Let’s put it this way — If I were on a desert island and I could only have one mental health tool, it would be . . . an understanding of the term “gaslighting.”
It is a pattern of psychological abuse wherein victims are manipulated into doubting their own reality. The tactics can involve rearranging or hiding objects to induce disorientation. Or they can involve emotional tactics like denying or distorting the nature of the abuse they are perpetrating.
The term originates with a 1944 film adaptation of a play called Gas Light which was performed as Angel Street on Broadway. The black and white film Gaslight, starred Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Ingrid Bergman won an academy award for her role.
It is the story of a handsome and charming man who marries a woman for devious motives (jewels). But in order to get the money, he has to get her out of the picture. And so begins his gradual, but psychological powerful attempt to make her doubt herself, her beliefs, and ultimately, her sanity. He also sets himself up as a sympathetic rescuer whose only desire is to help her.
Part of his plan includes claiming the gaslights are not dimmed when in fact they are. A small thing but part of a much larger pattern of creating instability, incoherence, and doubt. And hence the name of the film: Gaslight.
Psychologists borrowed the term in the 70s and it has been used in research as well as pop culture. It has been adapted to describe anytime a person emotionally manipulates, dominates, and intimidates another person, usually through guile and persuasion, but sometimes openly and with hostility, to make them believe that they are the crazy one.
I can still remember the first time a client used the term in my office. Almost as an afterthought, she said, “He’s just gaslighting me.” She was talking about her soon to be ex-husband and his constant attempts to turn the attention away from his marital infidelity and onto her apparent mental condition (which, if it was there at all, was made much worse by his constant marital infidelity). She explained the term to me and I went home that night and did my own research.
Since that day, I have used the term hundreds of times and I am forever in debt to my client who dropped the term so casually in my office that day.
Of course, I’d seen this concept play out many times in my practice, but now I had a word for it. I’ve seen many women who have been gaslighted by their spouses. That is the usual way it plays out, but I’ve also seen women who gaslighted men.
Many times the motive is hiding marital infidelity. Other times they want control of finances, or the loyalty of the kids. Sometimes it appears to just be a craving for raw power. I’ve also seen spouses gaslight the kids, making it easier then for the gaslighting to take hold of mom.
I’ve seen women who were miserable and married to intimidating and controlling men for 20 plus years, who were so successfully gaslighted by their spouses that they came in thinking they were the problem, not him.
One young client of mine is a hard-working and conscientious mom, employee, and student. Her husband on the other hand, abuses alcohol, parties with his friends and has admitted to cheating. He doesn’t have a job. Now that she’s standing up for herself and making a move to get out of the relationship, he is telling all their friends and family that she is the crazy one. And many of them are believing him. Gaslighting.
It’s not just spouses who gaslight. Parents can gaslight their kids. I’ve had clients come in insisting that their parents were wonderful parents. Oh, and as an aside, they tell me that their parents were verbally and/or physically abusive – things that today, might even get these kids removed from the home – and yet, their love for their parents is strong and knows no complaints. Gaslighting.
Kids can and do try to gaslight their parents, although I generally find they’re not as good at it as they would be if they grew up to be full-fledged psychopaths.
Bosses can gaslight their staff. I was once nearly positive that a man was fired from his executive position due to his abuse of alcohol which caused random acts of insubordination, even though they claimed it was due to errors on a minor report. When he approached his former boss with this notion (which I would never have recommended), the boss gaslighted him with a pat on the back and told him that he was “over thinking” the whole thing.
I recently had a client in a new job that required a great deal of skill. Instead of helping the newbie, co-workers refused to help her, or helped her begrudgingly, and in general bullied and undermined her at every opportunity. Gaslighting.
Friends can gaslight friends. In my research I discovered that even therapists can gaslight their clients. And clients who are unwilling patients will likely gaslight their therapists.
Now the goal in all our life experiences is to come into a state of forgiveness and tolerance. We have studies that prove that those are the healthiest traits for mind and body. But on the other hand, it makes sense that we must see reality before we can heal from it.
So the moral of this story: question and challenge your thoughts and beliefs. Are they based in reality or are they skewed and represent someone else’s reality? Is there someone in your life who continues to point to you as the crazy one, and you’re starting to think maybe it’s all part of a larger pattern of manipulation and control? Maybe you’re being gaslighted. Be true to yourself.
And if I ever get off this island, I’m sure going to have a healthy distrust of men, parents, kids, bosses, therapists, clients, jobs that require a lot of skill, friends, and handsome and charming husbands who seem overly interested in the family jewels. And then I’m going to live happily ever after, in reality, and true to myself.