tell their victim it’s all in their head. Setting an alarm in a disused room, for instance, and when it goes off, declaring, “I don’t hear anything, you should get your ears checked!”
Origins of the Term
Gaslighting feels like it is straight out of a psychological thriller or film noir – and it is! While what is now widely known as “gaslighting” was not new to the 20th century, the use of this term to describe the control tactic originates from the 1944 film Gaslight. Based on the 1938 play and lesser-known 1940 film, Gaslight was a successful and lauded film about a husband trying to drive his wife insane, both to cover up a horrible crime and to gain control over her family wealth. Using strategic lies and manipulations, he subtly isolates her from society and increases her paranoia about her mental state. The title derives from flickering gas lamps in their house, which he triggers but tells her she is imagining. The popularity of the film translated into the coining of its title to describe this particular method of psychological abuse.
Effective Control Tactic
It can be terrifyingly easy and effective to gaslight someone. Human beings misremember things all the time or interpret the same situation slightly differently. Thus, it’s not difficult to believe one could forget a snippet of conversation or were distracted and didn’t register a particular comment. Gaslighting typically happens gradually. Victims may be frustrated at first or believe incidents were mere misunderstandings. The more often these occurences happen and the more certain the abuser appears of their story, however, the more doubt the victim may feel in their own recollections. As inconsistencies build over time, it becomes easier for abusers to insinuate there is something deeply wrong with their victims. Believing they are developing memory problems or a mental illness forces them to rely on their abusers as the source of their own truth. It puts them completely in the abuser’s control, perhaps without them even being aware that something is amiss.
Stages of Gaslighting
According to psychoanalyst Robin Stern, gaslighting typically follows three stages: disbelief, defense, and depression. At first, victims recognize particular situations or things their abuser says are odd or off but don’t think anything of it. They put it down to a personality quirk or a misunderstanding. As it happens more over time, victims may start to outwardly question things and “fight back” against what their abuser is saying. This is when the gaslighter will likely redirect the conversation, rather than answering any allegations. They will call their victim too sensitive, stressed, or uncaring: “I told you to get organic broccoli. You don’t listen. Don’t you care about my health?” They shift from defense to offense and subtlety get their victims to question if what they say is true and focus on that rather than the lies and inconsistencies. The repetition of these manipulations eventually wears the victim down until they are continually unhappy, insecure, and feel like a different person.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline lists five common techniques abusers may use to gaslight their victims: withholding, countering, blocking or diverting, trivializing, and forgetting or denying. These are all subtle ways to make someone doubt themselves or change the focus of their doubt. They may withhold by pretending not to understand or refusing to listen. They may counter their victim’s belief by questioning their memory. Changing the subject or shifting the focus are examples of blocking or diverting tactics. Making the victim’s feelings out to be unimportant trivializes their doubts. Or, they may just flat out deny something happened. These practices can help gaslighters feel in charge again, ease anxiety, deflect responsibility, or stave off conflict. They may allow them to “win” or bolster themselves by proving their victim “wrong”, while keeping them emotionally attached.
Because it is such a slow, manipulative, perceptual form of control, gaslighting can be extremely difficult to recognize – either as a victim or as a concerned friend. Victims may feel something is wrong but can’t put their finger on exactly what. Dr. Stern suggests confusion, inability to make decisions, second-guessing themselves, feeling they can’t do anything right, apologizing to their partner, and wondering if they are too sensitive or “good enough” for their partner are common signs of gaslighting. These symptoms can also be indicative of other conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and low self-esteem. However, if someone feels this way only or significantly more often with one person, it is likely that person is gaslighting them.
Unraveling the Lies
Recognizing the problem is the first step toward breaking through the oppressive weight of gaslighting, per Dr. Stern. She suggests using a journal to help recognize patterns and provide more objectivity in determining truth. Talking with friends, visualizing changes, focusing on feelings rather than which of you is “right”, and giving yourself permission to withdraw your commitment to someone you care about are all useful tools in this struggle. Though it can be tremendously challenging to sort out gaslighting manipulations from reality, once victims begin to identify and unravel their abuser’s lies, they can work to regain power over their lives and their minds. Domestic violence advocates are available to listen and support survivors of all types of abuse, including the psychological terror of gaslighting.
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