What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and psychological control where victims are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, even sometimes about themselves. Victims can find themselves doubting their memory, their perceptions, and their sanity. It derives its name from a 1938 play, Gas Light, and a film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman. It’s the story of a couple, Paula and Gregory in which Gregory manipulates Paula to make her feel as if she has gone mad. He leads her to believe she’s stealing things without realising it and hearing noises that aren’t really there. As a consequence Paula begins to question her reality. We have written extensive advice about gaslighting.
An example from real life
Remember the recent case of Benjamin Field aged 28 who was sentenced to life imprisonment with a requirement to serve a minimum of 36 years? A church warden, he initially denied murdering a university lecturer and conspiring to murder a retired headteacher to inherit their money. What he eventually admitted to was poisoning, gaslighting and defrauding 69-year-old Peter Farquhar, a university lecturer and novelist, in order to get a better job and inherit his wealth when he died. He also told the court he had also deceived Ann Moore-Martin, an 83-year-old retired headteacher, saying: “I was pretending to have a real relationship with her that was false.”
It’s about getting power over the victim
The manipulations of someone who gaslights can grow more complex and persuasive over time, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth. It can occur in personal or professional relationships, and the victims are targeted in a way that challenges and undermines their identity and self worth. People who engage in gaslighting do so to get power over their victims emotionally, physically and financially. They are dangerous, clever people who can cause enormous harm. They have a tendency to be chameleon-like, appearing outwardly reasonable and likeable but to the victim being in effect the exact opposite. They’re so good at what they do, their victims assume that if they ask for help or speak out, no one will believe that they have been manipulated and abused.
What to look out for
It can be really difficult to recognise when gaslighting begins. A gas-lighter may start by lying about simple things: “No, I told you I would do that at the weekend, not tonight.” Then it escalates, so next the gas-lighter might accuse the victim of lying or introduce entirely new, untrue stories to wrong-foot the victim by causing confusion and self-doubt. The gas-lighter will try to convince the victim that what he or she remembers, thinks, and feels is wrong. As the relationship continues, the manipulative individual introduces lies or negative statements aimed at disrupting and distorting a victim’s core understandings and beliefs about themselves or about how the world works. If the victim dares to disagree, the manipulator will make it seem as if they themselves are being victimised.
What kinds of behaviour might you see?
Even though it’s obviously a lie they can tell it with a straight face. Keeping victims unstable and confused is the goal.
Denials, even though there’s proof.
The victim knows what they heard, but it will be utterly denied. It makes the victim start questioning his or her reality—maybe they’re wrong after all. And the more this happens, the more the victim questions their own judgement and starts accepting what the gas-lighter is saying.
Using what’s important to someone and challenging it to undermine them.
They know how important a particular thing is to their victim, for example their identity or sense of purpose, and they attack it. They work out what makes someone tick and undermine it.
The drip drip drip of persuasion.
This is one of the most insidious things. It is done gradually, over time. They start small and then ramp it up. Even the most stable sensible people can be sucked into gaslighting.
Words that don’t match actions.
Look at what the manipulator does rather than says. What they say means nothing. What they do is what’s important.
A dash of positive reinforcement from time to time to confuse.
This tactic adds an additional sense of unease to the victim. Don’t fall for it. This is a calculated attempt to keep the victim off-kilter and questioning their reality.
Confuse the victim to weaken them.
Gas-lighters know that people like having a sense of stability and normality. Their goal is to make the victim constantly question everything. And sadly a person’s natural tendency is to look to the person they feel most stable with for reassurance ie the gas-lighter.
The projection of their own weakness onto their victim.
The manipulator may be a drug user or a cheater, yet they accuse their victim of it. This is done to distract from the gas-lighter’s own behaviour.
Aligning people against the victim.
Gas-lighters are masters at manipulating and identifying the people they know will stand by them. They then use these people against the victim. They will say, for example, “so and so knows that you’re not right in the head,” or “ knows you’re useless too” even though they’ve said no such thing. A gas-lighter is a constant liar. This tactic is to make the victim feel they don’t know who to trust or turn to which leads them right back to the gas-lighter. Isolating a victim gives them more control.
The victim is told: “You’re crazy”
This is a common tool of the gas-lighter, because it’s dismissive. The gas-lighter believes people will not believe the victim when they say the gas-lighter is abusive or out-of-control.
“Everyone else is lying. I’m not”
By telling the victim that everyone else (family member, boss, friend ) is a liar again makes the victim question their reality. It’s an audacious tactic. It makes people turn to the gas-lighter for the truth.
What can you do?
Anyone who is effective at gaslighting is clever deceitful and dangerous, willing to cause victims immense harm. It’s worth putting some effort into trying to see things clearly when someone thinks they’re losing their mind.
Take a look at our website page about gaslighting. If you check out the ‘Record example’ you’ll see how helpful keeping a record of what’s happening can be. It will help you sort and clarify your thoughts and decide what to do. Maybe there isn’t a real problem, but if there is you’ll see it laid out in a coherent story which you don’t have to question. Then you can’t be persuaded to think you got what was happening wrong.
Jill Canvin 4 August 2020