“That’s not what I said and not how I meant what I said!”
This piece on “Gaslighting” is the first in a series about the oppressive manipulations tactics many of the folks I counsel experience on a regular basis.
What we will discuss in this series happens in homes, churches, businesses, friendships – all kinds of environments where hurt people hurt other people.
I pray you will find it useful.
Gaslighting is a sophisticated manipulation tactic employing a specific kind of lying that people with certain character and personality defects use to create doubt in the minds of others.
The goal is to make the target person doubt their own judgment and perceptions, and to create doubt in the minds of others about the believability of the targeted person.
Here’s where the term comes from, how it works, and what to be on the alert for.
In the classic suspense thriller, Gaslight (MGM, 1944), Paula (Ingrid Bergman) marries the villainous Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), not realizing that he is the one who murdered her aunt and is now searching for her missing jewels.
To cover up his treachery, he tries to persuade Paula that she is going mad, so he can search the attic for the jewels without her interference.
He plants missing objects on her person in order to make her believe that she has no recollection of reality.
He tries to isolate her, not allowing her to have visitors or to leave the house.
He tries to make her think she is losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly and steadily dimming the flame on a gas lamp.
If this sounds somehow familiar, you have probably encountered the form of psychological abuse known as “Gaslighting.”
Essentially, it describes methods of manipulation that are designed to make the victim lose their grip on the truth or doubt their perception of reality, in order to gain power and control over them.
Effective gaslighting can be accomplished in several different ways.
Sometimes, a person can assert something with such an apparent intensity of conviction that the other person begins to doubt their own perspective – like someone stealing something that belongs to you and being so unwaveringly insistent that it really belongs to them that you give up.
Other times, vigorous and unwavering denial coupled with a display of righteous indignation can accomplish the same task – like being aggressive toward you and, when you stand up for yourself, vehemently accusing you of being abusive.
Bringing up historical facts that seem largely accurate but contain minute, hard-to-prove distortions and using them to “prove” they are right – like rewording things you or they said so that there are too many little lies to try and fight that you don’t know where to begin.
Gaslighting is particularly effective when coupled with other tactics such as shaming and guilting.
Anything that aids in getting another person to doubt their judgment and back down will work for the gaslighter. One of the scary parts of Gaslighting is that, oftentimes, the gaslighter seems to believe that what they are saying is true.
Gaslighting can be a terrifying experience. It can quickly put you on the defensive, manipulate you in to trying to justify your own actions or behaviors, when what you started out to do was challenge someone else’s wrong behavior.
A gaslighter’s prevarications may be presented so convincingly and with such conviction, that you not only doubt your own memories and sense of judgment, you also start to fear that other’s (who don’t know the truth and don’t see things from your perspective) will become persuaded to believe the gaslighter instead of you.
This leaves you feeling even more trapped, more confused, more powerless, and feeds a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
What To Do
- ALWAYS keep yourself (and any children) safe FIRST!
- Avoid arguing the “facts” with the gaslighter – they will not surrender to your view of things unless it serves their purpose (we will discuss this more when we look at “Assenting in Order to Manipulate”).
- Remember that you are not responsible for the other person’s feelings or behaviors
- Keep a journal (if you can do so safely) of these kinds of conversations when they occur. You will find the running record a powerful tool in reassuring yourself that you aren’t the crazy one.
- Consider recording (again, if you can do so SAFELY) some of the interactions.
- Have safe and perceptive people with whom you can discuss these things. A dialog with a trusted counselor, pastor, family member, or friend so they are aware of what you are dealing with can be very helpful.
- Do the healthy best-practices you need to do to get out from under this kind of oppressive behavior. Calmly refuse to accept it, and absent yourself from the conversation when it starts.
There will be more coming in the days ahead.
Soli Deo Gloria