Call me crazy: The subtle power of gaslighting

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Juli Breines and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on April 16, 2012.

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over, but had me believing it was always something that I’d done, sings Kimbra in Gotye’s “Somebody that I used to know.” In psychology, this phenomenon is called “gaslighting,” a term that has its origins in a 1938 play (and a 1940 film) called Gas Lightwhere a man leads his wife to believe that she is insane in order to steal from her. When she notices strange events, such as the gas light dimming that occurs when he turns on the lights in the attic to search for her collection of jewels, he tells her it’s just her imagination. His goal is to remove her credibility so that her complaints can be attributed to her psychosis, rather than to his misdeeds. Gaslighting is now used to refer to any attempt to make another person doubt their sense of reality.

Gotye and Kimbra

Gaslighting may also occur at the hands of those who have a vested interest in protecting potential offenders, or protecting themselves from acknowledging a disturbing reality. For example, CNN recently reported that a number of women in the U.S. military were diagnosed with personality disorders and discharged when they came forward with allegations of sexual assault. Veterans advocate Anu Bhagwati told CNN, “It’s extremely convenient to slap a false diagnosis on a young woman… and then just get rid of them so you don’t have to deal with that problem in your unit.” Unfortunately, this “blame the victim” mentality compounds the trauma of assault, making victims feel even more alone and ashamed. It is important to note that this problem is not specific to the military (nor is it the experience of every woman in the military)–it can happen in a range of contexts.A classic example of psychological gaslighting is the following: Spouse A has an extramarital affair and tries to cover it up. Spouse B finds a suspicious text message in A’s phone and expresses concern to A. A then accuses B of being paranoid, and this pattern repeats every time B raises concerns. Eventually B begins to question his or her own perceptions.

According to Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, tell-tale signs that you might be a victim of gaslighting include constantly second-guessing yourself, having trouble making decisions, frequently asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?,” and making excuses for a partner’s behaviors to family of friends. If this sounds like you, it may be helpful to seek professional support. Gaslighting is powerful, and overcoming it is not easy to do alone.

You may also recognize instances of gaslighting in your everyday life. For example, perhaps you went into a conversation prepared to constructively express your dissatisfaction with someone’s behavior, and then found yourself apologizing. Or perhaps you took on the gaslighter role when you wanted to avoid owning up to a mistake. It’s also possible that what appears to be gaslighting could simply represent different perceptions of the same reality, neither one being more objectively true (see Amie’s Two Ways to Right). But even seemingly benign forms of gaslighting can have adverse consequences for mental health and should be taken seriously.

According to Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, tell-tale signs that you might be a victim of gaslighting include constantly second-guessing yourself, having trouble making decisions, frequently asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?,” and making excuses for a partner’s behaviors to family of friends. If this sounds like you, it may be helpful to seek professional support. Gaslighting is powerful, and overcoming it is not easy to do alone.

Reference:

Gass, G., & Nichols, W. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome, Contemporary Family Therapy, 10 (1), 3-16 DOI: 10.1007/BF00922429

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7 comments

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  3. Anonymous

    I’ve been wondering about cross-gaslighting as a learned style of relating… Is there literature on that?

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  6. Anonymous

    Gaslighting = preposterous concept. Borrowed from a movie, not nearly a concept conceived on basis of scientific or philosophical rigor. Rather, a populist nonsense notion. Realize that this term appeals to everyone because it fits into the blind spot that everyone has….the fact that semantics interferes with interpersonal communication. Semantics not only related to language but related to interpretation of observed events…interpreting the meaning of such events…assuming causality and extrapolating consequences, etc. Trust of language and one’s own senses represents the error in thought that underlies the users of this concept (gaslighting). Relativity of experiences is the law, there is not one true reality that any one person experiences. Interaction of human consciousness is one gigantic continuous process of gaslighting….believe my experience…not yours….because mine seems more real to me that yours seems to me. duh

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