By Kristin M. Snowden, MA, LMFT
“So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains,
And we never even know we have the key.”
—The Eagles, “Already Gone”
If you have ever been in a relationship with a narcissist, an addict, or with someone who has betrayed you (infidelity, keeping secrets, lying, etc.), or you’ve ever found yourself just plain old confused in your roller-coaster relationship, there is often some level of “gaslighting” involved.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where someone consciously or subconsciously manipulates another into believing that his/her reality is wrong.
Despite its traumatizing consequences, gaslighting is not widely known or identifiable. The term gaslighting comes from a 1940s movie, Gaslight, about a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she’s insane so that he can steal her hidden fortune. While he was digging around the attic trying to find her hidden fortune, it would cause gas in the gaslights in their home to flicker, and when she’d inquire about the flickering lights and what the noises were upstairs, he would deny hearing or seeing anything, eventually causing her to feel like she was hallucinating.
The villain in Gaslight knew what he was doing and told his lies strategically and systematically. However, most gaslighters are not consciously aware that they are going to great lengths to deny their partner’s reality. Instead, gaslighters tend to be more focused on being right to preserve their own sense of self and their sense of having power in the world (or power/control in the relationship). The partner being gaslighted (the “gaslightee”) allows the gaslighter to define his or her sense of reality because he or she idealizes the gaslighter or seeks his or her approval.
Gaslighting is insidious and toxic. Understanding how it can exist in any relationship – at home, at work, with friends/family – can be the difference between healthy, fulfilling relationships and painful, toxic ones.
SOME EXAMPLES OF GASLIGHTING:
- You ask your partner for more time and attention and your partner dismisses your request and adds, “Maybe you shouldn’t be so needy.”
- Your partner insists, “You’re being ridiculous and out-of-control,” when you feel you’re being quite reasonable and your anger and frustration are justified.
- You ask your partner to go to couple’s therapy to see if the marriage can be improved and your partner responds, “You should go to therapy alone. You’re the problem.”
- Your partner says, “You’re asking for way too much,” when you feel like you’re asking for something very reasonable.
- Your partner says, “I don’t even think you care,” when you feel like you’ve been going out of your way to try to please that person.
- You’re told you should be “over it by now” when you’re still struggling with it.
- You’re told to “calm down” when you don’t even feel like you’re that worked up and/or you feel validated by your anger.
- You suspect your partner is having an affair, so you confront him or her and he or she responds, “You’re crazy, you need to go on medication.”
- The gaslighter attacks you with “shame triggers” that really hurt you and shut down any discussion: He or she tells you that you’re a bad parent or a worthless employee or a bad spouse or a poor friend or selfish or inconsiderate or stupid or unattractive. The gaslighter does this to invalidate your experience and to make you feel like you are the problem.
Gaslighting is an extremely damaging relational trauma, yet it is pervasive and often culturally accepted. Unlike domestic violence or outright verbal abuse, gaslighting does not always come with visible bruises, violence, or obviously abusive statements.
When a trusted loved one is regularly dismissing your thoughts, feelings, and experience and replacing them with HIS/HER perception, HIS/HER reality, and HIS/HER interpretation, it can lead you to doubt your sense of self, your values, your grip on reality, and even your own sanity.
When you regularly doubt your reality, you become less likely to trust your intuition. You will instead look to your gaslighter for validation and guidance. That dynamic primes you for more gaslighting and causes you to become even more disempowered.