Many of us have probably heard of gaslighting. In this article, we will explore what is behind this concept and why it is so destructive, disturbing, and toxic.
Origins and definition
Gaslighting is a term used in psychology and common speech that refers to manipulation whose purpose is to create doubt in a person or a group of people. It includes but is not limited to denial, lying, deflection, and contradiction to make the target question their perception of reality.
The term gaslighting originates from a 1938 stage play and its later film adaptations (1940 and 1944). It has been used colloquially since the 1960s. In the story, the husband tries to convince his wife and other people that she is insane. He is doing so by manipulating certain elements of their environment and by continuously insisting that she doesn’t remember things correctly and that she’s delusional when she notices the changes he made.
The title comes from the husband dimming the gas lights in the house and then denying that there was a change in illumination when his wife notices a difference.
Why gaslighting is so damaging
Gaslighting makes you doubt your own perception, your feelings, and your memory. It makes you doubt reality itself, and therefore your own sanity. When you doubt your perception of reality and you don’t know if you are sane, then you can become insane, to the degree that you are detached from reality.
The levels of sanity and insanity varies in different areas of life and in different situations because all of us have certain blind spots, lapses, or lack in knowledge or perception. However, if you are deliberately and routinely made to doubt your accurate thoughts, feelings, motives, drives, and perceptions, then it damages or even destroys you as a person.
Doubting your sanity is scary (“Is it real?” “Did I make it up?” “Did it really happen?”). This sometimes results in the victim actually becoming detached from reality (in thought and in emotion) or not being able to process certain aspects of reality accurately.
It is more damaging the younger the person is because a child’s brain is still developing and they are dependent on their caregiver.
Gaslighting as childhood trauma
If a child is not allowed to have their healthy and authentic thoughts, emotions, goals, preferences, then their mind becomes damaged to the degree of the controlling that is going on. The most common examples of gaslighting in childhood could be the following: “You/I didn’t mean that” when the person clearly did mean it. Or, “You shouldn’t be sad,” “It didn’t hurt,” “You’re lying,” “It didn’t happen” when it did, “You like it” when you don’t, and so on.
Many children are not allowed to feel certain emotions, like feeling angry at their parents, siblings, other family members, or authority figures. It is also oftentimes not allowed to think and say what the people around you disapprove of or don’t want to notice. Here, gaslighting is a form of thought-, emotion-, and behavior-control.
Gaslighting can be experienced at home, at school, in peer groups, or in any other social environment where there is a hierarchical and controlling structure that makes a child inferior and subservient.
Then a child grows up and becomes prone to gaslighting as an adult or learns to gaslight others. They may be blind to their painful experiences. They also may severely lack connection with self and reality, and the ability to think rationally.
Gaslighting in adulthood
Sometimes gaslighting is used unintentionally or by a person who is simply confused, lacks specific knowledge, or is not versed in rational thinking. In other words, it can happen unintentionally and without malice.
However, gaslighting is a common manipulation tactic of people with strong narcissistic, sociopathic, psychopathic tendencies. Here, often the perpetrator has some shady motives and doesn’t really care that they hurt you.
The most common scenario for gaslighting in adulthood is romantic relationships. As the original play and movies illustrated, there could be a spouse, partner, or other romantic interest that would use gaslighting tactics against you.
Other scenarios are work, business, family, among peers, or even in therapy. Here, sometimes people try to compete with each other, or play other social games like gossip and triangulation, or have personal agendas. A big part of that is telling a compelling story (with clear heroes and villains, or an ideology), which often doesn’t match reality—and to that degree it becomes gaslighting.
End note: Sometimes the term gaslighting is used as attack. The same can be said about many terms, though. “He/she is gaslighting!” when actually they are not. Here, the accuser—consciously or unconsciously—doesn’t want to see certain aspects of reality. They want to stay in denial, and so they attack the rational person by calling their observations gaslighting. This in itself could be called gaslighting, and is a form of projection. This article is not about justifying that.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.