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Games Master Manipulators Play: Gaslighting

The purpose of gaslighting is to sow confusion, doubt, and self-distrust.

Key points

  • Gaslighting is a form of interpersonal psychological warfare.
  • It has the effect of causing victims to doubt their own perception of reality.
  • The goal of gaslighting is to steal another person's power and transfer it to the manipulator.

A few years ago, as I drove through the narrow, one-way streets just outside New Orleans’ French Quarter, a minivan traveling on a cross street pulled out in front of me. I T-boned into it at about 30 miles per hour. Except for a few bruises, no one was hurt, but both vehicles were totaled.

The minivan’s driver, a middle-aged woman, was speeding the wrong way up a one-way street. I had the right of way, but there was no stop sign facing in the direction she was traveling. So she came barreling into my path before I could hit the brakes.

As we waited for police and exchanged insurance information, I learned she was an Air Force spouse from a neighboring state. She had gotten lost and didn’t realize she was driving the wrong way on that residential cross-street. We were both in mild shock, but she lapsed into a state that seemed more frightened than stunned. Her palpable state of fear persisted even after my shock wore off.

The trunk of my car was still intact, so we used that as a desktop to lay out our identification documents. During the search for her insurance card, she placed several personal items on the trunk, one of which was a small notebook. It fell open to a page of haphazardly scribbled notes that I had no business seeing—but there they were. As she continued rummaging in her purse, I caught a glimpse into what may have been the life of an emotionally abused spouse.

This unfortunate lady’s notes were of this nature:

  • I must be better organized.
  • I must not charge anything expensive without permission.
  • I must always be aware that my actions affect my husband’s career.
  • I must always keep my husband informed of my whereabouts.
  • I must take responsibility for my mistakes.
  • I must not gossip.

There were about 20 of these cringe-worthy admonitions scribbled in her frantic handwriting. I began to understand her fear. While there may be other explanations for these intense notes, I think the most likely one is gaslighting. I concluded that she was being gaslighted by a domineering, manipulative husband. Just imagine her panic at having to tell him that she had caused a major traffic accident in New Orleans.

Mental Malware

Gaslight is a 1944 mystery film set in Victorian London. It stars Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman as husband and wife. The husband, to cover up his crimes of murder and theft, manipulates his wife in ways that cause her to question what is real and to doubt her own sanity. He moves objects around the house, tells her she has forgotten things when she hasn’t, convinces her that friends and family are not to be trusted, and causes the gas lights of the home to flicker while denying that it is happening.

Gaslighting is a Machiavellian tactic that may include denying that certain events took place, distorting the truth, outright lying, blaming the victim for the abusive behavior, minimizing the victim's feelings and experiences, withholding information, negatively stereotyping the victim, and intimidation. The list of possible tactics can go on and on. The purpose of gaslighting is to sow confusion, doubt, and self-distrust so that the manipulator can exert control over the victim. Any form of deception, distortion, or undermining that accomplishes that result probably counts as gaslighting.


This woman appeared to be fearful and under intense pressure to remake her entire personality. What can we learn from her example? Her extreme self-improvement regimen was unrealistic. By putting herself under that kind of pressure, she was more likely to damage her mental health than to improve her life. If gaslighting was the source of her distress as I suspected, she had chosen to torture herself for the sake of her marriage. None of these choices would be sustainable.

No one can gaslight another person without the victim's cooperation. Imagine the shock a manipulator would experience if the usual criticism, lies, distortion, blame, and other onslaughts were suddenly met with indifference and disbelief rather than acceptance. If the traffic accident lady did indeed have a manipulative, controlling spouse, she desperately needed to set some boundaries with him.

“They who cannot be wise are almost always cunning.” — Samuel Johnson

© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.

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