Imagine this scenario: you’re attempting to talk to a loved one about some behavior they’ve been exhibiting lately. This behavior raises red flags. You’re concerned about them, and want to know why they’re doing it. You want them to stop. You want them to get help.
But when you tell them about it, they vehemently deny it. They tell you that you’re imagining things. They twist your words, and make it seem like you made everything up. Then they leave you standing there wondering if things really did happen that way, or if you somehow misremembered them.
That behavior is called gaslighting.
Google’s dictionary defines gaslighting as, “[to] manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” This is a psychological tactic that people (and sometimes groups of people that make up entities like businesses and corporations) use in order to gain power over others. It is a glaring warning sign of mental and emotional abuse.
Unfortunately, gaslighting is all too common today. Even famous people and world leaders use gaslighting to keep their fans and supporters under control. Gaslighting is very dangerous. When used effectively, it can create a situation that ultimately ends in tragedy. It’s important to not only recognize the signs of it, but to know what to do once you find out about it.
What is the purpose of gaslighting? How do you recognize gaslighting if you can’t trust your own memory? What do you do if you figure out someone is using this tactic? How can you deal with it?
The Origin of the Term “Gaslighting”
“Gaslighting” comes from the 1938 stage play “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton. In the play, a man, Jack, dims the gas lights in his home in an attempt to make his wife, Bella, think she’s crazy. When she tells him that the lights are dim, he vehemently denies it.
Jack wants Bella to think she’s crazy. He’s abusive; he often says awful things to her and openly flirts with the servants in front of her. This creates anxiety for Bella. He also disappears every night, and refuses to tell her where he’s been once he comes back home. All of this really makes Bella believe she’s going crazy.
Just as she’s on the verge of going insane, a Detective Rough shows up at her home. Rough tells Bella that there used to be a wealthy woman that lived in the apartment upstairs, but she was murdered. He believes Jack is responsible. He wants Bella to help him expose Jack.
Eventually Bella realizes that she is not crazy. The lights in her home really are dim. This is because Jack turns on the lights upstairs in the apartment when he goes there every night to look for the wealthy woman’s fortune. The lights are powered by gas, which is shared by the building, so turning them on upstairs takes away some of the power from downstairs, thus dimming the lights.
Bella helps Detective Rough catch her husband. She pretends to help him escape, when in fact she leads him right into police custody. Jack is upset, but Bella tells him because she’s crazy, she’s not responsible for her actions. Jack is led away in handcuffs.
The play debuted in London in 1938, and on Broadway in 1941. It had several revivals, and was even made into movies and television shows. This three-act play is responsible for giving us the term for this type of psychological abuse.
The Purpose of Gaslighting
The purpose of gaslighting someone isn’t just to make someone think they’re crazy. It’s to make the victim dependent on the abuser. If the victim feels like they can’t trust their own memory, they will default to the abuser’s recollection of things. This gives them power and control, which is what abuse is all about.
Of course, gaslighting isn’t always intentional. Sometimes people do it without even realizing it. In these cases, they may use this technique because of the way they were raised, or because they don’t want someone to lose their faith or perception of them. Some people don’t like to be seen as flawed, or want to avoid confrontation, so they will deny whatever is being said to them just to make the other person stop trying to create an issue. They may say, “You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” when in actuality, they’re not.
The flip side of this is someone who’s perception or worldview really is warped, and doesn’t perceive things the way that they really are. To them it looks like their significant other favors someone else more than them, when in fact, they’re just being nice. They may believe someone else is always getting something they’re not, when in fact, they have plenty of things to be grateful for.
Bringing it up results in them blowing things out of proportion, and telling you that the way you’re describing the situation is not the way it happened. It happened the way they said it did, and only that way, and anything else you remember is a lie or it’s false. In this case, gaslighting is a form of jealousy – but it is still very real, and still very dangerous.
How to Recognize Gaslighting
The National Domestic Violence Hotline lists several signs of gaslighting. Seeing these signs don’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. However, if you see a pattern develop that involves any of the following, you’re being gaslit.
- Refusing to listen to you when you bring up important things
- Directly telling you that you’re not remembering the event correctly. “You know you’ve been pretty forgetful lately.” “Well that’s not the way I remember it.” “That’s not how it happened. It happened like this.”
- Telling you that you’re imagining things, or that someone else is influencing your thoughts. “You’ve been talking to your sister again, haven’t you?” “Where did you get that crazy idea?” “You really need to lay off of the coffee; it’s making you paranoid.”
- Making you feel as if your emotions or feelings are not important, or, even worse, that you’re just being overly sensitive. “It’s not that big of a deal.” “Why are you making such a fuss about this?” “Stop being so sensitive.” “Learn to take a joke.”
- Flat out denying anything happened. “That never happened.” “That can’t possibly have happened. I wasn’t anywhere near that person.”
- Pretending like they don’t remember the event in question. “Are you sure it went like that?” “My memory is bad. I don’t even remember talking to you that day.”
Psychology Today lists 11 other ways you can tell that someone is gaslighting you, including trying to get people to turn against you, and using something or someone you love as a weapon to hurt you and make you feel inferior.
Remember, isolated incidents are not the same as a pattern. A pattern is an established set of repeated behaviors. If any of these behaviors seem to permeate or define your relationship with this person, then your relationship is unhealthy.
How to Deal With Gaslighting Effectively
There are two methods to deal with gaslighting. One is simply to break off your relationship with that person. Cut it and them off completely. In most cases, that’s easier said than done.
If you find that you can’t leave the relationship for whatever reason, or you want to try to make it work, then you have to very carefully navigate the situation. Remember that this person makes you question your sanity and the way you remember things. It’ll be very easy to fall prey to it again, so your best bet is to try to stop it as soon as you recognize it. How do you do that?
The first, and most important thing to do is to reaffirm that what you’ve remembered is true. Don’t allow this person to let you second guess yourself. That’s the basis of gaslighting, and it is the reason that it works so well. You’re not lying, this is happening, and it is a very real problem.
The second thing you need to do is remain calm. One Love recommends you use mindfulness. That simply means that you remain aware of your behavior and how you react to a situation. Flying off the handle makes you look like the crazy one. If you respond neutrally, without placing blame, you can stop the behavior cold in its tracks.
Third, know when to stop. The fact of the matter is, even though you want your loved one to stop this behavior and listen to you, most of the time, it’s not going to happen. You cannot change a person. They have to change themselves. So if you find that your mindful, calm manner isn’t working, then you should limit your association with this person until you can leave.
What If You Have to Stay?
Most experts tell you to leave your relationship right away, but that is not always possible. If you’re a minor, you’re in a lease or you’re in a financial bind, you may be stuck with that person. If that’s the case, you need to make plans to leave as soon as possible.
In the meantime, find safe places to be. Don’t spend your time in the house with them. Volunteer, go to the library, or go hang out with friends. Take up a hobby or a sport. Go do something positive. Keeping yourself occupied will make time move quickly, and will give you less time with the other person.
If the other person is simply too controlling, then you may need to get professional help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has resources that you can use. Aside from their hotline, they can help you find a coalition that can help you in your state of residence. These coalitions are designed to help people leave abusive situations. They will help you to the best of their ability.