By Chad Perman, LMFT
At the end of each year, to great fanfare, Oxford Dictionaries selects its “word of the year”—a word or expression that has generated a large amount of attention in the culture over the preceding twelve months. And, while we’re only a few months into the new year, it seems a good bet that gaslighting—a term first coined way back in 1938—will emerge as a strong contender in 2017.
While those of us in the psychology field have long been aware of the phrase, it’s only recently started to appear with regularity in the culture at large, becoming especially prominent during the election. Gaslighting, essentially, refers to a form of manipulation, a psychological means of controlling somebody—most often wielded by narcissists, abusive partners, dictators and cult leaders—that causes the victim to question their own sanity. The process often happens gradually, but eventually progresses to the point where the victim can no longer trust their own perceptions or beliefs, often leading to isolation, depression, anxiety, and increased dependence on the manipulator. However, the reason the term is gaining increased relevance this year is not because of a rise in narcissists or abusive partners in our society. Rather, it’s because some concerned citizens—psychologists, doctors, and historians among them—fear our entire body politic is currently at risk of being gaslighted by those in power.
The phrase itself originated with a 1938 play, Gaslight, which was later turned into a film in 1944, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. It tells the tale of a nefarious husband, after his new wife’s jewels, who attempts to drive her crazy in order to have her institutionalized. He deploys various techniques to achieve this end, most notably by dimming and raising the gas lights in their home and then, when questioned about it, denying any such change had occurred, suggesting it must be a figment of her imagination. Over time, his manipulative tactics work: the wife begins to doubt herself and, eventually, her own grip on reality.
In modern times, those attempting to gaslight us—consciously or not—usually adhere to a fairly predictable playbook. Taken as a whole, their tactics might appear rather obvious in retrospect. But remember, gaslighting doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a slow, gradual process aimed at steadily eroding our own sense of confidence and stability, leaving us vulnerable to manipulation. Anyone can be susceptible to gaslighting, no matter their personality, intelligence, income level, or family background. As such, it’s become increasingly vital that we learn to identify it when it’s happening. Awareness is key: if we know the signs, we can know what to look for—and then label it for what it is rather than succumbing to it.
How the Gaslighter Works
A gaslighter is often enormously charismatic or charming, a crucial first step in gaining your trust, loyalty, or affection. Soon, though, the lying begins—the bigger and more outrageous, the better. This is perhaps the most important tool in gaslighting, because it establishes a precedent and, repeated often enough, begins to make you question your own perception of events. If you catch the gaslighter in a lie, they usually won’t admit to it; in fact, they’ll often blatantly deny they ever said or did such a thing (“That never happened”, “You’re making that up”, “It’s all in your head”). Again, the goal here is to make you uncertain of yourself, gradually eroding your sense of confidence and stability over time. Quite simply, they are looking to sow confusion, knowing that the less confident you are, the weaker and more afraid you’ll feel, which gives them increasing power over both you and your reality.
As confusion sets in, the gaslighter often moves quickly to further isolate or disorient you. In addition to lying and denying, they begin trying to supplant your reality with their own. They become dismissive of your version of the truth, attempt to discredit those that support you or your views as liars, minimize your reactions as over-sensitivity or an inability to take a joke, and at times even directly question your very sanity (in essence, to paraphrase a famous Groucho Marx line, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”).
The net effect of all of these behaviors can be devastating, especially in a relationship. Those subjected to gaslighting can fall into a state of perpetual confusion, depression, anxiety, or resignation. The constant onslaught of emotional abuse takes its toll, leaving the victim feeling stuck, hopeless, and dependent on their abuser.
How to Heal
Thankfully, though, there are ways to stop the cycle, and heal the wounds it has caused. First and foremost is becoming aware of what is happening, and naming it, even if only to yourself initially. Once you’ve learned what gaslighting is—how it works and what its effects can be—then you can begin to reclaim your voice, confidence, and sanity.
Here are a few ways to start:
- Trust your intuition.
Listen to your own gut feelings. A gaslighter wants you to lose faith in yourself, because that means you’ll be more likely to give up control. But by continually checking in with—and believing—yourself, they won’t be able to undermine your reality.
- Limit engagement and conversations with gaslighters
If you have to engage with someone who you feel is gaslighting you, keep the conversation short, and consider using phrases like “I’m not comfortable with you telling me what my experience is”, “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree”, or “I don’t like how this conversation is going, and need to take a break.”
- Practice self-compassion
Quite often, those being gaslighted begin to blame themselves for the situation, or feel as if they somehow deserve it. However, this is never the case (in fact, it’s actually part of the gaslighting). Be kind to yourself, practice good self-care, and always remember that you deserve respect and/or love from those around you.
- Build a strong support system.
Talk with trusted friends, loved ones, or a therapist about the situation. Be open and honest about what’s going on, and enlist their support.
(header image © Warner Brothers 1944)