Gaslighting: the abusive manipulation of others into questioning their own sanity
by Beth Warwick, BA Hons
You may have heard the term ‘gaslighting’ before, but what does it mean? How would you know if you are a victim of gaslighting? To gaslight is to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity; to subtly attempt to drive someone crazy. The term came about from the film ‘Gaslight’ in 1944 which followed the relationship between Paula and Gregory, as Gregory attempted to drive his wife crazy through manipulation ensuring she lost everything she held dear. The film focused on the use of persistent lying, Gregory being ‘worried’ for Paula’s sanity and making her friends see that there was something wrong with her. None of this was in fact true. This control tactic is one used by dictators, abusers and narcissists. But, what would gaslighting look or feel like?
The purpose of gaslighting is to gain power over someone else. A victim of Gaslighting may feel like there is no stability or common ground in the relationship, with the gaslighter doing anything they want without consequences. However, if the victim does the same thing or even something more minor, perhaps even a genuine mistake, the gaslighter accuses them of all sorts. They might be called names or accused of cheating when in reality the gaslighter is the one doing the damage and behaving in this way, deliberately and systematically with the intention of controlling the victim and undermining the victim’s sanity and sense of reality.
Common signs of gaslighting include persistent lying, denying things they have done or said, their actions not matching the things they say and accusing their victim of saying or doing things that they haven’t done. These are all techniques used to ensure their victims begin to question their own reality or cast doubt on their version of events. You may ask yourself ‘Did they actually say that…maybe I got it wrong.’ when in fact the gaslighter is blatantly lying. When someone is gaslighting they are generally very aware of the things that they say and do to cause doubt and confusion. They play on making their target feel as though they are ‘going insane’ perhaps through a feeling of constant paranoia while they continue to behave in the same way as always. They know that the feeling of confusion they instil weakens their victim psychologically and influences their reactions to future events. Having been worn down, and beginning to question their own judgement, in future they may begin to accept the gaslighter’s version of events and feel as though they themselves ‘got it wrong’. They may imply ‘you are imagining things’ which would again make their victim question their own sense of reality and fill them with self-doubt.
A gaslighter might accuse their victim of ‘changing the goal posts’, implying that their victim is constantly changing the boundaries of what has been acceptable and what hasn’t in the relationship in the past. This could be who it is acceptable to go out with, or perhaps the target has a good friend the gaslighter seemed ok with and now they have said they aren’t happy with the dynamic of the relationship. These subtle shifts and accusations are used in an attempt to control and obtain power over the victim. Putting their victim on the defensive will distract their focus away from the gaslighting behaviours, as there most likely won’t be anything different about the situation the victim has been in at all. However, if confronted about their hurtful or confusing behaviours, the gaslighter will often make the victim feel guilty for saying anything.
Gaslighting is a specific type of abuse used with the intention of controlling another person by causing them to doubt their own reality, and so becoming increasingly dependent on the abuser. The gaslighter will manipulate their victim to the point of no return. Then they will be able to act as they do and ensure their victim will be disarmed to say or do anything against it, this is exactly what they want. It is a very dangerous form of abuse and should be viewed as such. A healthy, loving relationship by definition doesn’t include deceit, manipulation or lies.
The effect of gaslighting is often very negative and insidious, and can be carried through life for a long time. Victims can mistrust others in the future and fear being treated in the same way. It is a horrible form of abuse that is done gradually so the victims don’t notice the extent of it. A good way to put it is thinking about a frog in cold water, as the water is heated up it doesn’t jump out as it doesn’t realise the water is getting hotter.
Seeking help, such as with Hypnotherapy can help victims of gaslighting to overcome its negative effects, for example managing and reducing associated anxiety, regaining confidence and rebuilding trust in self and others. Support can help victims to move on with their life after being targeted by a gaslighter and can provide space to reconnect with feelings where they have been invalidated in the past.
Everyone should be able to live a life free of such relationships and negative treatment. Gaslighting can occur in any situation – at work, in your personal life, or at home. Recognising the existence of these behaviours in abusers can help you identify when you or someone you know might be a victim of gaslighting, and take positive steps to overcome this insidious type of abusive, controlling behaviour.
· Abramson, K. (2014) ‘Turning up the lights on gaslighting’, Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 28, p.p 1-30.
· Gass, G and Nichols, W. (1988) ‘Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome’, Contemporary Family Therapy, Vol. 10, p.p 3-16.
· Preston, N. (2017) 7 Stages of Gaslighting in a Relationship’ [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201704/7-stages-gaslighting-in-relationship [Accessed 29 September 2017].
Sarkis, S (2017) ‘11 Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship’ [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-signs-gaslighting-in-relationship [Accessed 29 September 2017].