Michael J. Formica MS, MA, EdM

Enlightened Living

Gas-lighting: Burning the Bridges of Truth

Maybe you’re not as crazy as you think

Posted Sep 30, 2015

One of the more insidious forms of mental abuse has come to be referred to as gas-lighting. It takes its name from the 1938 stage play, Gas Light, where one of the characters, Jack Manningham, systematically manipulates reality to convince his wife, Bella, and those around them, that she is insane. Initially, Bella notices the gaslights in the house have occasion to dim, and mentions it to Manningham. He tells Bella she is imagining things, intending to deflect her attention from his frequent disappearances from their flat in search of the unclaimed dowry a wealthy woman murdered in the apartment upstairs.

Gas-lighting has been used colloquially since the 1960’s, finding its way into the clinical lexicon in the 1980’s. This was specifically in reference to those who attempt to destroy another person’s sense of reality. Sociopaths, for instance, who are charmingly deceptive, while simultaneously denying any wrong-doing, are notorious for prompting others to doubt their own perceptions. Similarly, addicts, in an effort to avoid responsibility for the consequences of their actions, will twist a thread of events to make them appear to tend in their favor, confounding even those who were directly involved.

We can think of gas-lighting as the ultimate projection. The ‘gas-lighter’ needs to create a specific reality, in part to meet their expectations and, in part, to shape the reality of those around them. For instance, someone who is selfish and unsupportive may say to their partner, “I would do anything for you, but you won’t let me.” Eventually, the ‘gas-lightee’  will start to wonder if she is unwilling to accept help and, with enough encouragement, may even begin to doubt if she is lovable. The manipulation here is undermining the gas-lightee’s sense of self until she believes the gas-lighter is the only one who is willing to accept her, and her alleged damage.

This may sound like an unlikely—and somewhat benign—scenario when it’s presented in print, but it’s very much a cornerstone of the power and control that underlies a profound dynamic of psychological manipulation. This particular dynamic, unlike the more traditional abusive relationship, is transactional. The gas-lighter presents a reality, and the gas-lightee, becoming more and more doubtful of his experience, slowly buy in, until he finds himself doubting his own sanity.

The resolution of this dynamic derives from the gas-lightee’s ability to trust her own judgment, and recognize that just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck, doesn’t mean it’s a duck. This means constructing a narrative that leads back to the chasm separating the experience from the reality and rebuilding that burned bridge to self-possession and free agency.

© 2015 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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