“That never happened; you must be imagining it.” “Everyone agrees with me—you’re overreacting.” “You know no one else thinks that way, right?”
If these sound like a familiar refrain, you may have been the target of "gaslighting," a term blowing up like, well, a lighter thrown into a puddle of gas. A form of emotional abuse, gaslighting is dominating the headlines and social media, having been thrown around by everyone from pundits to columnists to late-night comics.
The term comes from the 1944 movie "Gaslight," starring Ingrid Bergman. In the movie, Bergman plays a wife, Paula, whose reality is slowly being undermined by her supposedly devoted husband Gregory. As he manipulates her mind, his nefarious goal is to have her institutionalized so he can gain access to her fortune.
The title comes from Gregory’s habit of secretly digging through the attic for Paula’s hidden jewels. When he creeps upstairs and turns on the lights in the attic, the rest of the gas lights in the house dim accordingly. Paula becomes suspicious, but when she asks Gregory about the dimming lights, he acts like she’s crazy. She must be imagining things; they’re just as bright as always. “Why don’t you rest a while,” Gregory suggests. “You know you haven’t been well.”
In some ways, the movie is dead on. The mind games Gregory plays are diabolical: He tells Paula's friends that she’s unstable. He isolates her from family. He disguises cutting invalidations as statements of concern. He hides her belongings, then questions her sanity when she can’t find them. In short, he messes not only with her, but with the people and objects around her to alter her reality and make her think she’s losing it.
But despite these touches of realism, "Gaslight" is clearly a Hollywood movie. Gaslighting in real life is more complex than the film shows—so this week, we’ll illuminate five tactics of this disturbing and manipulative practice.
Tactic #1: Gaslighters override your reality.
At its heart, gaslighting is overriding your reality to the point that you question your own judgment. Like most things, there are degrees. It can be as small-scale as telling a child, “You can’t be hungry—you just had a snack,” or as large-scale as denying fully obvious facts, such as this 2015 story about a man who got married, posted the wedding photos on Facebook, and then told his long-distance girlfriend it was a figment of her imagination.
To sum up, if the gaslighter had a mantra, it would be, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes truth.”
Tactic #2: Gaslighters aren’t out to destroy you; they’re out to make things easier for themselves.
Unlike in the movie, most gaslighters aren’t pursuing anything as concrete as a treasure chest of jewels. What they want is more psychological. The gaslighter wants the target around on a specific set of terms, with the gaslighter in charge.
For the same reason, gaslighting isn’t always conscious. Indeed, gaslighters don’t sit around stroking their goatees or petting a white cat while plotting to undermine your sanity. Instead, gaslighting comes from the need—conscious or unconscious—to control. Gaslighters work to undermine you so you can’t challenge them. Then the relationship can go the way they want. They get to have their cake and eat it, too, without the inconvenience of having to discuss things, compromise, or work together.
Tactic #3: Gaslighting is often fueled by sexism.
Of course, gaslighting can be used by anyone against anyone—it’s not always gendered. But it’s often used as a form of emotional abuse against women. It “works,” in part, because it feeds off sexist stereotypes of women as "crazy," jealous, emotional, weak, or incapable.
For example, in an excellent 2014 paper published in Philosophical Perspectives, Dr. Kate Abramson of Indiana University details a story where a female grad student discovers the male grad students have made a list ranking the female grad students by attractiveness. When she expresses that such a list is inappropriate, she is told she’s overly sensitive, that she’s policing innocent conversation among male friends, and really she’s just insecure about her ranking on the list, isn’t she? By not allowing their sexist behavior to continue unchecked, the male students suggest she is acting like the stereotypical “crazy woman.”
What just happened there? If a woman rings the alarm on sexist behavior, gaslighters use sexist stereotypes to undermine the woman’s complaints. Instead of taking her seriously, each of her complaints might be refuted as a silly misinterpretation or dismissed as her being too sensitive. In this way, the sexist stereotypes are used to reinforce themselves—an uninterrupted pattern of circular logic: “See, she’s just another insecure, overly emotional woman we don’t have to listen to.”
Tactic #4: Gaslighters make disagreement impossible.
Once you are discredited, any argument you may have is casually written off. When credibility is undermined—you’re crazy, a liar, unstable, a failure, or have lost your mind—anything you say is automatically suspect and builds the case against you. Therefore, you can’t disagree or protest. And the louder your objections, the more your gaslighter can smile smugly and say, “See, I told you so.”
Tactic #5: Gaslighters make you agree with their point of view.
Gaslighters need the world to conform to their standards. And they need the very individuals they gaslight to agree with them. Therefore, it’s not enough for gaslighters, for example, to insist that sexual harassers were just having a little fun. They need the target of the harassment to agree that it was all just a little fun. Ideally, the target would not only agree but also believe that she deserved to be undermined because she was being crazy, overly sensitive, or imagining things.
Now, refusing to witness or substantiate your reality is invalidation. But gaslighting means getting you, the target, to invalidate yourself as well. Not only does no one take you seriously, you wonder if you can take your own experience seriously: your common sense, your feelings, your memory, even what you’ve seen before your very eyes. In other words, gaslighting not only invalidates your experience, it makes you question your capacity to trust your experience in the first place. At this stage, your gaslighter has you right where they want you: beginning to doubt yourself and your ideas even when they’re not there to continue enforcing the message.
As for Ingrid Bergman as Paula, she is validated in the end and Gregory is arrested—but not before she dishes out some gaslighting revenge of her own as he sits tied to a chair. In a final attempt to manipulate her, Gregory tells her to get a knife and cut him free, but as she pulls his knife from a drawer she proclaims, “There is no knife here; you must have dreamed you put it here,” before tossing it away and quipping, “I am always losing things.”
Whether in Hollywood or your own household, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Isolation is a key ingredient to gaslighting, so if this article spoke to you, reach out. Having just one person validate your experience can be a lifeline that begins the process of reeling yourself in from all the lies to believing your own truth again.
To learn more, visit ellenhendriksen.com
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