- Your beliefs about yourself are at the core of your being and worth protecting from a gaslighters' distortions.
- Gaslighters, and other dark personalities, are low on honesty, humility, and agreeableness. Look at their belittling comments in that context.
- You can feel free inside even when coerced from the outside by a gaslighter.
Gaslighting is a selfish, manipulative process of controlling people by distorting their beliefs to cause them to doubt themselves and feel emotionally unstable. It's almost inconceivable that anyone would intentionally manipulate others' beliefs this way. There are critical reasons for taking prudent action to protect yourself from this toxic pattern. Your concept of self and worth is at the core of your being. Fear of loss of self can evoke feelings of terror and helplessness.
The original 1938 Patrick Hamilton Angel Street play and the 1940 Gaslight film helped bring this pathological process to light. The play and film are about a married couple. Jack is a hostile, sadistic, controlling individual and Bella is an unsuspecting victim. Jack set up Bella to believe she was losing her mind. For example, he removed a painting from the wall and accused Bella of doing this. He used this lie to justify demeaning her: "You are mad and don't know what you do. You unhappy wretch—you are stark gibbering mad—like your wretched mother before you (1-pg 21)." This setup is a classic dark personality dirty trick.1, 2, 3
Gaslighter situations vary. There is no universal solution. However, beliefs are changeable. Recognizing and resisting belief manipulations is a start. Let's look at three mind games, a typical dark sadistic process, how to keep perspective, and how to recover.
Gaslighter Dirty Tricks
Gaslighters don't publicly advertise what they do. They hide under cloaks of civility and feign innocence. Look beyond the façade, and you'll find domestic violence and psychological abuse 4, 5, 6. Let's explore three abusive mind games.
If you were a fly on the wall and watched John and Sally, you'd see how he manipulates her beliefs. John has an ongoing affair with a co-worker: late nights at the office, credit card receipts from motels. Sally asks John what is going on, and John blasts her with an accusatory verbal barrage. "You keep making stuff up in your head. What's wrong with you? I see how you've been eyeing Ralph (a neighbor). You have no idea how hard it is to live with a crazy person, always paranoid, always angry. I should have left you a long time ago." He added, "You can't even fry an egg."
John's accusatory "what's wrong with you" question is a statement in disguise. He's telling her she's crazy. Blaming Sally for "eyeing Ralph" is a paradoxical defense. John deflects attention from his behavior by accusing Sally of what he (John) is doing. Throughout this exchange, he bullies and belittles her.
Accusatory questions, paradoxical defenses, and belittling communications are common toxic tatics. The more extreme narcissistic sadistic gaslighters ruthlessly and relentlessly do most of the following:
- blame you for things you didn't do or magnify small mistakes into calamities
- twist your words to confuse you
- cause you to doubt what you remember
- take advantage of, or create opportunities to belittle you
- humiliate you in front of others
- encourage you to take the credit for the blame
- gloat when you appear beaten down
- act like a martyr for putting up with you
- control your interactions with others, or isolate you
- damage your credibility so that no one will take you seriously?
If you are at the receiving end of this type of process, how do you protect yourself?
Thwarting Gaslighter Manipulations
You can challenge gaslighter belief manipulations by refusing to take the blame and by reappraising yourself to ditch false beliefs.
- Is it possible for you to reappraise a gaslight problem in this way: you are not responsible for anothers' dark character? Given this perspective, you are less likely to take the credit for the blame.
- Is it possible to see yourself as a pluralistic person (with thousands of qualities) who has already experienced millions of thoughts and actions? You are immeasurable. How can a gaslighter's belief manipulations alter that fact?
Social support is an option. Who are the trusted people in your life who can help?
Recovering from Gaslighting
Here are three sample recovery techniques:
- If you continue to take the blame, such as telling yourself “I should have known better,” here is a question for you: Why should you have expected something that you didn't anticipate?
- The just-world belief is that people get what they deserve7. That isn't always the case. Hostile sadistic gaslighters typically rationalize that their victims are worthless and get what they deserve. Thus, no consequences should fall upon the instigator. Given that view, we might as well imprison victims and let instigators run free. Here is another perspective. You have no obligation to accept pathological versions of a just-world belief. By escaping a gaslighter, you've earned a just outcome.
- Gaslighting is a dark anti-social act. People with dark personalities are low on honesty, humility, and agreeableness8, 9. If honesty, humility, and agreeableness are essential to you, seek people with those qualities.
Recovery includes relapse prevention, and hoovering is a threat. Hoovering is a label for manipulative behavior where a tormentor seeks access to a formerly tormented person to continue the dark game, by sucking them back.
Suppose the gaslighter who once despised you tries to suck you in (hoover) by begging for a second chance or by acting as if nothing happened. Here is an incongruity question for clarity: why would my former tormentor want the defective, crazy, unworthy person he\she falsely portrayed me as being? Here is a reappraisal question: "Don't I deserve the second chance of freedom from belittlement?"
Your positive sense of self is precious and worth the price to preserve.
As a self-help manual, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anger tells how to develop self-mastery skills and communicate positively with impact to protect your sense of self and worth from toxic people10.
Dr. Bill Knaus
1. Hamilton, P. 1938. Angel Street. UK: Samuel French Acting Edition
2. Gaslight. 1940. British National film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYmtzaHwCKo
3. Knaus, W., 2020. Protect Yourself from Narcissistic, Manipulative, Psychopaths. Psychology Today.
4. Kutcher, S. P. 1982. The Gaslight syndrome. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 27(3): 224–227.
5. Houseman B, and Semien G. 2021. Florida Domestic Violence. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
6. Burnett, K. A. 2020. Covert psychological abuse and the process of breaking free: A transformative mixed-methods study on female survivors of male partners. Dissertation Abstracts International. Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 81(12-B).
7. Rubin, Z., & Peplau, L. A. 1975. Who believes in a just world? Journal of Social Issues 31(3): 65–89.
8. Howard, M. C. and Van Zandt, E. C. 2020. The discriminant validity of honesty-humility: A meta-analysis of the HEXACO, Big Five, and Dark Triad. Journal of Research in Personality 87 (103982).
1. Book, A., Visser, B. A., Blais, J., Hosker-Field, A., Methot-Jones, T., Gauthier, N. Y., Volk, A., Holden, R. R. and D'Agata, M. T. 2016. Unpacking more "evil": What is at the core of the dark tetrad? Personality and Individual Differences 90: 269–272.
10. Knaus, W. 2021. The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anger. Oakland CA: New Harbinger.
11. wretched mother before you (1-pg 21