Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.
There’s a good chance that you now know more about gaslighting than most therapists.
And that is really unfortunate, because if you have experienced gaslighting, it’s going to be really hard to untangle it yourself.
Unfortunately, you may have to, and I want to tell you that you are not alone.
Let me share my experience. Here are ten things I wish I’d known at the beginning. Let’s do this together.
1. Gaslighting Doesn’t Have to Be Deliberate
About the fifth time I called a close friend of mine on the phone, gasping for air, asking “Am I a monster?” he finally said, “Emma, he’s gaslighting you.”
What the hell is gaslighting? I thought.
Wikipedia told me that it came from an old movie, where the main character makes changes in the environment and then insists to his victim that she is simply imagining these changes.
Whaat? I thought. My partner isn’t doing that. I could not imagine him plotting and manipulating my environment or our interactions to make me feel crazy. He’s a human being who is hurt, who I keep hurting. It’s me, not him.
Unfortunately, the first definition I looked up was woefully inadequate. Gaslighting does not require deliberate plotting. Gaslighting only requires a belief that it is acceptable to overwrite another person’s reality.
The rest just happens organically when a person who holds that belief feels threatened. We learn how to control and manipulate each other very naturally.
The distinguishing feature between someone who gaslights and someone who doesn’t is an internalized paradigm of ownership. And in my experience, identifying that paradigm is a lot easier than spotting the gaslighting.
Gaslighting tends to follow when intimidation is no longer acceptable.
I believe that gaslighting is happening culturally and interpersonally on an unprecedented scale, and that this is the result of a societal framework where we pretend everyone is equal while trying simultaneously to preserve inequality.
You can see it in the media constantly.
For instance, every time an obvious hate crime is portrayed as an isolated case of mental illness, this is gaslighting. The media is saying to you, What you know to be true is not true.
Intimate partner violence wasn’t seen as a serious crime until the 1970s. So, did we, in the last forty years, address the beliefs that cause intimate partner violence? No.
But now if you abuse your partner, you’re usually considered to be a bad person. So what do you do, with all the beliefs that would lead you to violence, if violence is no longer an acceptable option?
You use manipulation, and you use gaslighting.
2. Manipulation and Gaslighting Are Distinct Behaviors
Maybe a better way to put this is that gaslighting is a type of manipulation, but not the only type.
Manipulation usually centers around a direct or indirect threat that is made in order to influence another person’s behavior. Gaslighting uses threats as well, but has the goal of actually changing who someone is, not just their behavior.
It’s important to recognize that gaslighting and garden variety manipulation are not the same.
Both will degrade your self-esteem, but gaslighting, when effective, will actually damage your trust in yourself and your experience of reality.
3. Gaslighting Doesn’t Always Involve Anger or Intimidation
The book The Gaslight Effect refers to a type of gaslighting called glamor gaslighting.
This is where the gaslighter showers you with special attention, but never actually gives you what you need. They put you on a pedestal, but then they’re not there. In fact, they may get angry at you when you need a shoulder to cry on.
It becomes difficult, after a while, to identify why it is that you feel so alone and hollow.
In another type of gaslighting, the gaslighter is always transformed into the victim. Whenever you bring up a problem, you find yourself apologizing by the end of the conversation.
For me, these were the worst exchanges.
Every gaslighter/gaslightee relationship is different, but for me, there was a very specific pattern. I would say something to him. He would have a very strong emotional reaction to it, far above what I would have anticipated. I would backtrack to try figure out what I had said and how to make it better.
He would accuse me of inconsistency when I backtracked.
I would try to explain that I was adjusting to try to communicate best with him, because clearly I was failing.
He would tell me that my inconsistency implied that I was lying.
I would say, “No, no, I know I’m not lying. Maybe I just can’t remember it right.”
“It seems I can’t trust your memory,” he would say.
We would never return to the original issue. I usually ended up crying hysterically.