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Gaslighting: A Hidden Psychological Abuse

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

Gaslighting is a psychological concept to signify emotional and mental abuses that people inflict to gain control and dominance over other individuals and groups. These abuses are hidden because they do not leave physical scars or hard evidence. The techniques to inflict such abuses may vary from unconscious to malicious, covert to intentional, but always leave indelible spiteful marks on their victims.

Gaslighting in personal, social, political and business settings has become a menace. Consequently, people are challenged in their beliefs, confused about separating facts from fiction and find difficulty discerning scientific evidence from biases. Scientific American highlights the situation as:

"...gaslighting, in which someone denies the reality that other people are experiencing...has become a greater threat than ever."

Behavioral Scientists perceive that gaslighting has become a mental health and social issue and is a root cause of myriad problems in societies. Consequently, it is vital to recognize its prevalence, implications and strategies to deal with it.

Origin of the term Gaslighting

"Gaslighting is mind control to make victims doubt their reality."
Tracy A. Malone

Gaslighting is a colloquial term originating from a 1938 play, Gas Light, and subsequently a film adaptation with the name in "Gaslight" 1944. 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. Films of such types demonstrate that the mind-manipulation techniques, when used deliberately, can create doubts and alter victims' memories and perceptions.

However, the word gaslighting gained popularity only in the 2010s when added to English language usage. The American Dialect Society selected gaslighting as one of the most useful words of 2016, and Oxford University declared gaslighting as one of the popular words of 2018.

What is Gaslighting?

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. Dr. Stern, in her book The Gaslight Effect, stated that gaslighting is a phenomenon of "mutual participation" between "gaslighter" (perpetrator/abuser) and "gaslightee" (victim), and described it as:

"...an insidious form of emotional abuse and manipulation that is difficult to recognize and even harder to break free from. That's because it plays into one of our worst fears - of being abandoned - and many of our deepest needs: to be understood, appreciated and loved."

American Psychological Association described it as: "to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences or understanding of events."

Thus, gaslighting is a covert manipulation to make others doubt their perceptions. For example, this is what happened in the movie "Gaslight" when the husband made his wife question her observations and made her believe his version of events.

Effects of Gaslighting

Gaslighting harms its victims in multiple ways. Clinical therapist Hailey Shafir states that 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. In addition, research validates that more women are its victims than men, "over 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime" (CDC.Gov ).

A 2014 European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) survey also documented psychological abuses against women. Almost one-third of Irish women (31%) said they had experienced psychological abuse by a partner. In addition, 23% of respondents said they had experienced controlling behavior, 24% said they had experienced abusive behavior and 12% said they had experienced stalking (including online stalking). Thus, the question is why it happens and what makes some people Gaslighters.

Personality Traits of Gaslighters

"Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others."
P. Yogananda

Gaslighting is a learned trait by social conditioning from parents, siblings, family members and social environment. Abusers internalize the attitude that it is alright to confuse, manipulate, show arrogance and be demanding (Learned or Genetic).

Gaslighters are known to be narcissists, authoritarian but always with low self-esteem. They perceive themselves as gifted, 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.

However, it is not easy to spot a gaslighter. Perpetrators can also be charming, charismatic and generous. Nonetheless, clinical psychologists state that they have a borderline personality disorder, such as "sociopaths or psychopaths because of their lack of empathy for others, manipulative tendencies and desire for mind control."

Tactics and Techniques of Gaslighting

The tactics may vary from subtle to intentional or from unconscious to malicious.

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, 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."

Some of the common tactics that gaslighters use (Psychology Today):

  • It all starts with lies, blatant lies, and gaslighters repeat those. Then, when confronted with the truth, perpetrators deny it.

  • They wear down their victims over time. It begins with simple steps, but eventually, they want to control and dominate. Gaslighters may find faults in everything victims do and project their shortcomings onto their victims.

  • Gaslighters generate doubt in their victims with statements such as "you are too sensitive; you have no right to feel that way."

  • Gaslighters may team up family members, friends and other significant members against their victims. They also manipulate victims' feelings for others.

  • Gaslighters, being charming and charismatic, may occasionally praise and make positive comments about their victims; however, the praise is usually for something that serves the gaslighter at the expense of others.

  • How to Respond to Gaslighters?

    Make sure it is gaslighting as people may have different opinions and not always agree, which means they are not gaslighting. But, if actions are consistent and deliberate, then it is time to respond. Vital tips for responding:

  • 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. In addition, 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.

  • Conclusion

    In conclusion, gaslighting has become a mental health issue of the 21st century. It is not confined only to personal relationships, but is also vastly prevalent in social, political and work environments. Therefore, public officials need to be aware and formulate policies to handle such problems. Some countries have already taken the lead to address mental health issues. For example, European countries such as France, England and Scotland legally criminalize psychological violence in intimate relationships, punishable by a prison sentence and fine.

    Thus, governments need to address mental health issues and social and physical health issues. Gaslighting impacts people's health, well-being and productivity. In these times, public officials cannot afford to ignore the hidden damages of psychological abuses. Positive social change can happen only if manipulators, conspirators and fabricators who inflict hidden damage on others are confronted, made accountable and brought to justice.

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