When Is It Gaslighting and When Is It Not?

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If you’ve read anything about gaslighting, chances are you’ve come across the work of Dr. Stephanie Sarkis. She wrote a post on the topic that went viral in 2017 (11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting), and now she’s written a book on the topic entitled Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free

Stephanie’s blog post introduced me to the concept, and I’ve since read her book and interviewed her on the Think Act Be podcast. One of the things I was most interested to explore with her was the boundaries of gaslighting, since it overlaps with other types of not-nice behavior in relationships. We discussed several of these distinctions.

Gaslighting vs. Manipulation

Manipulation is a key part of gaslighting, but there are many more manipulators than there are gaslighters; after all, we’re all capable of manipulation, and thankfully most of us aren’t gaslighters. 

Seth J. Gillihan: So what would you say is the difference between gaslighting and what we might call more run-of-the-mill manipulation? 

Stephanie Sarkis: I think that’s a great question, because there is a fine line. Influence or manipulation is used in various fields, particularly marketing and advertising, to get us to buy things. And you can say that kids learn manipulation at an early age—how to get something from one parent if the other one says “no”—so it’s something that’s not always bad. It’s just how we learn to work the system. But when it becomes a series of behaviors where the sole intent is to gain control of someone else, then you’re getting into gaslighting behaviors. It’s a form of abuse, and usually the person displays a pattern of these manipulation tactics throughout several relationships. 

As Stephanie suggests, a major component of gaslighting is the intent. More common forms of manipulation are about getting our own way—”gaming the system”—whereas gaslighting is about controlling another person. And it’s a consistent pattern of behavior, both within a single relationships and across multiple relationships.

Gaslighting vs. Narcissism (or Just Being a Jerk)

I continued to try to clarify the concept of gaslighting with Stephanie by comparing it to other types of difficult personalities.

SJG: A related question: How is a gaslighter different from a narcissist, or just a jerk?

SS: Gaslighting can be part of a narcissistic personality, but there are other pieces to narcissistic personality disorder. And it’s more sociopathic behavior than just being a jerk. We can usually say, “That person is a jerk—whatever.” But the gaslighter really gets under your skin and starts making you question your self-value.

SJG: It seems like a jerk just repels you—just pushes you away—but the awful thing about a gaslighter is you’re both repelled and hooked at the same time.

SS: Right, and when you try to leave a gaslighter, they do this thing called ”Hoovering,” just like the Hoover vacuum. They will tell you all the things they love about you, and how things are going to be different this time, and as soon as you get back into the relationship, the gaslighter knows you’re in their clutches. And things go right back to where they were, and then start getting worse and worse.

SJG: So they’re only better for as long as it takes the person to come back and lose momentum to leave.

SS: Exactly, because when you’re a gaslighter and you lose that person’s attention, it triggers your narcissistic injury—your bottomless pit of need. So you’ll try to get that person to come back to fill that void that can never truly be filled. And if that doesn’t work, then you’ll try to find that next person. Gaslighters will either try to Hoover you back into the relationships, or they’ll have someone waiting in the wings and they’ll drop you like a hot potato and move on to the next person. They don’t realize that no one will ever fill that void for them, so they just keep hopping from person to person.  

Gaslighting vs. Healthy Romantic Attachment

Stephanie describes in her book the ways a gaslighter can attract an unsuspecting person, which unfortunately can look a lot like positive signs of a strong romantic attachment. She offers guidelines for how to tell the difference.

SJG: Are there gaslighting behaviors that can show up even on a first date? Are there some “tells” that people might look for?

SS: If the person speaks very unfavorably about their exes, or their parents, that’s a tipoff. If they’re calling them any derogatory names, that’s a tipoff, or if they allude to having any history of cheating. And if they’re really overdoing it—if they’re telling you how wonderful you are and how you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to them and you’re not even through your appetizer at the restaurant—that’s a red flag.

There may be such a thing as “love at first sight,” but that’s a small, small percentage of first dates. So if you’re already getting “love bombed” by the person, that’s a definite red flag. And it’s tricky, because it feels good when someone tells you how wonderful you are. But if it’s above and beyond what you would consider to be normal compliments, that’s a red flag for a gaslighter trying to suck you in. 

Stephanie recommends having someone you trust read your profile if you’re using a dating app or website, to screen for language that might make you a target for a gaslighter. Examples she gives include:

  •  “I’m finally ready to be treated well.”
  • “I’ve had some bad run-ins in the past and I’m trying to start fresh.” 
  • Anything else that shows a vulnerability.

SS: You want to show that you’re an independent person, and that you’re not prone to manipulation. You’d be happy to find someone but you’re just as happy without. And that makes you kind of repellant to a gaslighter. They want someone who has a need to find someone.

Gaslighting vs. Occasional Bad Behavior

SJG: There are a lot of horror stories about gaslighting in your book—a lot of cautionary tales. Might there be a risk of priming people to see gaslighters everywhere, and having a lot of false positives? What are some behaviors that could look like gaslighting but actually aren’t?

SS: Well first I’ll say that if you’ve been in a relationship with a gaslighter, it’s very common to be hyperaware of those behaviors. And that’s because you’ve been traumatized. You have your feelers out looking for that right away. But sometimes people are just jerks, like we talked about before. Or someone could just be having a bad day. Again, this is a pattern of behavior. When you have a number of these behaviors that come together, that’s when you have a gaslighter. It’s not just someone lying once in a while, or saying, “I don’t like what you’re wearing” once in a while. It’s an amalgam of behaviors that together are very indicative of abusive behavior.

This distinction clarifies that gaslighting is not the same as occasional instances of difficult behavior, or having someone disagree with us, or even see the world very differently from how we see it. 

Gaslighting in Politics

Gaslighting often comes up in the context of our political leaders now, with accusations of “fake news” on both ends of the political spectrum and very different lenses through which we see political events. 

SJG: Another domain that you talk about in your book is politicians as gaslighters. How common is that among politicians? This has become more talked about since the 2016 election, but I think a cynic might say that gaslighting almost seems like part of the job description for politicians.

SS: Right, whenever you’re influencing people, manipulation comes into play, and I don’t think anyone can argue that politicians aren’t in the business of influencing. But when a world leader like President Trump is saying, “What you’re seeing and what you’re hearing isn’t what you’re seeing and hearing,” that’s classic gaslighting behavior. I think it’s become much more overt now. It was more behind the scenes before, but now it’s more blatant. Like with the pictures of the inauguration, and he’s saying, “There were so many people there!” and you’re like, “… Nah, not really.”

So it’s come to the point where it’s so obvious, and there are outright lies about things. I think it’s a scale we haven’t seen before. And I think it’s really brought to the forefront that people are starting to not trust what they’re seeing, because they’re told the exact opposite. 

The full interview is available on the Think Act Be podcast

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