The term “gaslighting” has been coined from a 1944 movie in which a husband who is trying to steal his wife’s inheritance convinces her that she is imagining things when she starts to notice odd and furtive behavior on his part. Their gas lights flicker whenever he is in the attic, searching for jewels he thinks are hidden there. He convinces her that she’s imagining things. Gradually, his lies and manipulation make her, and other people, question her sanity. Gaslighting has become a useful term for what goes on in some emotionally abusive relationships.
When gaslighting, the abuser finds a way to make the victim think she or he is “crazy” by steadily questioning their perception of reality. It only works because the abuser also knows how to appear like a friendly, even loving, concerned friend, lover or work supervisor at least some of the time. The victim can’t believe that someone who loves or cares for them would purposefully and systematically try to hurt them.
It’s important to remember that not all disagreements or differences in perception are evidence of “gaslighting”. Memory is a funny thing. It’s not like a movie. Often our memories are influenced by current issues or assumptions, by faulty information, or by miscommunication. That’s why eye-witness accounts of the same event by different people are sometimes so contradictory. All relationships sometimes have moments where one person’s memory of an event is at odds with the other’s. That’s not gaslighting.
Gaslighting refers to a pattern of undermining behavior by the abuser. The abuser regularly calls the victim’s perception of their reality into question. He or she is usually a talented manipulator of language, twisting any problem between them into being the victim’s fault or accusing the victim of being “too sensitive” or, ironically, manipulative. Often this is coupled with non-verbal dismissive behavior (eye-rolling, an exasperated sigh, a look of disbelief, etc.) that implies that the victim is stupid or irrational. Intermittent or simultaneous expressions of love, friendship and/or concern throw the victim into confusion.
It is the persistent pattern of this behavior that is so damaging. It can be so gradual and insidious that the victim doesn’t realize it’s happening unless and until there is a crisis of some kind. Over time, the victim begins to question his or her own intelligence, accuracy of recall, or even sanity.
Make no mistake. Gaslighting is not about love or concern. It’s about power and control. A gaslighter is someone who needs to feel superior and who manipulates people to further their own agendas.
How to extinguish gaslighting:
- Recognize the pattern of undermining behavior. Gaslighting only works when a victim isn’t aware of what’s going on. Once you become alert to the pattern, it will not affect you as much. You may be able to say to yourself, “Here we go again” and shrug it off.
- Keep in mind that the gaslighting isn’t about you. It’s about the gaslighter’s need for control and power. Often the gaslighter is a very insecure human being. In order to feel “equal”, they need to feel superior. In order to feel safe, they need to feel they have the upper hand. They have few other coping skills or other ways to negotiate differences. That doesn’t excuse the behavior. But knowing that may help you take it less personally while you decide whether to maintain the relationship.
- Be aware that you are unlikely to be able to change the gaslighter – at least on your own. Gaslighting behavior is the only way gaslighters know to manage their world. For that reason, they are not likely to respond to rational appeals to change. It usually requires intensive therapy, done willingly, for a gaslighter to give it up.
- Rethink whether the relationship is worth putting up with the constant attempts to chip away at your self-esteem. If the gaslighter is your boss or supervisor, start looking for another job. If the person is a family member or friend, consider how to put some distance between you. If it’s a significant other and you want to preserve the relationship, you will probably need to insist on couple’s counseling.
- Develop your own support system. You need other people in your life who can confirm your reality and worth. Gaslighters often try to isolate their victims in order to stay in control. They often further manipulate their victims by repeatedly telling them that they are the only person who really loves and understands them. Don’t buy it. Spend time with friends and family. Check out your perceptions by talking to other people who witnessed what the gaslighter is calling into question.
- Work on rebuilding your self-esteem. Remind yourself that you are a loveable and capable person, regardless of the opinion of the gaslighter. Help yourself regain perspective by reminding yourself of other times in your life when you have felt grounded, sane, and generally good about yourself. It may be helpful to keep a private journal in which you document events that the gaslighter is likely to contest. Record positive experiences and affirmations of your own worth as well.
- Get professional help if you need it. Victims often lose confidence in their own thoughts and feelings and find themselves nervously double-checking themselves on a regular basis. Sometimes they sink into the depressive feelings of being helpless and hopeless. If you recognize yourself in this paragraph, you will probably need professional help to dig your way back out of the devastating effects of gaslighting. A therapist can offer you practical advice and support to help you recover.