I wrote a piece about gaslighting in 2018 and it has been a phrase that I continually see pop up with the work I do around toxic relationships, so I thought I would write a brief follow up piece due to the frequency that it pops up in self-help guides and pieces across the internet, just so that you know exactly what it means.
The phrase comes from the 1938 play ‘Gas Light’ which was then made into a movie in 1944.It is about a newly married young couple where the man tries to make his new wife doubt her own sanity by systematically denies the reality of her perceptions and getting her to question everything that she thinks.
By creating disturbances around the home and then denying that he has done anything, his intention is to make his wife to believe she has lost her mind in order that he can carry out the search for money and valuables belonging to a woman who lived upstairs, he has murdered.
Why it is called Gas Light, is because of the gas lights he uses searching the rooms upstairs.
“Gaslighting” in this modern era refers to the manipulative techniques used by someone that may cause another to doubt their reality and even their sanity. It is a manipulative “brainwashing”, purposeful pattern of behaviour intended to create self-doubt in the mind of someone.
You may have wondered if someone is doing this in your life or if you know someone that is in this situation, if a family member or romantic partner is acting in ways that undermines your confidence in your own perspective.
If so, then take stock of the situation by checking for specific warning signs:
Ask yourself what feelings you have in the presence of this other person. Do you feel isolated from most of your friends? Does your partner tell you that they are no good for you or they are the only person you can trust?
Are the people who once knew you best questioning your decisions or showing concern about your situation?
Are you second-guessing yourself or having difficulty making decisions, even small ones, because you question your own judgement, or feel you are relying excessively on the judgment of your partner?
Have you become convinced that there something is ‘wrong’ with you, that you are “too sensitive” and are likely to interpret most events incorrectly?
Are you constantly apologising to your partner, feeling like a much weaker version of the independent person you once were? And questioning whether you have actually done anything wrong?
Does your partner insist that events happened in some way, a way that favours their outlook, not yours? Do you wonder if you are correctly remembering these and say ‘they must be right’?
When you talk to friends and loved ones about your relationship, do you find yourself withholding information so as to avoid being judged, or do you constantly make excuses for your partner by excusing or explaining their behaviour?
What are other techniques used in subverting another person’s sense of self in this way?
Has a person been lying to you in a blatant, outright fashion? Denying things they have said, even though you are sure or even have proof that these remarks were made?
Do they try and make it difficult for you to trust your recollection of significant events? Throwing in other suggestions of what may have happened or telling you it didn’t happen this way.
‘Gaslighter’s’ may throw in occasional positive comments to keep you off-guard, or use faked compassion to make it seem as though they care about you and want to help you stop seeing things in such a distorted way. After all they are only trying to help you!
More often than this positive they will try to destabilise you by criticising the things and people that are important to you.
Imagine that you love your job: A ‘gaslighter’ will subtly chip away at its value, as if trying to take it away from you. They will say things like “It’s too bad that your boss doesn’t value you,” or, “Your co-workers are selfish people who don’t really care about you.”
Shame can be a potent weapon in the ‘gaslighter’s’ arsenal, as it can directly undermine your confidence or your ability to connect with people.Someone ‘gaslighting’ you might even try to convince your friends that there is something wrong with you, getting them on their side, isolating you further from anyone who might help you recognise what is happening. “Don’t be so sensitive!” you may hear. Or, “I don’t know why you think that’s a big deal!”, blaming you for their unacceptable behaviour or comments.
Why do people need to ‘gaslight’? Well, in the play it was intentionally done so that the husband could carry out his nefarious behaviour unhindered and without question.
Some people use these manipulation techniques without fully realising how they affect others, but they are ALL intentionally trying to get their needs met from doing it.
These needs are mainly subconscious and I have written another piece and made a brief video about this, which I have called the ‘Window of Comfort’.
Consider the case of a father who rigidly believes that his daughter has got in with the ‘wrong crowd’ and sees the impact it is having on her life. He might, with what he sees as good intentions, be overly critical or harsh with his daughter, even trying to cut her off from her friends. He might effectively be denying her the ability to perceive reality independently from him and make her own choices.
This does not excuse the choice of behaviour under any circumstances of course, but understanding the behaviour can help you to manage the effect it may have on you.
If you find yourself in a relationship like this, in which you’ve come to doubt your own thoughts and feelings, there are steps you can take to move toward change.
Most significantly, it’s essential to identify the problem, which means developing insight into the interpersonal behaviour pattern in which you’ve become involved. Try making a written list of all the ways your partner, relative, or friend devalues your perspective and forces you to adhere to theirs, this list may help you recognise this pattern.
How often are you seeing your friends and family? Does your partner ever let you be alone with them if you do?
Do they make excuses for your behaviour or do you make excuses for theirs?
If you have children, do you notice they are distant from them or need them to conform to certain types of behaviours, finding that they overreact when this doesn’t happen?
Even though you may begin to recognise the signs, it may be difficult to stop apologising or rationalising the behaviour to yourself. (Many people cling to the belief that these manipulative relationships are good ones, because they wish to avoid the pain and disruption of breaking up).
Or, it could be that you are within your known understanding of how relationships work. You may have issues with self-confidence and try to keep others happy, not knowing how to speak up for yourself. This may be what you think you deserve, that you are just lucky to be in a relationship and no one else will have you!
You may see their over-concern as love and therefore not want to be without this in your life, but this ‘love’ is unhealthy and isn’t really love!
Do not believe that you are “too sensitive,” or that your emotions can’t be trusted. If you are feeling hurt, it is your own standards that matter the most. Your partner’s feelings are not the gauge by which you should measure yours, trust your own and your thoughts.
Once you’ve acknowledged that you are in a relationship where your perception of reality is being systematically devalued or distorted, reach out to friends and family that you trust.
Be honest with those who really care about you, the ones that you can be yourself with. Allow yourself to be open with these people, and let them help you by sharing their perspectives: Their support may make it possible for you to trust your own feelings again.
It’s difficult to be compassionate with yourself when you can’t rely on your own way of seeing the world, but regaining access to self-compassion is crucial in undoing a ‘gaslighter’s’ influence. You’ll need to establish new boundaries between yourself and the person who has been undermining your self-confidence.
You need to ask yourself whether it’s worth remaining in the relationship at all, if you cannot find a way to spend time together without feeling like yourself. If it is a family member that has been this way all of your life, you may not want to walk away, but know that you can manage this relationship in a healthier way, stop it’s impacts and reverse the affect it has had on you.
‘Gaslighting’ is very insidious, and its consequences can be long-lasting. But you can clarify your own perspectives, values and meanings and rebuild your confidence in your own judgement.
Interpersonal Relationship Coaching (IRC) is a fusion of Coaching, Counselling and Hypnotherapy.
It will help you to understand what you need to about yourself and others, so that you can Confidently Manage Toxic Relationships.
John Kenny is a Transformational Coach, Author and Professional Speaker and helps people around the world to live their best life!