Gaslighting is a term that is being used in the media much more frequently. It is used to describe a form of emotional manipulation that causes the victim to question their own perception of reality enabling the gaslighter to feel in control. It is a widely used behavior by dictators, cult leaders and narcissists.
The term itself originated in a play from the 1930's called Gas Light. The play is about a husband who slowly manipulates his wife into believing that she is going insane. He secretly hides objects, denies events that have happened and eventually causes her to hardly leave the house. He blames everything on her imagination or nerves. He does this all with the purpose of trying to steal valuables from her. Whilst the gaslighting seen in real-life relationships may be more subtle its effects can be just as harmful.
Dr. Robin Stern, associate director at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect says that usually “when people are abused there are signs that you can point to that are much more obvious. Someone who has been hit or threatened for instance – it’s easy to see and understand how they have been hurt. But when someone is manipulating you, you end up second-guessing yourself and turning your attention to yourself as the person to blame”.To illustrate this, she cites an example that is easy to understand. A close friend of hers was always running late. Initially, she pointed this out to him noting that it was not respectful. His response was to tell her she was “too sensitive”. But over time, when this dynamic would continue to happen, it would lead to arguing and when she persisted he would say, “You really have a problem with time, don’t you?” and she in turn, ended up thinking he might be right. She began to doubt herself. “I began to think – what’s the problem if someone is late, maybe I’m not being flexible enough.’” - How To Survive Gaslighting: When Manipulation Erases Your Reality, Ariel Leve, The Guardian
What Causes It?
Gaslighters have an intense need to control others. This could be in order to feel safe, to cover lack of self-esteem or as a source of attention (narcissism). Some gaslighters learned the behavior by witnessing it in their own childhood. They witnessed parents (or caregivers) gaslight each other or gaslight the children into doing what they wanted.
Sometimes its done to cover behavior that the gaslighter is not able or willing to face. The aim though, is always to benefit the gaslighter regardless of who's feelings they hurt.
In one such example, an addict went on a business trip. He withdrew cash from the ATM, turned off his cell phone locator, and stopped answering his wife’s texts or calls for the afternoon. When he called his wife several hours later, she demanded he tell her why he withdrew cash and what he had been doing while unreachable.
He responded, “I needed cash to pay for taxi rides and to give as tips. I was unreachable because it’s hard to get cell service downtown. That’s probably why my cell phone locator didn’t work. You know cell phones don’t work perfectly 100% of the time. I’m surprised you are getting so worked up. You really have high anxiety. You should probably see someone to help you with that problem. And you are so paranoid. It really is a turn off. I can’t believe you would pick a fight while I’m on a business trip. I’m disgusted with you, and now I don’t want to talk to you for the rest of the day.” She barely heard him hang up the phone as she stammered, “I’m so sorry! I wasn’t trying to pick a fight!”
In this example, the gaslighter diverted his wife’s attention away from his behavior by giving excuses that were unlikely, yet not completely implausible. She doubted herself, and this created enough confusion in the wife that when he criticized her and told her she needed to seek treatment, she wondered if that were true as well. - Why People Gaslight, MJ Denis
The gaslighters are often able to locate a victim that is less sure of themselves. The victim may have experienced gaslighting often in childhood, therefore, a gaslighting partner feels familiar. During childhood, they continuously learned not to trust their own perceptions or right to have an opinion. Therefore the behaviors work more quickly on them and they unconsciously experience childhood trauma again and again. However, anyone can fall victim to a gaslighter. They can be quite charming and accommodating when they want to be and will slowly build up the gaslighting behavior to pull the victim in.
These are the types of behaviors that are typically displayed frequently. It's important to make the distinction from unintentional gaslighting which happens occasionally and is not an attempt to control. For example, Mike notices his aunt in the kitchen struggling to get all the cooking done for a dinner party on time. He says: "you look overwhelmed, can I help? ". His aunt replies; "It's fine, I've got this covered" Though she clearly might be struggling, for whatever reason she just wants to finish cooking the dinner on her own. She does not have the aim of trying to make Mike feel off balanced, confused or doubting himself. Warning signs to look out for are the frequency, intensity, and intention of the gaslighting.
Countering - Questing the victim's memory and experience of things. Using phrases like You know you haven't got a good memory and I think you are getting confused again.
Diverting and Withholding- Dismissing or refusing to discuss an issue upsetting the victim. This could also be pretending not to understand the issue.
Denial - Forgetting or flatly denying something that has happened:
One surefire way to tell you’re dealing with a gaslighter is if they deny facts you both know are true. “They'll blatantly tell you that they never said something—or never did something—even if you were there to witness it,” says Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, an author and psychotherapist in Tampa, Florida. The goal is to make you question you perception of what happened. You might think to yourself, Maybe I imagined she said that; or Maybe I didn't actually see him do that—I just thought I did. - 5 Signs Your Partner Is Gaslighting You, Jazmine Polk
Trivalising - Trying to belittle or make the victim's concerns seem unimportant. Phrases like Stop being so sensitive! are used often.
Intermittent Reinforcement - They confuse you and draw you in with occasional positive reinforcement which keeps you feeling off-balance.
This person or entity that is cutting you down, telling you that you don't have value, is now praising you for something you did. This adds an additional sense of uneasiness. You think, "Well maybe they aren't so bad." Yes, they are. This is a calculated attempt to keep you off-kilter—and again, to question your reality. Also look at what you were praised for; it is probably something that served the gaslighter. - 11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting, Stephanie A Sarkis, Psychology Today
Gaslighting can cause psychological damage, low self-esteem and slowly erode self-confidence. The victim is likely to loose faith in their ability to make decisions, have increased dependence on the gaslighter and may isolate themselves from family and friends. This allows the gaslighter to control the relationship and act how they want to without regard of the victim's feelings.
Here are the signs:
1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself
2. You ask yourself, "Am I too sensitive?" a dozen times a day.
3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
4. You're always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend, boss.
5. You can't understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren't happier.
6. You frequently make excuses for your partner's behavior to friends and family.
7. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses.
8. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
9. You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
10. You have trouble making simple decisions.
11. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person - more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
12. You feel hopeless and joyless.
13. You feel as though you can't do anything right.
14. You wonder if you are a "good enough" girlfriend/ wife/employee/ friend; daughter.
15. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses. - Are you Being Gaslighted, Robin Stern, Psychology Today
Being aware of and able to recognize when gaslighting occurs is a powerful tool to help prevent it. Focus on yourself and getting in touch with your emotions and intuition. Things like meditation, reconnecting with family, friends and focusing on hobbies will help. When you notice any gaslighting behavior; try not to engage with it. Ask for clarification if you are unsure of the meaning of something and explain how the behavior is making you feel. Enlist the help of a professional counselor or psychotherapist where needed.
Arile Leve, How To Survive Gaslighting: when manipulation erases your reality, The Guardian - https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/16/gaslighting-manipulation-reality-coping-mechanisms-trump
MJ Dnis, Why People Gaslight, Beyond Betrayal blog - https://beyondbetrayal.community/why-people-gaslight/
Jazmine Polk, 5 Signs Your Partner Is Gaslighting You, Health.com - http://www.health.com/relationships/gaslighting-signs
Stephanie A Sarkis, 11 Warning Signs Of Gaslighting, Psychology Today - https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting
Robin Stern, Are You Being Gaslighted, Psychology Today - https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/power-in-relationships/200905/are-you-being-gaslighted