Gaslighting, a manipulative tool causing harm

Although the term gaslighting has been used in psychology articles since the 1980s, the term has become “popular” since trump was elected president in the United States.

The name gaslighting originates from a play written in 1933 which was made in a movie in 1944. One of the examples of the manipulating behaviours implemented by the husband in the movie was to deny that the gaslights were flickering leading the “trusting wife” to question the validity of her observations.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse based on manipulation. The manipulation may not be detected at the onset of a relationship as it is not a constant and could initially be so subtle that it would be dismissed by the person who is on the receiving end.

There are a few strategies or tactics that fall under the umbrella name of gaslighting. All lead to confusion, and a questioning of ones’ sanity. Statements such as “you are wrong”, “you are seeing things that are not there”, “you don’t know the facts”, you are too sensitive”, you make everything in an issue”, “that did not happen”, “I never said that”, your memory is wrong”, and a total dismissal of factual information and of the feelings of the person being manipulated, are some of the most often mentioned examples.

The science section of the Guardian in 2017 quotes Ariel Leve, an author, who wrote her memoir stating that the most harm was done by the denial of reality, the complete dismissal of her observations. In the absence of validation by others, this leads a person to question their reality. This is more than winning an argument or stonewalling using the excruciating cruel comments “agree to disagree” or “your word against mine”. This strategy deserves a stronger name and “mindfucking” is not a bad choice, as the manipulator cruelly undermines all those who have the guts to question their behaviour.

Although perceptions are subjective, observations are not. These become biased when interpretated with added emotions and when placed in a wider or historical context. Observations are what you can see and hear and read and that are understood in remarkably similar ways by any reasonable person and these cannot be dismissed.

“Gaslighting happens in relationships where there is an unequal power dynamic and the target has given the gaslighter power and often their respect”, states Dr. Robin Stern, the associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Leve agrees that gaslighting is effective when there is a power differential. The person in power is idealized and respected and those who are manipulated feel dependent and afraid to lose the relationship. Regarding trump, the fear for the alternative which was heightened and magnified by him and his followers, added another incentive to blindly trust the amount of misinformation and to dismiss opposing views.

In May last year, I wrote a blog on Defensiveness and I mentioned the Gottman institute which is known for research on couple relationships. Gottman refers to the four horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling that are killing a relationship. Gaslighting fits right into this, whether it is the 5th horseman or already partly covered by the others, the impact of the strategy is so incredibly harmful that it warrants its own place.

Stern writes that those who gaslight have learnt this behaviour, which indicates that it could be unlearnt. Although gaslighting is a technique used by those who manipulate and abuse which automatically suggests narcissism, not all who use gaslighting may fit the description of a narcissist although narcissists use gaslighting as one of the most effective strategies to silence others.

Gaslighting is extremely effective, and therefore reinforcing. The technique ends conflict, re-establishes, and confirms the superiority and authority of those in power and provides them with an excuse to avoid accountability and responsibility. It is practically victim blaming. When repeatedly being exposed to these behaviours, the “gaslight effect’ sets in which means that the gaslightee starts to blame themselves.

So, how to prevent others to have this power over you and how to re-claim your sanity:

  1. Read information from reliable sources. These are articles and journals and books written by people who have studied the topic extensively. Regarding this topic these people tend to have research degrees in psychology or a related field.
  2. Read accounts of people who have lived it. These are valuable and personal. Reading more than one case study, adds to a solid information base. Focus on the commonalities and trends.
  3. Identify and name the strategies, the context and acknowledge the power differential.
  4. Trust your observations, and practice making notes that are as neutral as possible. Include date, time and context. Be extremely specific about the incident. Remember that our memory is not infallible. Notes are crucial for optimal retrieval.
  5. When required, tape conversations.
  6. Have people in your inner circle who you can trust and who you feel safe with. Validation of others is extremely important.
  7. Celebrate ! the rage and injustice you observe in yourself when listening to the trump supporters who blatantly dismiss any wrongdoing by their leader. This means that you no longer are suffering from the gaslight effect. You might feel powerless at times, but you are not alone. You might feel re-traumatized, but it means that you are no longer naïve and vulnerable. These insights will guide you through your current and future relationships.

Stern writes that in the 1980s, experts identified that mainly women were subjected to gaslighting in intimate relationships and although all humans can learn abusive behaviours, Stern noticed that the pattern has not changed. She blames this on the way females are socialized in our societies. Looking at the issue from the perspective of power, we cannot deny the gender inequality in all types of relationships where we detect the use of gaslighting. Please also see my Blog post on White and Male Privilege.


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