The term gaslighting comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, which was later made into a film in 1944 starring Ingrid Bergman. In both the play and movie, a wife becomes concerned about the dimming of her upstairs lights. When she discusses it with her husband, he dismisses the incident by repeatedly suggesting it is “in her head.” Gradually the wife begins to doubt her sanity. In reality, the husband is causing the lights to dim in an attempt to make her doubt her own mind.
Gaslighting is an extreme form of emotional manipulation that is aimed at controlling the way someone sees themselves and their reality. Through tactics such as denial, lying, and contradiction, this form of psychological abuse tries to destabilize a person from the outside in.
People with personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder, may use gaslighting as a way to control spouses, children, co-workers, or any other relationship where the person with a character disorder feels vulnerable. Psychologist Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, describes some of the warning signs of gas lighting: “They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof. You know they said they would do something; you know you heard it. But they out and out deny it. It makes you start questioning your reality — maybe they never said that thing.”
Since gaslighting is usually only one symptom of a much bigger problem, other noteworthy behaviors include:
- The ability to charm during the early stage of a relationship.
- Using pity as a mechanism to trigger guilt.
- Extreme anger over anything rejection related.
- Stalking. Whether online, in the car, or in person, this behavior is often found with those who gaslight.
Oftentimes those who gaslight have superficial relationships with those around them. They may keep friends at a distance and only see them for a short period of time over long intervals of absence. They may present themselves in an entirely different light to people who do not see them day in and day out. Those they do have romantic or familial relationships with, are often isolated from their own friends or family. It is as if a line has been drawn around those that have found themselves too close. Once inside the circle, it can be extremely difficult to get out. Because of the severity of this extreme and controlling behavior, someone who gaslights often finds themself very alone. Family may not stick around, friends may never materialize.
If you suspect you may be a victim of gaslighting, ask yourself these questions:
- Is there something that just “isn’t right”, but you can’t put your finger on it?
- Do you have less self-esteem than you used to?
- Do you doubt your abilities to function despite what others may say?
- Do you feel confused?
- Do you feel like you’re constantly “overly-sensitive” or “just being dramatic”?
- Do you distrust yourself?
- Do you doubt your opinions?
- Do you feel isolated?
Recovery from gaslighting requires recognition. It is hard to recognize your own thoughts as real if the only person you’re around is someone who’s telling you they aren’t. Calling friends, finding a therapist, and talking to family are all good ideas to combat isolation.
Since most people who gaslight control finances, having a plan before leaving is imperative. Whether this is finding a way to learn a skill or finding a job through a friend, once you leave someone who uses this tactic, it can be dangerous to return. Becoming independent will take discipline and a strong support system. This may seem daunting at first, but the relationship one has to the gaslighter will never be like it was in the beginning.
Being subjected to this form of manipulation can be traumatic and it may be crucial to seek therapy. As Ariel Leve explains, “it wasn’t the loudest and scariest explosions that caused the most damage. It wasn’t the physical violence or the verbal abuse or the lack of boundaries and inappropriate behavior. What did the real damage was the denial that these incidents ever occurred.”