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Shining a Light on Gaslighting

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Relationships can be a struggle. This is true of friendships, marriages, and even the parent-child relationship. Every time two human lives interact over a long period of time, there’s bound to be conflict. It’s natural, just part of the cost of doing business on planet Earth.

In some relationships, though, one person finds themselves constantly undermined by the other party. You might find yourself faced with facts that contradict the other’s stories, and are made to feel guilty when you question it or express doubt. You start to notice little lies adding up, but when confronted they deny ever making those statements. You question your memory, your perceptions, and your judgment. You get told you’re crazy when you bring up concerns about their actions or words, and after a while you might even start to believe them.

If this sounds familiar to you, either in your own relationships or in relationships close to you, you may have experienced or witnessed a form of psychological manipulation known as gaslighting.

The term gaslighting originates from a 1930s British play, Gas Light, in which an abusive husband slowly convinces his wife she’s going insane. In the decades since, the term has been adopted by psychologists to refer to a pattern of behaviour in which one person attempts to undermine another’s faith in their own reason, observations, and memory.

The behaviour often occurs over a period of time and might be very subtle, though the gaslighter is often extremely confident in their statements. They may be so confident that, in fact, it causes you to doubt yourself.

Make no mistake: this is not normal behaviour. It’s psychological abuse.

Gaslighting is a tactic employed by many different types of people in many different ways, though there are a few classic examples. A controlling parent may try to manipulate their children’s feelings, dismissing their unhappiness or trying to convince them they don’t feel the way they do. A physically abusive partner may deny any physical abuse took place, even when there is ample evidence. A financially controlling spouse may hide years of debt with outlandish explanations for how money is always gone, and quietly poison their partner against friends and family who are reaching out in concern.

Some favourite statements of gaslighters include: “I never said that,” “They’re lying to you; you can’t trust anyone but me,” “You’re crazy,” “Don’t be so sensitive,” “You’re overreacting,” “You need to listen to me,” “I was only joking,” or “Don’t be so paranoid.”

According to psychologist Dr. Elinor Greenburg, author of a popular book on the subject,1 there are generally three goals of gaslighting: they’re attempting to hide something from you (often infidelity or financial indiscretion), they’re trying to change something about you (your appearance or behaviour), or they are trying to control you (isolating you from others who may disagree with them).

Regardless of the motivation, the common theme is seeking power over another person, often in harmful or manipulative ways.

Generally, gaslighting occurs as a result of the gaslighter’s insecurities. Many people who gaslight others grew up in homes where they experienced this treatment from their parents, though it’s important to know that not all who experience this as a child will grow up to inflict gaslighting upon others.

In some cases, the gaslighter may have a serious condition known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), characterized by grandiose behaviour, manipulative relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. NPD is notoriously difficult to treat, as individuals who are affected by the disorder have great difficulty acknowledging that their behaviour is problematic, and their relationships are often tumultuous and high-stress.

It’s important to be aware of gaslighting in our own relationships and others’. But there is another context in which we need to watch out for this behaviour.

Consider a situation in which a prominent politician makes questionable or false statements on television, only to be tell people later, “I didn’t meant that,” “It wasn’t that bad,” or “I was only joking.” Such a politician’s supporters may also repeat these denials of reality. And if they are repeated often enough and confidently enough, it can make people question the evidence of their eyes and ears—which is, after all, the point of gaslighting.

Whether in your own relationships or when hearing political arguments, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself from gaslighting.

1. Recognize the pattern of behaviour—the secrets, the lies, and the attempts to undermine you.

2. Trust the evidence of your eyes and ears—and trust your judgement and the judgement of people who care about you.

3. Realize that it isn’t about you—it’s about them and their attempts to hide, change, or control.

4. Seek professional help if you find yourself feeling undermined, controlled, or lied to in a relationship.

Remember, relationships can be a struggle. But they shouldn’t be controlling, manipulative, or abusive.

For more information

For confidential help and information on physical, psychological, or other forms of abuse, call the Manitoba Domestic Violence Line at 1-877-977-0007, which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

1 Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D., Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2016).

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