Gaslighting

Woman covering face with hands, looking downGaslighting is a colloquial term that describes a type of psychological abuse in which the abuser denies the victim’s reality, causing him/her to question him/herself, his/her memory, or his/her perceptions. The term gaslighting is also sometimes used to apply to the use of inflammatory behavior or language that provokes someone to behave in an uncharacteristic way.

What Is Gaslighting?

The term originates with a 1938 play called “Gas Light.” In the play, a woman’s husband tries to convince her that she is mentally unstable by making small changes in her environment—for example, by insisting that the gas lights he dimmed do not look dim to him and by hiding her belongings.

Gaslighting is often used an abusive tactic by those with narcissistic and psychopathic personalities, and it can happen without actual environmental manipulation. The aim of the abuse is to make the victim doubt his/her perception of reality, and gaslighting tactics can be entirely verbal or emotional.

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Often, victims of this abuse may start out by challenging the perpetrator, who then turns the situation around by gaslighting them. In doing so, he or she causes the victim to question themselves and in doing so, draws attention away from the abuse. For example, someone might claim that his or her partner engaged in name-calling, yelling, or breaking of that person’s possessions. The partner might avoid taking the blame with gaslighting techniques such as denying that the events ever took place, or pointing out that other person’s transgressions were at fault.

An individual may gaslight another by:

  • Refusing to listen to any concerns or pretending not to understand them.
  • Questioning his or her memory, denying that events occurred in the way the victim (accurately) remembers.
  • Changing the subject to divert the victim’s attention from a topic, trivializing their concerns.
  • Pretending to forget things that have happened to further discredit the victim.
  • Denying events have taken place, claiming that the victim is making them up

Gaslighting may also be subtler or even unintentional. Dismissals such as “Calm down, you’re overreacting,” and “Come on, it was just a joke!” are less obvious forms of emotional manipulation that, when offered in response to a valid reaction, have the effect of conditioning others into believing their emotions, reactions, and feelings are not valid and are, in fact, excessive.

Effects of Gaslighting

Gaslighting can have catastrophic effects for a victim’s psychological health, particularly when gaslighting occurs over a long period in a close relationship. The process is often gradual and can seem harmless at first, but eventually, victims may begin to believe they are the cause of the perpetrator’s aggression. They may also question their own perceptions, stop seeking help, withdraw from friends and family, and become more dependent on an abuser, both because he or she now defines the victim’s reality, but also because the victim may come to fear that others will believe in the abuser’s version of reality and consider the victim to be mentally unstable.

DC1-02-gaslightingBecause this form of abuse often leads to increased dependence on the perpetrator, those who are being abused may blame themselves and experiencing difficulty in leaving their abuser. People who are victims of gaslighting may behave in ways that cause them to appear unstable because they have learned that they cannot trust their perceptions and cannot count on the validation of their thoughts or feelings. They are also less likely to continue to voice their emotions and feelings, knowing that they are likely to be invalidated.

Recognizing Gaslighting

Often, once an individual recognizes that someone is using gaslighting techniques, he or she may be able to regain faith in their own reality and perceptions. A person who has been a victim of gaslighting may benefit from reforming any relationships he or she pulled back from as a result of being abused. Having the trust and support of others can help reinforce trust in oneself and may also help provide the courage needed to break unhealthy bonds. Those who have experienced gaslighting may also wish to seek therapy in order to reinforce their sense of reality.

References:

  1. Firth, S. (n.d.). What is gaslighting? The Week. Retrieved from http://theweek.com/article/index/239659/what-is-gaslighting.
  2. Gaslighting. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/Gaslighting.html.
  3. Tracy, N. (n.d.). Gaslighting definition, techniques and being gaslighted. Healthy Place. Retrieved from http://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/gaslighting-definition-techniques-and-being-gaslighted.
  4. What Is Gaslighting? (2014, May 29). Retrieved from http://www.thehotline.org/2014/05/what-is-gaslighting.

Last Updated: 08-7-2015

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