“I never said that! You are too sensitive…”
Lets. Talk. About. Gaslighting.
Gas lighting has been threaded into the fabric of our daily interactions, our understanding of society and culture, and without discussion of what it is and how to stop it, our reality will continue to be defined by those with innate power and harmful interests.
The Beginning of a Metaphor
The 1938 movie Gas Light introduced a psychological concept that remains to be both a largely unknown and rampant issue today. In the movie, an abusive husband slowly convinced his wife that she was going crazy. He used tactics that developed into a metaphor- subtle manipulative techniques exemplified by scenes where she noticed dimming of the gaslights in the house, only to have her husband tell her she was imaging things. After time, this insistent push to disbelieve herself allowed him to instill a mistrust of evidence, her intuition, and her reality; all further shifting increasing power and control onto the abuser in a more stable way.
This iconic example of overwriting someone’s reality through subtle manipulation while capitalizing on their trust and humanity has started a conversation that urgently needs increasing awareness today.
Gaslighting – What is it
Let’s make this simple – Gas lighting is overwriting someone’s reality by manipulating them to believe their reality isn’t true. Whether it’s subtle interactions or surreal encounters, this term describes communication that leads to the questioning of one’s sanity or reality.
In 1981, psychologist Edward Weinshel published the article “Some clinical consequences of introjection: gaslighting”, which aimed to articulate this dysfunction within the field of psychoanalytic. “ He states as one person “externalizes and projects”, the other “incorporates and assimilates”.
Since then, gaslighting mainly found its claim’s within domestic abuse education and advocacy. So while it is of utmost importance to understand this within the abuse framework, gaslighting also needs to be considered in the daily frameworks of professional and political interactions.
Another important point to note is that gaslighting is not always intentional. In instances where this becomes a commonality, it becomes a natural form of coercion and method of manipulation for people who reside and feel most comfortable in positions of power. Whether it is understood that they are stripping away another’s autonomy or not, gaslighting can be seen in relationships across the spectrum of intimate relationships, friendships, parents, and professional interactions.
Suzanne Falck, MD and Susan York Morris+ The National Domestic Violence Hotline
(*more in sources below)
“You are crazy- that never happened.”
“Are you sure? You tend to have a bad memory.”
“It’s all in your head”.
“People who gaslight become an expert at pushing your buttons as they know your sensitivities and vulnerabilities and use that knowledge against you. They make you doubt yourself, your judgement, and even your sanity.”
Withholding: Pretending to not understand or refusing to listen, “You aren’t making any sense. I do not want to hear this again. You are just trying to confuse me.”
Countering: Questioning of your memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately, “You are wrong, you never remember things correctly”.
Blocking/Diverting: Changing the subject or questioning of thoughts, “Is that another thing you heard from your friend? I don’t trust them. You are imagining things”
Trivializing: Making the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant, “You are going to get angry over a thing like that? You are way too sensitive”.
Forgetting/Denial: Pretending to forget what actually occurred or denying things like promises or agreements, “I don’t know what you are talking about. You are making stuff up. You never said that. I never said that.”
Isolation: Influencing others closest to you to believe the abuser’s reality, or priming them to make others believe that you are losing your sanity, comprehension, mental health, “Yeah, unfortunately she has been acting really strange lately. She has been confused, is very sad, and angry and irrationally puts that on others”.
Signs it is happening to you
The most alarming, and effective, aspect of gaslighting is that it distorts one’s ability to understand they are being harmed. Dr. Robin Stern, author of “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life” summarizes feelings and patterns found in victims that are unable to form a concrete conclusion.
-No longer feeling like the person you used to be
-Experiencing more anxiety and less confidence
-Wondering if you are being too sensitive
-Feeling like you do everything wrong
-Thinking it is your fault when anything goes wrong
-Apologizing too often
-Having a deep sense that something is wrong but being unable to identify it
-Making excuses for your partner’s behavior
-Questioning whether your response to your partner is appropriate (are you too unreasonable/not loving or forgiving enough?)
-Avoiding giving information to friends/family to avoid confrontation about your partner
-Feelings of isolation
-Feeling a sense of hopelessness
Gaslighters >> Politics, Professional Encounters, and More
Ever heard of mansplaining?
Same. Lets’ unpack this a little, shall we?
Every single interaction that we experience as humans, both professionally and socially, fundamentally involve an established and often innate subconscious power divide. This underlies issues involving racism, sexism, and disadvantages of hierarchical design. Victim vulnerability combined with a knowledge of manipulation and the victims increased compassion or less supportive resources create a perfect and often subtle and undetectable storm.
Gaslighters can discount perceptions of people producing thought in many ways, big and small. Ever go to a bar and say, “your arm grazed me”, just to have someone respond with “I never touched you….”. For the non-PG version, this is found in instances where men believe they have the right to invade a woman’s personal space or cross un-welcomed / unprofessional boundaries- just to respond with denial or claims that a woman is imagining it in return to any form of discouragement and protest…
Katy Waldman points out, in her article “From Theater to Therapy to Twitter, The Eerie History of Gaslighting”, that saying “don’t gaslight me” can mean anything from “don’t disingenuously contest this matter of factual record” to “don’t contradict my opinion.” Check out her article to read Waldman further dissect the commonality of gaslighting on twitter, in politics, and in a presidency.
[P.S- If only it mattered that the 45th Orange (sorry not sorry) has become a master of gaslighting while he preys on those with lower health and mental literacy… *sigh*]
Another stellar quote from Shea Emma Fett on Medium – “Gaslighting is happening culturally and interpersonally on an unprecedented scale, and that is the result of a societal framework where we pretend that everyone is equal while trying to simultaneously preserve inequality”.
Yikes – are we done yet?
Almost- Here’s my final say + personal experiences
Unfortunately, I have seen a particular crowd of people fall into relationships defined by gaslighting. This group of people are almost always women that are highly respected professionally and socially – all very intelligent, kind-hearted, gorgeous women with beautiful souls that do not want to believe any cruelty in another. Personally, I believe that while a deep sense of compassion and optimism in humanity is the greatest trait this crowd can have, it can also present these dangerous opportunities for manipulation and capitalization on good intentions and willingness to provide “another chance to change”.
What happens when these initial gut feelings and protests stop and become a norm?
Personally, I never believed I could let someone manipulate me. But, after capitalizing on my rawest vulnerabilities, relying on patterns revolving around my moments of greatest stress and distraction, and knowing my character just enough to know which “buttons to press”, it happened to me and became the grounds that fed a deeply abusive relationship. I lost my sense of reality, with a final cry for help from my brain and gut being seen during a night when I found myself quite literally transcribing all of the awful things said to me- just because I knew I would be talked out of believing the reality moments later. I used those words to set myself free, and moving forward, would find deep gratitude if my experiences and lessons learned could help prevent even just one person from falling into this deception.
A Movement in Waiting
While my original interests on gas lighting were sparked by the commonality of how abusers used gas lighting as a control and mental abuse mechanism, especially within domestic relationships, I cannot ignore the unforgivable presence gas lighting holds within medicine, professional cultures, and politics.
Prevention of gaslighting and resolution of abuse CAN NOT rely on the victims.
Let me say this one more time: now is the time more than ever to support others. This prevention/resolution/intervention/whatever must rely on those educated on gaslighting [so share this with your friends ] and able to provide interception to help victims out of these situations, because often they will not believe that they are being abused at first. Show compassion and patience, because there is always hope.
Importantly, it is not expected that one person shall save the day alone (though many brilliant humans I know try and often suceed!) >> There are ENDLESS resources available to help women in these situations. You could save a life by referring women or making your own call to the Domestic Violence Hotline! Statistics of abuse are stunning, take a look and keep an open eye every day. http://www.thehotline.org/about-us/contact/
The dangers of bullying or abusive relationships do not lay most within obvious and clear faults of character or blatant cruelty; instead they are often found within the interactions that strip people of their personal understanding, perception, and intuition in a lasting way. Gaslighting is difficult to articulate and is innately distorting and increasingly complex to understand and defend. Unfortunately, it is becoming a rarely understood norm that is increasingly underlying the tone of every day power interactions.
Let’s be better.
RESOURCES TO GET HELP
Call 24/7/365 1-800-799-7233 or CHAT ONLINE
“Some Clinical Consequences of introjection: Gaslighting”
“From Theater to Therapy to Twitter; the Eerie History of Gaslighting”
How to Recognize Gaslighting and Get Help – Suzanne Falck MD + Susan York Morris
“What is Gaslighting” – The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Shea Emma Fet