Many people suffer from the manipulation of those around them, most often without knowing it. If manipulation takes many forms, gaslighting has recently come to light. But what is it exactly?
1. What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting, which could be expressed as mental fogging, is a technique of manipulation and mental abuse that consists of distorting information and situations as well as doubting the victim’s word in order to reverse the roles of abuser/victim and encourage future abuse.
The name of this practice comes from the play Gas Light in which a husband tries to make his wife believe that she is imagining changes in their gas light at night when he is responsible for them, trying to hide his true actions.
This practice is rooted in the repetition of a relational pattern, it is not an isolated instance.
The dynamic is very asymmetrical, with on the one hand a partner constantly listening to the other, and giving more credit to the other’s word than to their own perceptions, and on the other hand, a partner constantly negating the other’s perception, and diminishing their emotional experience and abilities.
In a gaslighting interaction, one partner emerges as the winner and the other as the loser.
Gaslighting can take many forms, but several common behaviors can be found:
- exaggerating the complexity of a situation to confuse the other person (“It’s more complicated than that, you wouldn’t understand.”)
- simplifying a more complex situation to make the victim feel weak and powerless (“If you’re not happy, just leave, I’m not holding you back, the door is open.”)
- pretending not to understand the victim (“I don’t understand what you’re saying, it’s nonsense”, “I don’t understand what I did wrong”)
- questioning, often vehemently, the victim’s memories, even when they are correct (“I never said that, you’re wrong/lying.”)
- making the victim believe that their needs and emotions are trivial or too important to deal with on their own (“You’re overreacting,” “You’re too sensitive,” “You’re too fragile”)
- pretending to forget how things happened, or denying that they really happened or happened that way
- using insults and verbal abuse, usually disguised as humour
- blame the victim rather than the abuser (“I’m sorry you feel that way [as a result of the abuser’s action],” “You’re the problem, not the others.”)
In short, the abuser will diminish the importance of the victim’s emotional experience, make the victim doubt his or her own perceptions, shut down the conversation when the victim tries to be heard, and shift all the blame onto the victim.
Gaslighting is a manipulative technique that takes place over time, gradually undermining the victim’s mental defenses and becoming more effective over time.
This practice rarely occurs alone and is often used to facilitate further abuse and maintain a dominant/dominated relationship.
2. What are the effects of gaslighting?
By hearing their words and perceptions questioned, gaslighting victims end up doubting themselves, their memories and their actions. This can also be accompanied by a feeling of going crazy.
The victim of gaslighting gradually loses confidence in themselves, as their words are constantly questioned, and the expression of their personal experience is denied.
The victim dares less and less to express their feelings or their vision of things, because the abuser’s reactions can be extreme or violent, most often on a psychological level.
The abuse is denied or normalized by the abuser (and sometimes by those around him), and the victim ends up thinking that the situation is normal, which leads him not to seek help when it is needed.
In most cases, over the long term, the victim’s defense mechanisms have been deactivated by the accumulation of abuse. Learned helplessness prevents the victim from fighting or running away, convinced that it is useless, that she will not succeed or that it will be worse if she tries to get out of it.
In some cases, which are rarer today, gaslighting could go as far as committing the victim to a psychiatric institution.
3. How to help someone who is a victim of gaslighting?
One must be particularly vigilant when dealing with a victim of gaslighting, because their perception of reality is extremely fragile. Even in the absence of the abuser, the victim will question thier experiences, their emotions, their life. Care must be taken not to reinforce gaslighting by accident.
The first step is to ask the victim to tell the story as they remember it, focusing on their story and their experience, regardless of what others may have told later. If the victim expresses their feelings, it is important to validate and normalize them.
We will then work on the balance between trusting one’s own word and trusting the word of others. We can, for example, base ourselves on events where the aggressor is absent, and see if the victim also doubts his or her own experience in those moments.
It is important to remember that human memory is fallible, especially in times of stress. It is normal not to remember every detail perfectly. However, the feeling of the events as a whole is much less altered.
The work with a victim of gaslighting can be very long. It is a matter of deconstructing an altered vision of reality in order to regain confidence in one’s experience. It is important that the victim is no longer in contact with the abuser, who may redouble his or her efforts if he or she feels the victim slipping away.
In all cases, if you suspect that someone is being abused, the first priority is to intervene to get the person to safety, before starting any therapeutic process.
In case of emergency, call the emergency hotline.