Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.
The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, and its film adaptation. Gaslighting can occur in personal or professional relationships, and victims are targeted at the core of their being: their sense of identity and self-worth. Manipulative people who engage in gaslighting do so to attain power over their victims, either because they simply derive warped enjoyment from the act or because they wish to emotionally, physically or financially control their victim.
A relationship with a gaslighter may seem to start out quite well. They may praise the victim on a first date and immediately confide in them. Such disclosure, before any intimacy has been established, establishes trust quickly; it’s part of a tactic known as love bombing. The more quickly a victim becomes enamored, the more quickly the next phase of manipulation can begin.
A gaslighter will initially lie about simple things, but the volume of misinformation soon grows, and the gaslighter may accuse the victim of lying if he or she questions the narrative. They typically deploy occasional positive reinforcement to confuse the victim, but at the same time, they may attempt to turns others against the victim, even their own friends and family, by telling them that the victim is lying or delusional.
A victim experiences increased self-doubt as the gaslighter insists that what he or she remembers, thinks, and feels is wrong. The manipulative individual will introduce lies in more sensitive arenas, aiming to disrupt and distort foundational aspects of the victim’s being, wearing them down, establishing confusion, and forcing them to rely on the gaslighter’s version of reality.
It is possible for an individual to manipulate someone without realizing they are doing so. Importantly, though, the gaslighter still enjoys wielding control over the mind and behavior of the victim, even if they cannot articulate or acknowledge this fact. Some people engage in manipulative behavior because they witnessed it frequently as a child, most often in their parents. Regardless of a gaslighter's level of self-awareness, the behavior is never acceptable, and ignorance of the phenomenon should not be accepted as an excuse for manipulative actions.
Medical gaslighting refers to a scenario in which a medical provider ignores or downplays an individual's legitimate medical concerns. This is a colloquial use of the term "gaslighting" and refers to situations in which a medical provider may not have meant to mislead or manipulate the patient, rather, they failed to take their concerns seriously or to pursue them in an attempt to reach a diagnosis.
Gaslighting can be more effective and successful than many people imagine. Almost anyone can be susceptible to gaslighting tactics, which have been deployed throughout history, and continue to be used today, by domestic abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. The most effective gaslighters are often the hardest to detect; they may be better recognized by their victims' actions and mental state.
Those who employ this tactic often have a personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy chief among them. Manipulators have a tendency to present one face to their prey and another to the rest of the world, leading victims to assume that if they ask for help or speak out, no one will believe that they have been manipulated and emotionally abused. Gaslighters typically repeat the tactics across several relationships.
Manipulation is a key part of gaslighting, but manipulation is a fairly common tactic, and almost anyone is capable of employing it while gaslighting, and gaslighters, are more rare. Children try to manipulate parents at an early age, and marketers aim to manipulate consumers, but gaslighting involves a pattern of abusive behaviors with the intent not just to influence someone, but to control them.
Gaslighting can be part of a narcissistic personality, but it is not a core trait of narcissistic personality disorder. A narcissist may be self-promoting and feel superior to others; a gaslighter aims to make another person question their own self-value.
A primary goal of gaslighters is to keep the victim hooked. If a victim disagrees with or questions their abuser, he or she may try to make themselves seem as if they themselves are being victimized by their targets. Alternately, they may try to lure a partner back with positive reinforcement. Many people eventually find a way to escape a gaslighter’s influence, leaving the manipulator to search for a new target; often, they already have another victim in mind.
When someone tries to leave a gaslighter, they may employ the tactic of "hoovering," which takes its name from the vacuum brand. They will tell the victim how much they love him or her, and praise all of their positive qualities. They may also explain how things are going to change between them. But soon after the victims agrees to stay, things tend to go back to the way they were.
Gaslighting can be psychologically devastating. It violates trust, upends a person’s view that people are generally good, and can make them suspicious of everyone who is close to them. Falling victim to a gaslighter also erodes a person’s trust in themselves and makes them forget what they once valued about themselves; after all, it’s easy to blame themselves for having been too trusting, vulnerable, or dependent. The experience may make a victim never want to be part of a relationship again.