Recent discussions about fake news, Russian meddling in the US election, the Trump Administration’s “alternative facts” and other topics have thrust a clinical domestic violence term into the public eye with unprecedented buzz. But do the bloggers and columnists who use gaslighting to illustrate their arguments risk expanding the term’s meaning too broadly, divorcing it from practical applications for abuse victims?
The term itself is appropriated from popular culture. It derives from a scene in which a criminal husband lies about elemental features of reality in a plot to drive his wife insane. The 1944 film, called The Gaslight, led Ingrid Bergman to an Oscar win as Best Supporting Actress the following year.
In psychology “gaslighting” describes a form of deception frequently used by narcissists and psychopaths. It too often seeks to make targets feel crazy, frustrating efforts to make sense of one’s reality so that the perpetrator can impose a false reality upon them. It’s brainwashing that confuses, debilitates and distracts to achieve a slow, insidious torment.
Here are some of the surest ways to spot it:
1. Bizarre Contradictions
You were asleep six hours ago, so why “weren’t you in bed” when your partner was looking there? What did you do with your spouse’s vehicle title? He claims he gave it to you to put in a safe place. Neurologically abnormal people can lie in ways most people can’t imagine, and they will use this versatility against you again and again, often surpassing absurdity. They might dispute the pronunciation of words you use correctly, the color of objects both of you remember seeing or the reading for your temperature when checking it with a thermometer (“You’re not sick”). If the same person does this multiple times, something may be wrong.
2. Mystifying ManeuversEmpowHER writer Rheyanne Weaver writes that gaslighters may “move furniture around to confuse the victim and allow for more control.”
They might deliberately misplace or steal items that aren’t of use to them just to let you struggle in locating them later.
They talk “about you behind your back to make” friends and family “doubt their perception of you,” blogger Kellie Jo Holly writes, aligning others against you in any way they can.
Eventually those close to you may “not believe you when you tell them the gaslighter is abusive or out-of-control,” mental health counselor Stephanie Sarkis writes.
In the beginning gaslighters hook you and make you think they care for you. They embed kindnesses into their methods to keep you dependent on their approval, sporadically praising actions of yours that usually benefit them in some way.
Grief counselor and relationship writer Susan J. Elliott recounts that gradually, “you become so obsessed with the idea of getting credit, of finally doing the right thing,” that it becomes difficult to put the meaning behind your tasks back into perspective.
3. In the Victim, Conspicuous Self-Doubt
You second-guess your thoughts all the time and often feel confused, writes Elliot. Eventually you may struggle in making simple decisions. The incessant barrage of lies, skillfully mingled with truths and half-truths, has eroded your ability to scrutinize or challenge the many claims your abuser makes.
You have no idea whether the next decision you make will be the safe one, and “even when you think you’ve done well or you’ve fool proofed everything to avoid criticism or ridicule,” punishment will happen, Elliot writes.
Your abuser has confidently contradicted details of events you clearly remember; he has done this so many times that your memory has grown hazy.
“You no longer depend on what you remember because your abuser frequently tells you your memory is false,” writes therapist Nancy Travers, who specializes in relationships.
4. Bold Lies
One of the most evident indicators of gaslighters are statements you once recognized, unambiguously, as false, but that you may have since written off as misunderstandings or dismissed altogether, writes Sarkis. They told you to your face that it happened differently, right? They did so without blinking or any hint of ambivalence, right? Because the people who lie in this way often have personality disorders, their sheer confidence will compel you to drop your differing narrative and, in so doing, accept the new precedent. They can then repeat the same lie or other lies until you wear down, collapsing into resignation.
5. Psychological Violence
Many of the responses your abuser gives when you try to resolve questions smack of thought-terminating absolutes. Community Against Violence Executive Director Malinda Williams offers several examples:
“I don’t want to hear this again.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“That never happened.”
“You never remember things right.”
“You need to toughen up.”
These statements have an invalidating effect and form part of an attack on the very foundations of your being. You grow reluctant to challenge them because you are afraid of the abuser’s reaction.
“When called on their lies,” Dr. Preston Ni of Psychology Today writes, “the gaslighter escalates the dispute by doubling and tripling down on their attacks.”
They may express anger, Weaver cites, “because you don’t believe their lies” or “try to shame you for not trusting them.”
Now You Know
Weaver notes that gaslighting can take place within employment relationships and parent-child relationships as well as intimate partner relationships, citing a Psychology Today article by Dr. Robert Sterns. Sterns, who authored the 2007 book The Gaslight Effect, is associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
One of the most important keys to protecting your sanity is recognizing what’s happening and finding validation in some resource that corroborates your experience of events. In my next article, I will detail strategies you can take to further cope with these threats, beyond the blunt but conclusive solution of withdrawing yourself from the situation altogether. For the many who feel unprepared to take that step, I hope the information included in that piece (and within this one) proves helpful.
Weaver, Rheyanne. “Gaslighting: Psychological Manipulation to the Extreme.” https://www.empowher.com/mental-health/content/gaslighting-psychological-manipulation-extreme
Holly, Kelly Jo. “Brainwashing: Learn How It’s Done So You Can Undo It.” http://verbalabusejournals.com/about-abuse/brainwashing-intelligence/brainwashing-steps/
Sarkis, Stephanie, Ph.D. “11 Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-signs-gaslighting-in-relationship
Elliot, Susan J. “10 Ways to Tell if You're Being Gaslighted.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/getting-back-out-there/201610/10-ways-tell-if-youre-being-gaslighted
Travers, Nancy. “Crazy-Making: Are You a Victim of Gaslighting?” http://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/crazy-making-victim-gaslighting/
Williams, Malinda. “‘Gaslighting’ - a psychological and emotional abuse tactic.” http://www.taosnews.com/stories/gaslighting-a-psychological-and-emotional-abuse-tactic,19272
Ni, Preston, M.S.B.A. “The 7 Stages of Gaslighting in Relationships.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201704/the-7-stages-gaslighting-in-relationships
Stern, Robin, Ph.D. “Identify "The Gaslight Effect" and Take Back Your Reality!” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/power-in-relationships/200903/identify-the-gaslight-effect-and-take-back-your-reality