“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul.” ~Carl Jung
The term gaslighting gets its name from the 1938 play, Gas Light, and the 1944 movie, Gaslight, starting Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. The premise of the movie was simple enough — a narcissistic husband turns the gas lights in their home up and down at will to manipulate his increasingly neurotic wife into thinking she’s losing her mind.
The takeaway from the movie, and from the process of gaslighting, is that it is a form of psychological and emotional manipulation that is done by one person to gain benefits over another, causing a gross imbalance of power. One person may distort facts, make things up, or leave information out to get the other person questioning reality and eventually distrusting their own judgment.
Where Gaslighting Starts
Gaslighting is a tactic most common with Cluster B personalities that is used to gain control over a targeted person or situation. It does not discriminate between males or females, as anyone can gaslight. Most of us may think it happens only in intimate relationships, but this is not true. Gaslighting can happen at your job, with your family or friends, or in an intimate relationship.
Gaslighting is a learned behavior by children reared in narcissistic environments. Because trauma is often transgenerational, it means it can be learned — and carried — from one generation to the next. For example, If mom and dad are gaslighting each other, kiddo is probably going to learn a thing or two along the way, for survival.
Because human aggression can take many forms — bullying, gossiping, verbal or physical attacks — these are socially learned behaviors (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1961).
Turning Up the Heat
The reasons for gaslighting a person are always self-serving — to gain benefits (sex, money, a higher status job, more prestige, more control, etc.) — but the methods can vary, as long as the behavior serves their agenda.
Parents with addictions may gaslight their children to keep quiet about anything they think they saw. Or, if parents are in the middle of a divorce, they may twist stories to their kids making the other parent look incompetent or unstable by insulting their choices or parenting skills, …”I don’t know why your dad always does that. You think he would have learned by now.”
A person may feel targeted by a coworker vying for their job or who is trying to make them look incompetent if they’re up for a promotion…”Why don’t you give me your report to do? I know how overwhelmed you must feel after your breakup and with everything else going on. You should rest.”
A ”friend” may address the other person as crazy or nuts in a “joking” way to embarrass them around someone they’re interested in. Or, they may be told to “Get over it”, “Stop being so sensitive”, or to “Relax! It was a joke” if they confront their “friend” on their cruel behavior.
In intimate relationships, gaslighting may begin as indifference to their partner’s needs or feelings. It may escalate to comments tinged with animosity or insults, but often “covered” with humor to throw the person off balance, such as, …”Hey, that’s a great outfit! I like that one better than the other one you had on…lol.”
Common methods of gaslighting can include minimizing/discounting, rationalizing, diversion, being deliberately vague or misleading, or using guilt or shame. While these methods can be used by themselves, most are used together.
A gaslighter may insist that their partner is overthinking things (minimizing/discounting), while also shaming them for their feelings or opinion. An example may play out like, …”Babe, you’re getting upset over nothing (minimizing/discounting). I wasn’t looking at anyone. You’re so jealous and irrational” (shame/guilt).
. . .
It’s What You Don’t See (But Sense)
The reason gaslighting is so toxic to our emotional and psychological health is because the “gaslighter” often comes across as concerned for you or is using a joking manner to confuse or taunt you. They may say they’re worried about you, or that you should take a rest. They may “joke” that you’re getting forgetful, tease you about needing to set yourself schedule reminders, or shame you for thinking they’re being unfaithful.
Gaslighting hits on a subliminal level and we have to dig deeper and really examine the entire situation from a more objective point. Because gaslighting is slow at first, and gains momentum as it progresses, the first few times we may be unaware of what is going on.
Signs that you are being gaslighted can include feeling disbelief, or even a rush of jealousy or anger. You may raise your voice or dispute what they’re saying, or you may clam up and refuse to hear anything they have to say.
Go with your gut instinct; if something doesn’t feel right, there’s your starting point.
Regaining Control & Turning the Heat Down
Gaslighting is a form of devaluation, and is a covert manipulation tactic used to knock someone off balance. Over time, it can lead to that person questioning themselves, their memory of events, or even their own sanity.
For anyone who has been routinely gaslighted, tips to help you regain your sense of power over your life can include:
Documenting. Each time you feel you have been gaslighted, write it down — what was said, what the conversation was about, where you are, and what your response/reaction was. Try coming back to what you wrote down when you’ve cooled off and aren’t as emotionally attached to the situation. This becomes your evidence that you indeed did hear/see/experience what you believed you did.
Evidence. It’s very common for them to deny they said or did something while flipping the script blaming you. For example, if a gaslighter is insisting you are ‘wrong’ about what you got them for their birthday and that you don’t know what you’re talking about, provide them a receipt with the date. Boom. If they still try to deny things after being presented a receipt, you’ve at least got your proof.
Speak Up. Gaslighting is done with the intent to unhinge the victim so they won’t (or can’t) defend themselves against it. Be prepared for a backlash if you do speak up and defend yourself, and try to approach the situation from a neutral position. The more you can speak up defending yourself (and looking back on your documentation and evidence), the strong you become to stand up for yourself.
Know When To Disengage. Gaslighting can be accomplished through negative reinforcement — the more a person buys into being told “they’re wrong”, “they’re imagining things”, or by taking the bait, the stronger the reinforcement. Gaslighting is more subtle than overt verbal abuse, but it’s the same premise.
For example, an overt insult is telling someone to their face that they’re fat, whereas gaslighting uses covert techniques such as, “How can you want a snack? You just ate a couple hours ago.” In both situations the point is to attack the person as being “fat”, one directly, one indirectly. Once you begin piecing things together, you can begin walking away and disengaging from the bait.
While most information focuses on empowering the person who is being gaslighted, gaslighting does take two to keep it in effect.
Thus, the person who gaslights should have support as well, if they want help.
The fact is, gaslighting is a learned behavior, so it needs to be unlearned. While it may not have been your fault or choice in learning a dysfunctional tactic for survival, it is your responsibility to reach acceptance and make needed changes for your own happiness.
Because there are often deeper issues at play such as anxiety, depression, personality, or PTSD, these should be addressed.
Gaslighting is about thinking in absolutes — all black, or all white, which can make it challenging to treat.
The biggest hurdle is that most gaslighters won’t admit to having this issue. However, those in a place of wanting to change and are up for the challenge, can learn behavioral techniques to help them recognize when it’s happening, any emotional triggers, environmental factors at play, and how to positively change the behavior.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575–582.
Dorpat, T. L. (1994). On the double whammy and gaslighting. Psychoanalysis & Psychotherapy, 11, 91–96.
Gass, G. Z., & Nichols, W. C. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome. Contemporary Family Therapy, 10(1), 3–16.
Korobov, N. (2020). A discursive psychological approach to deflection in romantic couples’ everyday arguments. Qualitative Psychology, Advance Online Publication.
Simon, G. (2010). In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people. Little Rock, AR: Parkhurst Brothers.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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