What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a term that comes from the play “Gaslight” and the subsequent movie. Ingrid Bergman plays the manipulative husband who tortures his wife to convince her she’s mad.
Gaslighting is an act of manipulation, regardless of whether it’s intentional. Gaslighting can occur in many relationships, including with parents, bosses, or friends. Gaslighting can be very destructive in relationships between couples.
What is Gaslighting? A Psychologist Explains
Gaslighting is a malicious power tactic in which “the gaslighter tries (consciously or not) to induce in someone the sense that her reactions, perceptions, memories, and beliefs are not just mistaken, but utterly without grounds–paradigmatically, so unfounded as to qualify as crazy” (Abramson, 2014, p. 2).
Ingrid Bergman (and Charles Boyer) portray this phenomenon in the film Gaslight. Boyer plays the role of the gaslighter, manipulating his wife’s reality with a series of deceptive acts. He hides precious jewels and accuses her of stealing them. Then he secretly places them in her purse.
He is known for dimming and lighting up the gaslights while telling his wife that the sudden change in light is her imagination. Boyer warns friends about his wife’s mental instability and isolates her. Boyer’s gaslighting tactics continue for a while until his wife feels increasingly confused and even insane.
Gaslighting is a control tactic that leaves victims in a fog of altered reality, where they question their perceptions and recall. Gaslighters can create chaos and hold all power while their victims are increasingly oppressed. They use triangulation (which involves talking through others rather than directly) and splitting (which involves driving a wedge among people).
Manipulative gaslighting can also be described as the act of ignoring evidence to support the victim’s testimony and labeling the victim psychologically or cognitively impaired. (Stark 2019, 2019).
Gaslighters use phrases such as “You are too sensitive”, “You are nuts”, “Lighten up”, “You need to help” and “I was just kidding.”
Gaslighting techniques often stem from social inequalities, in which stereotypes can be used to attack particular vulnerabilities (Sweet 2019, 2019). A gaslighting husband might accuse his wife of being too sensitive when she gets upset by his manipulations or too weak to deal with his gender-focused jokes.
Although there are some differences in the prevalence of gaslighting abuse among males, both men and women report gaslighting.
Examples of Gaslighting
Gaslighters are skilled at pushing buttons and know your vulnerabilities. They can make you question your judgment, memory, and even your sanity. Examples include:
Example of emotional abuse
Gaslighting is an excellent case study in domestic violence since it’s a common method for abusers of victims to isolate them while limiting their ability to seek help (Sweet 2019, 2019). This vignette explains gaslighting in a domestic violence context.
After high school, Chuck and Maria started dating. Maria fell in love with Chuck immediately. He was charming and funny and was often the life and soul of the party. Chuck reluctantly accepted Maria’s request to marry him when she became pregnant.
Maria was a South American immigrant and found herself lost in the language. She was often unable to understand Chuck’s snide comments about her, such as when he called her a ‘conniving golden digger’.
Chuck’s resentment towards Maria’s pregnancy grew as she became more obvious. Maria’s pregnancy wasn’t easy. She was constantly tired and had terrible nausea. Chuck would refer to Maria as ‘weak’ or ‘pathetic’ whenever he saw her resting. He also made racist remarks, calling her ‘lazy’ like all the other em.
Chuck was happy for the baby at times and even adored Maria. This left Maria very confused. Chuck became annoyed at Maria’s constant crying after the baby was born. He also blamed Maria for her inability to care for the tiny baby.
Maria felt increasingly anxious due to Chuck’s constant berating and her colicky baby. Maria often had to apologize to Chuck for crying. Chuck’s behavior during the first year of the baby’s life was erratic. He could be calm, detached, or angry, depending on his mood.
Maria didn’t know which Chuck version she would get, increasing her anxiety. Chuck saw that Maria was anxious and said to her, “Nut job” and she needed to get on with it. __S.16__
Chuck told Maria that she was too crazy to manage money and began to limit Maria’s access. Chuck informed Maria’s friends and family that Maria was mentally unstable. They wanted to see her, but he wouldn’t allow them to. He never answered the phone to Maria nor allowed them to leave messages.
Chuck would sometimes push Maria or wrap his arm around her throat. Sometimes, he would try to apologize for his violent behavior by saying “I’m sorry that em”
Chuck kept telling Maria repeatedly that she was unfit to be a mother. He would call Child Protective Services and even the immigration office if she didn’t get her act together. Maria was afraid of being sent back home to her country of birth, where she had escaped poverty and violence. Maria was terrified of losing her baby in custody battles.
Maria was socially isolated after a year of marriage and was dependent on Chuck for everything. Maria felt insecure and stupid, often wondering what was wrong. Maria felt alone, depressed and anxious and was unable to see the confident, outgoing and joyful Maria she once was.
Signs and symptoms of gaslighting
According to Robin Stern, Ph.D., author of the book “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life,” signs that you are a victim of gaslighting include:
- You no longer feel like the person that you were
- Being more anxious and less confident now than you were before.
- often wondering if you’re being too sensitive
- Feeling like everything is wrong
- Always thinking that it is your fault when things go wrong
- Apologize often
- Being unable to recognize the problem, but having a feeling that something is wrong
- You often wonder if your response to your partner was appropriate.
- Making excuses for your partner’s behavior
- To avoid conflict with your partner, keep information from family and friends to prevent them from knowing.
- Feeling isolated from family and friends
- It is becoming increasingly difficult to make good decisions
- Feeling hopeless, and not taking pleasure in the activities you used to enjoy
The first step to getting help is recognizing that you are a victim of your relationship. Next, consult a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist. These professionals can help you to understand your feelings and overcome any doubts. You will learn to manage anxiety and doubts, and how to cope with them.
According to a set of recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, in domestic relationships, acts of emotional abuse, such as gaslighting, tend to occur alongside other types of abuse.
Gaslighting can escalate to physical violence over time. Anybody who suspects they are being abused by a spouse or family member should seek help.
For advice and assistance with creating a safety plan, a person can contact domestic abuse agencies. A person might find it useful to speak confidentially with a therapist who has had experience in helping victims of abuse to understand the mental impact of gaslighting.