By Harwant Khush, research consultant, Tero International
“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.” – P. Yogananda
Gaslighting is a psychological concept to signify emotional and mental abuses that people inflict to gain control and dominance over others. These abuses are hidden because they do not leave physical scars or hard evidence.
Gaslighting in personal, social, political and business settings has become a menace. People are challenged in their beliefs, confused about separating facts from fiction and find difficulty discerning scientific evidence from biases.
The origin of the term
Gaslighting is a colloquial term originating from a 1938 play, “Gas Light,” and subsequently a 1944 film adaptation titled “Gaslight.” The film portrays an abusive husband who confuses his wife by flickering gas-powered lights in their home. When the victimized wife questions his conduct, she is labeled insane, delusional and not in touch with reality. This purposeful and repetitive action by the husband was to confuse his wife, declare her insane and eventually confine her to a mental institution so he could take over her inheritance.
Gaslighting is a deliberate and systematic psychological manipulation in which a person or a group knowingly creates doubt in targeted individuals’ or groups’ memory, perceptions and even sanity. Robin Stern, in her book “The Gaslight Effect,” states that gaslighting is a phenomenon of mutual participation between the gaslighter (perpetrator/abuser) and the “gaslightee” (victim).
The effects of gaslighting
Gaslighting harms its victims in multiple ways. Victims experience self-doubt, lack of confidence and difficulties making decisions. Eventually, it leads to low self-worth as victims internalize that they are never good enough and suffer from stress, anxiety and depression. Their communication style becomes submissive.
According to the CDC, more than 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Gaslighters are known to be narcissists and authoritarian – but always with low self-esteem. They perceive themselves as gifted and brilliant and like to be recognized. However, they are also interested in obtaining and keeping power regardless of how they get it. They think in terms of absolutes and project themselves to be always right. If challenged, their delicate egos get bruised, and they feel humiliated.
It is not easy to spot a gaslighter. Perpetrators can also be charming, charismatic and generous.
Unconscious gaslighting is when gaslighters may not intentionally annoy and offend others. Expressions such as “I do not understand what you are talking about” show gaslighters being rude and demeaning and ignoring others’ feelings. If not confronted, it goes to the next, much harsher level, such as “Let me tell you what you need to do.” Such an approach is known as dictating and controlling.
Gaslighting becomes intentional when gaslighters know their actions are harmful and deliberate. For example, saying, “You won’t get it – forget it, just think, it never happened,” conveys abuse, vindictiveness and intentionally hurting others. The highest level is malicious gaslighting, when the intention is to harm, confuse and manipulate the victims purposely. For example, saying, “You’re such an idiot – it is not just me; the whole family thinks so too.”
How to respond to gaslighters
Make sure it is gaslighting. People may have different opinions and not always agree, which doesn’t mean they are gaslighting. If actions are consistent and deliberate, then it is time to respond. Here are six tips:
- Verify and keep the records and evidence of abusive actions. It may be as simple as saving text messages, emails, damaged property or recorded conversations.
- Deflect and create physical space from the gaslighter. Mental activities such as keeping calm, visualization exercises, positive affirmations or other productive activities create positive energy.
- Have a support group to share feelings and emotions. These can be family members, friends and co-workers.
- Find your inner strength and use assertive communication to convey your reality. It could be as simple as “I realize you disagree with me, but this is how I feel” or “This is my decision, and I am responsible for it.”
- Build confidence by making simple decisions about events and situations. Stern says, “Having compassion for yourself is super important. You’re responsible, and be honest with yourself. Maybe tomorrow your partner will be great, but focus on what you’re feeling in the moment.”
- If gaslighting becomes severe and offensive, it is time to seek help from professional therapists because gaslighters will not change their ways.
Gaslighting has become a mental health issue of the 21st century. It is not confined only to personal relationships. It is vastly prevalent in social, political and work environments.