What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you?

This is an interesting topic for an Introduction to Psychology course. It has links to personal relationships and also to abnormal behaviour, and is also relevant to 16-18 year olds as they explore friendships and relationships.

What is it?

‘Gaslighting’ describes psychological manipulation where one person in a relationship creates a false narrative that makes the other question their judgements and reality and eventually their sanity. The term comes from the 1938 play ‘Gaslight’ by Patrick Hamilton, which was made into a film in 1944 starring Ingrid Bergman. It tells the story of a man intent on convincing his wife she’s insane, so that he might get his hands on her inheritance. He tells her that she’s becoming forgetful and strange. He confines her to the house and tells everyone she’s not well. At night he turns the gaslights up and down so they flicker and dim. She sees this, but he tells her it’s all in her imagination. It is a very appropriate name for a technique of manipulation that can make your previously clear view of reality become shadowy and flickering until you question everything you see. For a more up-to-date depiction of gaslighting, see this short analysis of the Disney film ‘Tangled’

The term become embedded in our language to the extent that accusations of gaslighting have been aimed at Love Island housemates. Dr George Simon, psychologist and author of In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People defines it as beingwhen you know in your gut that you have a situation read right, but the other person is trying to convince you that you have read it all wrong. If this happens over a period of time one’s sense of reality slowly erodes. There is a scale to gaslighting, from lying and exaggerating to controlling and domination.’

Some tactics of gaslighting, including isolating the victim from sources of support and depriving them of means needed for independence, could fall under the ‘Controlling or coercive behaviour’ section of the Serious Crime Act of 2015, in England and Wales. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Being gaslighted can make you feel very confused (CC Image from pixabay user GDJ, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Who does it?

Gaslighting can be carried out by males or females, by friends in school or even by parents to their children. However, it most usually describes the psychological manipulation exercised by one love partner over the other. It is about control and power. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person carrying out the manipulation has evil intent like the villain in the old film. They could just be extremely insecure in the relationship and become upset because they think their partner is flirting with others, maybe other students or friends outside school. Their views on how intense and close a love relationship should be might involve excluding all friendly contact with others. While this is pathological, if the person engaging in this does not realise how distorted their view is, and if their partner loves them, they may agree just to reassure them. Nonetheless, this is very damaging for both partners and needs to be addressed.

Who does it happen to?

Social psychologists and sociologists who have investigated the structural inequalities behind gaslighting have found that it is much more likely to be girls and women who are manipulated – in personal relationships, and at work by mainly male colleagues or bosses. It is related to power and control. The sociologist Paige Sweet (2019) points out that, while the psychological manipulation seems to be individual, it is often maintained by appeal to societal gender stereotypes of females as over-imaginative, hysterical and weak. These can be difficult to overcome, especially when your memory and understanding of what is happening to you seems so faulty.

How do you know if you’re being gaslighted?

It can be difficult. One of the first signs is that you feel as if you’re always apologising, and you begin to question yourself a lot. Maybe they remember a particular event in one way: ‘Why were you always looking at that guy (girl) behind the bar last night? If you loved me you wouldn’t be looking at others.’  You just remember that you were trying to get their attention so you could buy a packet of crisps. But your partner didn’t see it like that and is adamant that you were staring in attraction. You wonder if you were paying the bar staff too much attention. You must have been, or else your partner wouldn’t have noticed. What’s wrong with you that you’re not keeping all your attention the person you love? You are so sorry…again.

The next step can often be to resolve never to give your partner reason to be jealous or to doubt you, but it can be hard, when every friendly encounter you have is open to such scrutiny. So you cut down your friendships, make excuses for not meeting, just ring friends when your partner is not around and limit your social activities to just the two of you. Before you know it you are completely isolated from the social support network that could have helped you to realise how harmful this relationship has become. Stephanie A. Sarkis (2017) wrote an excellent article in Psychology Today if you want to read about more warning signs that you are being gaslighted.

What can you do?

Once you have realised what is happening to you, then you need to reset your mental and emotional boundaries. Start keeping a diary of events and questioning the other person’s distorted version. Be honest with the friends you may have dropped in order to try and stay in the relationship. If they are good friends, they will understand and support you. Be honest with the person gaslighting you and tell them that their vision of reality is not always right and you are going to stop apologising for things you haven’t done. Decide whether you want to reset the relationship to a more balanced one or distance yourself from it. Whatever you decide, use your friends and family to support you. Now you know what to look for, you can be more alert to possibility of gaslighting.

Friendship is the antidote to gaslighting. (CC image from Flickr)

References

Sarkis, S.A. (22nd Jan 2017). 11 Red Flags of Gaslighting in a Relationship. Psychology Today, accessed 19 August 2022 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-red-flags-gaslighting-in-relationship

Simon, G.K. (2010).  In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. UK: Parkhurst Brothers

Sweet, P.L. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), pp. 851-875. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122419874843

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