Gaslighting – systematically causing people to distrust their interpretations – is getting a lot of attention lately, invariably as a con-artist's technique for deliberate manipulation.
But gaslighting doesn’t have to be deliberate manipulation. Some gaslighters do want to make you feel crazy so they can control you. Others may simply want to feel sane themselves who can’t admit that they’re of two minds and so blame you for misunderstanding them.
Imagine someone of two minds, call them Mind A and Mind B. Mind A says something to you that you challenge but your challenge only reaches Mind B. Mind B denies it, “I would never say such a thing! You must have heard me wrong,” it honestly declares.
Gaslighting would be a symptom of people who insist that whichever of their attitudes they’re experiencing right now is the only attitude they have. They shift between attitudes but deny it. And if you don’t go along with their delusional belief in their mental consistency, you must be crazy.
Gaslighting as such can be a relatively innocent crime, a crime against your sanity that isn’t motivated by malice or a desire to manipulate you, but merely by someone’s need to feel consistent at any cost, even if the cost is falsely blaming others for misunderstanding them. This kind of gaslighting happens a lot in everyday interaction, even with people who mean well.
There’s no denying that con-artists and bullies will gaslight. But not just. Gaslighting is a common symptom of people who hold black and white self-certainty to be a virtue, and ambivalence to be a vice.
Some of us are honest about our inconsistencies and ambivalences. Others see inconsistency and ambivalence as marks of dishonor that they’ll work to deny at any cost. For such people, gaslighting is just another version of I know you are but what am I?
“You’re contradicting yourself.”
“No, I’m not. You’re just so inconsistent that you can’t see how consistent I am.”
Picture someone who sporadically turns 180 degrees without knowing or admitting it. You're standing in front of them. They turn around and suddenly you're behind them. So they scold you: "Hey you. Why did you suddenly jump behind me? I’m standing still and your hopping from one position to another." To make themselves feel consistent they have to call you inconsistent.
There's nothing inherently wrong with double standards. We are all of two minds about lots of things. Sometimes we're clear about when we shift from one mind or the other.
For example, you’re of two minds about driving. You think adults can and minors shouldn’t. You have a double standard – literally two standards. You can explain why you do, and you can identify the point at which you cross from one standard to the other.
Having double standards is in many respects a sign of mental health, an ability to tolerate ambiguity, to see the pros and cons, the upsides and the downsides, and to see that different rules apply in different situations. We admit to healthy double standards with phrases like "On the one hand/on the other hand." Or “I’m of two minds about this.”
Double standards are not hypocritical unless one denies having them. Hypocrisy is claiming consistency while being inconsistent, claiming to be of one mind when you're actually of opposing minds. Gaslighting is a defense against accusations of hypocrisy.
Everyday gaslighting can be a gateway drug to con-artist gaslighting. One can come for the self-defense and stay for the power to manipulate people. But only if it pays off, which we shouldn’t let it do.
We shouldn’t let ourselves be controlled by other people’s self-certain interpretations. For that, we need to cultivate a healthy attitude about our interpretive capacity, in other words, our intuitions.
Intuition is not some all-knowing sixth sense that knows in black and white what’s always true. Rather it’s your accumulating habits of interpretation, your ability to read your situation and guess or bet how best to respond. Your intuitions have accumulated over your whole life and indeed over life’s history since you’re an evolved being born with plenty of habits of interpretation. Your habits of interpretation are still accumulating. You live and learn, refining your intuitions as you go.
Your intuitions are not of one mind about most things, because your experience is varied. What worked once, didn’t work the second time.
Ambivalent interpretations are what the gaslighter will prey upon if you let them. Delusional about how consistent and all knowing they are, they’ll prey upon your self-doubt.
To resist, say to yourself, “That’s my bet and I’m sticking to it.” Your intuitions could be wrong. You know that already. If gaslighters say, “Has it occurred to you that you may have misheard me?” your answer is, “Yes, it has.” If they say, “You could be wrong about me,” Your response is, “Tell me something I don’t know.” When they say, “I’m certain that I have no inconsistencies, so you must have misunderstood me,” don’t let his certainty add to your doubt. Trust your intuitive bets and say, “Yup, you say you’re being consistent. I say you’re not. Either of us could be wrong, and of course, you bet it’s me and I bet it’s you.”
Szabados, B., & Soifer, E. (2004). Hypocrisy: Ethical investigations. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.