Who knew that “Gaslight,” a black-and-white movie made during World War II, would prove to be such a significant word in the self-help literature of 2018? In the 1944 film, a newly married young woman begins to doubt her own sanity as her husband systematically denies the reality of her perceptions. She ultimately learns that her husband has been creating disturbances around her home and then denying that he has done so, intending to cause his wife to believe she has lost her mind. “Gaslighting,” in modern parlance, refers to a similar process: the manipulative techniques by which one person may cause another to doubt his or her sanity. Some writers refer to it as similar to “brainwashing,” in that it is a purposeful pattern of behavior, intended to create self-doubt in the mind of its victim. (For reference, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has a tip sheet about what gaslighting often looks like.)
If you’re wondering if someone is doing this to you — if a family member or romantic partner is acting in ways that undermine your confidence in your own perspective — you should take stock of the situation by checking for warning signs. Ask yourself what feelings you have in the presence of this other person. Do you feel cut off from most of your friends, or misunderstood by the people who once knew you best? Are you second-guessing yourself, or having difficulty making decisions — even small ones — because you question your own judgment? Or do you feel you are relying excessively on the judgment of the other person? Have you become convinced that there is something deeply wrong with you — for instance, that you may simply be “too sensitive,” and are likely to interpret most events incorrectly? Are you constantly apologizing to your partner, feeling like a much weaker version of the independent person you once were? Do you wonder if you are correctly remembering the events of your relationship, and does your partner insist that these events happened in some other way — a way that favors his or her outlook, not yours? 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 rationalizing his or her behavior?
It may also help to identify the techniques used in gaslighting — in subverting another person’s sense of self, in this way. Let’s say the person you’re concerned about is your romantic partner. Has he or she been lying to you in a blatant, outright fashion? Denying the things he or she has said, even when you have proof that these remarks were made? Making it difficult for you to trust your recollection of significant events? Gaslighters may throw in occasional positive comments to keep you off balance, or use phony compassion to make it seem as though they care about you and want to help you stop seeing things in such a distorted way. More often, though, they will try to destabilize you by criticizing the things that are important to you. Imagine you feel great about your job: the gaslighter might subtly chip away at its value, as if trying to take it away from you. “It’s too bad that your boss never allows you to be creative,” he or she might say, or even “Your co-workers are selfish people who don’t really care about you.” You may feel ashamed of yourself, too; shame is a potent weapon in the gaslighter’s arsenal, as it can directly undermine your confidence, or your ability to connect with your peers. Someone gaslighting you might even try to convince your friends that you’re crazy, which could isolate you further from anyone who might help you recognize what’s happening; gaslighting makes it very difficult to trust one’s own comfort level. “Don’t be so sensitive!” you may hear, or “I don’t know why you think that’s a big deal!” — suggesting that you feel bad because your own standards are different from everyone else’s.
To be fair, gaslighting isn’t always intentional. Some people use these manipulation techniques without fully realizing what they’re doing to others. Consider the case of a father who seriously (and rigidly) believes in the rightness of his own values: he might, with what he sees as good intentions, assume that something is wrong with his daughter’s point of view if it differs from his. By being overly critical or harsh with his daughter — even trying to cut her off from friends he sees as “wrong” for her — the father might effectively be denying her ability to perceive reality independently from him. (This does not excuse the behavior, of course, any more than it obviates the need for the daughter to somehow consolidate her own perspective.)
If you find yourself in a relationship like this — in which you’ve come to doubt the value of your own reactions — 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 behavior pattern in which you’ve become trapped. Try making a written list of all the ways your partner, relative, or friend devalues your perspective and forces you to adhere to his or hers: this list may help you recognize a pattern. Even so, it may be difficult to stop apologizing for your significant other, or to stop rationalizing the behavior 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.) And do not believe that you are “too sensitive,” or that your injured feelings 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 yardstick by which you should measure your own reactions; you can trust your own.
Once you’ve acknowledged that you are in a relationship where your perception of reality is being systematically devalued, you should reach out to friends and family that you trust. Be honest with those who care about you. Allow yourself to be vulnerable 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 work. You’ll need to establish new boundaries between yourself and the person who has been undermining your self-confidence. You may even 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.
In the movie, the young married woman — spoilers ahead! — eventually does succeed in spotting the machinations of her nefarious beau and turning the tables on him. In reality, gaslighting can be much more insidious, and its consequences can be long-lasting. If you have fallen into a relationship in which your partner undercuts your sense of reality, sabotages your connections to others, or destabilizes your ability to be yourself, please do seek help among the people you love. If you can clarify your perspective and rebuild your confidence in your own judgment, you may be able to take actions to change the course of the relationship — even if that means ending it.
What is gaslighting?(2018, December 24). Retrieved from https://www.thehotline.org/what-is-gaslighting/
DiGiulio, S. (2018, July 13). What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you? Retrieved from https://nbcnews.to/2Q0TG9y
Lancer, D. (2018, January 13). How to know if you’re a victim of gaslighting. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2VcMue3
Lee, R. (2018, December 25) How to understand gaslighting. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2Q0TGX6
Luna, A. (2018, December 24). You’re not going crazy: 15 signs you’re a victim of gaslighting. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2kI1fFA
Sarkis, S. A. (2017, January 22). 11 Warning signs of gaslighting. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2Q3Sqm6