“That never happened; you must be imagining it.” “Everyone agrees with me—you’re overreacting.” “Wow, what’s it like to be insane?” If these sound like a familiar refrain, you may have been the target of "gaslighting," a term blowing up like, well, a lighter thrown into a puddle of gas. A form of emotional abuse, gaslighting is dominating the headlines, is all over Twitter, and has been thrown around by everyone from pundits to columnists to late-night comics.
What is Gaslighting?
The term comes from the 1944 movie "Gaslight," starring Ingrid Bergman, who, in a spooky “everything is connected” moment, won a Golden Globe for her role. In "Gaslight," Bergman plays a wife, Paula, whose reality is slowly being undermined by her supposedly devoted husband Gregory. His nefarious goal is to have her institutionalized so he can gain access to her fortune.
The title comes from Gregory’s habit of secretly digging through the attic for her hidden jewels. When he creeps upstairs and turns on the lights in the attic, the rest of the gas lights in the house dim accordingly, making Paula suspicious. But when she asks him about the dimming lights, he acts like she’s crazy. She must be imagining things; they’re just as bright as always. “Why don’t you rest a while,” Gregory suggests. “You know you haven’t been well.”
In some ways, the movie is dead on. The mind games Gregory plays are diabolical: He tells her friends she’s unstable. He isolates her from family. He disguises cutting invalidations as statements of concern. He hides her belongings, then questions her sanity when she can’t find them. In short, he messes not only with her, but with the people and objects around her to alter her reality and make her think she’s losing it.
But in other ways, "Gaslight" is clearly a Hollywood movie. Gaslighting in real life is different. But how? What tactics do real life gaslighters use? This week, we’ll illuminate five tactics of the all-too-common and all-too-insidious practice of gaslighting.
5 Signs of Gaslighting
- Gaslighters override your reality.
- Gaslighters aren’t out to destroy you; they’re out to make things easier for themselves.
- Gaslighting is often fueled by sexism.
- Gaslighters make disagreement impossible.
- Gaslighters make you agree with their point of view.
Let's dig into each a little further.
Tactic #1: Gaslighters override your reality.
At its heart, gaslighting is overriding your reality to the point that you question your own judgment. Like most things, there are degrees. It can be as small-scale as telling a child, “You can’t be hungry—you just had a snack,” or as large-scale as denying fully obvious facts, such as the story that made the rounds of the interweb recently of a man who got married, posted the wedding photos on Facebook, and then told his long-distance girlfriend it was all in her head.
To sum up, if the gaslighter had a mantra, it would be, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes truth.”
Tactic #2: Gaslighters aren’t out to destroy you; they’re out to make things easier for themselves.
Unlike in the movie, the gaslighter isn’t usually trying to destroy a relationship, much less destroy a relationship in order to claim something as concrete as a treasure chest of jewels—mwa-ha-ha-ha! Quite the opposite. The gaslighter wants the target around, wants to maintain the relationship. They just want the target around on their terms.
By the same token, gaslighting isn’t always conscious. Indeed, gaslighters don’t sit around stroking their goatees or petting a white cat while plotting to undermine your sanity. Instead, gaslighting comes from the need—conscious or unconscious—to control. Gaslighters work to undermine you so you can’t challenge them. Then the relationship can go the way they want. They get to have their cake and eat it, too, without the inconvenience of having to discuss things, compromise, or work together.