Gaslighting is a type of abusive behaviour where a person uses subtle and not-so subtle mind control techniques to make another doubt their own reality and feel that they cannot trust their own perceptions. It takes its name from a 1938 play (and its film adaptations) called Gaslight, where a charming husband slowly makes his new wife doubt her own sanity by making items disappear and reappear and having the lights seemingly dim by themselves and then telling her that the strange occurrences are a figment of her imagination.
A gaslighter might attempt to rewrite history by telling you that an argument is your fault, or that you are paranoid, too sensitive or irrational, or that you are making a big deal over nothing. They devalue your feelings or perception of events. They might tell you that that your friends don’t really like you or that you would never find another person who loves you like they do. They aim to make you feel like your memory of events or your emotional response is wrong and theirs is right.
The first few times a victim is gaslighted they might find it odd and not doubt their sanity, but the behaviour gradually wears people down. They often then become defensive to incidents of gaslighting; arguing their reality and being unable to persuade the gaslighter of their truth. Eventually the victim becomes depressed or begins to accept the gaslighter’s version of reality. They may apologise a lot for things that are out of their control. They start to feel that they’re not good enough.
Gaslighting can lead to serious mental health issues when the victim’s self-esteem drops very low. It also leads to an emotional dependence on the gaslighter, as the victim cannot trust their own judgement. It can become hard to break away.
Anyone can be gaslighted. Take a look at a Derren Brown video to see how easy and quick it can be to manipulate a person’s mind. Strong people can be victims of gaslighting.
Gaslighting happens in the media too. For example, if publications sympathetic to a far-right government publish numerous negative stories about non-nationals and fail to acknowledge anything good about that same group of people. Or if a far-left media publishes constant stories talking about the oppression caused by private property ownership, and fails to point out the negatives of state ownership. By constantly framing reality in a particular way the entire electorate can be confused about their own knowledge and morals and become influenced.
You can respond to gaslighting when you can recognise it. You can take steps to fight against it, by holding the truth close in your heart. You can solidify this by keeping a diary or journal in a safe place such as on an app like Penzu.
You can respond to gaslighting by saying to the gaslighter ‘I understand that you feel that way’ or ‘oh well’. Don’t show that that the gaslighting is getting you down. Be wary of challenging a gaslighter though; people who are used to manipulating others can become dangerous when challenged.
If you are in relationship with a persistent gaslighter, you may decide to end it. If you do that many people recommend cutting all contact where possible. If you threatened by your partner or former partner you may be entitled to seek legal protection by way of a domestic violence order in the family law courts.
You can talk to friends and family about what you have experienced and ask for their help in reframing your perspective in life. Going for counselling can also help.
Helpful contact details:
Childline: 1800 66 66 66 or text 50101
Safe Ireland Domestic Abuse Helpline: 1800 341 900
Aware (for help with depression) : 1800 80 48 48 firstname.lastname@example.org
This weeks post was written in 2018 by Lisa Quinn O’Flaherty, an accomplished solicitor who has done great work in the area of domestic violence and the protection of women.