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4 Reasons Why Some People Are More Vulnerable to Gaslighting

Conflict avoidance, self-doubt, and more.

Key points

  • All forms of verbal abuse, including gaslighting, depend on one person having more power than the other.
  • It is easy for an adult to gaslight a child because children believe that adults have superior knowledge and perception.
  • Like all verbal abusers, the gaslighter hones in on the target's insecurities, vulnerabilities, fears, and neediness.
Eric Ward/Unsplash
Source: Eric Ward/Unsplash

Well, it’s official: Merriam-Webster has named “gaslighting” the 2022 word of the year. This is pretty amazing for a word that began as a title of a play, Gas Light in 1933 and then became a movie, Gaslight, in 1944 starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the movie, Boyer manipulates Bergman and distracts her from his criminality by trying to convince her that she’s going insane. And there we have it: Gaslighting describes the effort to convince you that your grasp on reality is tenuous at best and that what you think you saw or heard simply didn’t happen.

Gaslighting a child is remarkably easy since the adult is the voice of authority, sets the rules of the little world the child inhabits, and has superior knowledge of the real world, or so the child believes. (This is explored at length in another post.) The adult knows the power of his or her words full well. What child can stand up to the statement, “That never happened. You’re making it up"?

But what makes gaslighting another adult work? The key thing to remember is that the gaslighter—like all verbal abusers—operates from what they know to be your fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities, and neediness. Additionality, as in other types of verbal abuse, there has to be an imbalance of power with the gaslighter holding the cards. That imbalance of power can be literal (a boss who can fire you, a colleague who can make your workday untenable, a spouse who holds the purse strings, a parent on whom you depend financially and emotionally) or symbolic (a partner who is less invested in the relationship than you, a spouse whom you can’t imagine living without).

Looking at what makes you vulnerable

Self-confidence, belief in your own perceptions, and a degree of independence all provide the armor people need to resist gaslighting. That said, let’s look at what leaves some people open to it.

Childhood experiences. Perhaps the greatest vulnerability is experiencing gaslighting in childhood and not recognizing it, not even as an adult. This sounds counterintuitive but in the research for my new book, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, and Recovering, one anecdotal finding that emerged, again and again, was the normalization of verbal abuse in the family of origin in all of its forms, including gaslighting. This was Elle, now 38, and her experience:

"As I got older—let’s say 9 or 10—and I started to call my mother out for the nasty things she said to me and about me, she’d tell me that she’d never said that or that I was given to ‘making things up.’ It became a family activity— as in, ‘Oh, that Elle has such a vivid imagination, always seeing and hearing things that aren’t there’—with my brothers joining in. It was hurtful, of course, and made me insecure about my perceptions but I didn’t see it as abusive. I struggled mightily in college and my counselor was the first person to suggest that my mother was abusive and I fought her tooth and nail. I resisted the idea of it because I needed to believe my mother loved me. It was my first important and sustained relationship—the guy I would ultimately marry—who pointed out how awful my mother’s treatment of me was. And he even pointed out that it wasn’t my imagination. That was a breakthrough and I was 28.”

Elle was lucky in that she was only 28 when she recognized both the abuse and the damage it was causing. Many adults are much older when they finally get off the “normalizing” train.

Your inclination to doubt yourself. This is something the gaslighter knows about it and he or she stands ready to exploit it. The gaslighter will tell you that you’re mishearing his or her intention or that you can’t take a joke or that you’re simply imagining whatever situation you find yourself in. The gaslighter shifts the blame to you and the chances are good that you might even buy into it.

Your avoidance of conflict. The gaslighter knows that you will do just about anything to avoid an argument and he or she is counting on that. Faced down with directness and confidence—"No, you did exactly what I described and I am 100 percent sure of that"—the gaslighter can be foiled. But he or she is betting that you won’t.

You’d rather appease than leave. Again, back to the imbalance of power: Someone is able to verbally abuse you because he or she knows you’re not ready to leave the relationship and you’re much more likely to appease so as to keep the peace than head for the door. Under those circumstances, you’re much more likely to buy into his or her version of things—"I never said those words, I didn’t do the things you’re saying I did"—in the hope of keeping things together.

Gaslighting is just one form of verbal abuse but the bottom line is this: Verbal abuse is never okay.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2022

Facebook image: Dikushin Dmitry/Shutterstock

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