I didn’t know there was a word for it when I was little but I did know, by the time I was six or seven, that one of us was right and the other of us was wrong and maybe even crazy. That’s a very scary thought when you’re a child, especially if the other person is your mother. But, as I grew older, her version of events diverged more and more from what I remembered happening; she’d deny that she’d said or done things, tell me I was making things up or that I was too sensitive, or simply that what I thought had happened didn’t.
That’s the essence of gaslighting, a term that has its origins not in science but in popular culture; derived from a 1930s play called Gaslight, it became part of the lexicon when the play became a movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, in which the bad guy (Boyer) tries to convince his new bride (Bergman) that she is losing her mind. Gaslighting is a tool used by those who want to manipulate and control other people; it works best in intimate settings because to gaslight someone successfully, you need to know not just the person’s habits of mind but also their fears and insecurities. It’s most successful when the relationship isn’t one of two equal partners; that’s one of the reasons it’s easy for a parent to gaslight a child. It’s not simply that the mother or father is a figure of authority but that the child wants and needs the parent’s love and approval.
An imbalance of power is also crucial for gaslighting to work in adult relationships.
Gaslighting in adult relationship: understanding the power play
“If I challenged him on a decision he’d made, he’d either refuse to answer me, pretending I’d said nothing, or he’d tell me I had it all wrong, that I jumped to conclusions, or that I was just reacting emotionally or stupidly. Then I would start wondering whether he was right—after all, he was a smart and successful guy—and I’d fall right down the rabbit hole and start apologizing for doubting his judgment. He played me like a fiddle.”
A controlling partner or one high in narcissistic traits may use gaslighting as a way of asserting his power, taking advantage of the emotional imbalance (one person is more committed to the relationship than the other or one partner is still trying to gain the other’s love and approval). That said, insecure people are much more likely to be fall victim to gaslighting than those who trust in their own perceptions and have healthy self-esteem. In a marriage, financial independence or the lack of it can either insulate you from gaslighting or make you more susceptible.
Who’s more likely to experience gaslighting in an intimate relationship? Someone with insecure attachment whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood and who hasn’t begun to come to terms with how she was affected. Most vulnerable are those with an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment; these individuals need and want to be in a relationship, often feel that they’re “not complete” if they’re not part of a couple, but are also rejection-sensitive. (For more on attachment styles and how they affect you and your behaviors, please see my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
Here are four possible reasons you are vulnerable to gaslighting.
- You were gaslighted as a child
If you’re actively recovering from a toxic childhood and have been in therapy, prior experience will actually make it easier to identify this kind of abuse but if you haven’t yet begun to make sense of your childhood experiences and still normalize or rationalize how your mother or father treated you, you’re very unlikely to register that you’re being played in this way. Or, in fact, to see this behavior as abusive. Many unloved daughters stumble into relationships that pretty much replicate the emotional dynamics of their families of origin; it’s a comfort zone that offers no comfort.
- You’re prone to self-doubt
If second-guessing yourself is something you do all the time because you don’t trust your own perceptions, you’re an easy target for gaslighting. The person who’s trying to control you will manipulate you by telling you that you’re over-reacting or too sensitive or any other criticism that will get you thinking it must be your fault or that you misread the situation.
- You avoid conflict
The manipulator knows this about you, and uses it to his advantage. One way to fight back against gaslighting is to challenge the manipulator with straightforward facts delivered with calm authority but he knows that you’re much more likely to duck and run for cover. Adults whose childhoods included a lot of overt hostility such screaming and yelling as well as more covert forms of abuse such as stonewalling or being subjected to the silent treatment tend to back down when confronted. Being able to deal with conflict productively is part of the path out of childhood and on to recovery.
- You appease and please
This is also learned in childhood, especially if you had a hyper-critical or combative mother, or one who scapegoated the child or children who didn’t go along to get along. While peacemaking is a good thing, appeasement isn’t and the gaslighter knows that withdrawing affection or threatening to makes you feel vulnerable and anxious and uses that to his advantage. Rather than brook his outright anger, you may see buying into his version of things as the path of least resistance; this too is something he knows about you.
Gaslighting is one way a manipulator controls the script in a relationship. It’s important to recognize which of your own behaviors keep you on the stage so that you can begin to write your own script and make your exit.
Photograph by kellepics. Copyright free. Pixabay.com