“Oh. Okay… I guess I messed up. I thought… never mind. Sorry.”
[A dad driving in the car with his 10-year old daughter to run an errand, parking in front of a stranger’s house.]
“Kate, wait here. I have to go inside, part of the errand is here.”
“Can’t I come in?”
“No. You have to wait here.”
“Fine. How long will you be?”
“Five minutes. Just play your Gameboy.”
[40 minutes later, dad comes back smelling of perfume and something else, daughter is in tears.]
“What took you so long?!”
“That wasn’t very long. I was only gone a few minutes.”
“No! Dad! That took a long time, way more than five minutes.”
“Did it? Well, sometimes errands do.”
“No, but Da-”
[Arriving home at their house, going inside and greeting Kate’s mother, mother says:]
“What took you guys so long?”
“Dad stopped at someone’s house! He was gone inside forever!”
“Kate! Cut it out. She’s making things up again. We stopped at the store and then swung by the office. It took longer because of traffic.”
“What? No way, Dad! You went inside that strange house, remember?”
“Kate, stop it. I swung by the office. That was the building! You’re exaggerating and forgetting what happened. You remember the traffic? It was a mess.”
[Mother] “Kate, you know you’re not supposed to fib. If Dad says he did something, then he did. Come on, let’s get ready for dinner…”
How close to home did either of these vignettes feel?
Could the adult self of you relate? Could your child self relate?
In your past or your present do you sometimes or often have the experience of someone pushing back on what you imagined was true, what you believed to be accurate and real, and telling you otherwise?
Does that pushback from others ever cause you to doubt your own reality? Do you sometimes wonder if you can trust yourself, your thoughts, and what you know to be true?
Or can you not relate to this at all? Do you wonder with disbelief how any of the above vignettes could play out and have the responses they have?
No matter your situation, today’s post covers a topic I feel so passionate about talking about: gaslighting.
Keep reading if – for whatever reason – you’re curious about this topic, too.
What is Gaslighting?
Just what is gaslighting?
Gaslighting isn’t a term you’re going to find in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the psychological bedrock text of the mental health field).
Gaslighting is, however, a term you’re likely going to hear in pop culture and certainly on the news channels these days.
It’s a term derived from the play and later film adaptations of the same name: Gas Light.
Gas Light is a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton in which a woman is systematically and corrosively (nearly) convinced she’s insane because of her cruel husband’s deliberate manipulations.
The clincher and namesake of the film – the reason why she doesn’t fully cave into believing she’s insane – is thanks to an actual gaslight on the neighborhood street that grounds her reality in a pivotal moment.
(Watch the movie to learn more – it’s good!)
The play (and later films) gave form, frame, and a new name to a tactic that’s been around far longer than the play: psychological abuse.
Gaslighting is psychological manipulation and abuse that causes the victim to doubt their own reality, to question their sanity, and to lose trust in themselves.
Gaslighting can take place in an individual context – such as between a husband and wife, parent and child, boss and employee, or any other iteration of a relationship on the individual level.
Gaslighting can also take place on a grander scale – from one person to many – or when an entity is involved, such as when a political party, elected power, corporation, church, or other organization works to erode their constituents’ and followers’ sense of reality.
Gaslighting is the act of causing someone (or many someones) to doubt themselves, to doubt reality, all in service of believing the abuser’s version of reality.
Gaslighting may look like:
- Being told blatant lies.
- Someone denying and defying your reality.
- Receiving multiple versions of the same story in rapid succession.
- Having blame shifted from them back to you.
- Experiencing invalidation.
- Withholding information.
- Trivializing your experience.
- Getting roped into a dance of blame and shame mixed with fake concern.
- Deliberate humiliation.
- Isolation from others who could confirm your reality.
- Controlling the narrative.
- And so much more.
Gaslighting is a mental boundary violation.
It’s psychological abuse.
And – especially these days! – it’s terribly important we talk about this, learn how to identify it, and call it out for what it is for the sake of ourselves as individuals and for the health of us all as a collective.
Who gaslights and why do they do this?
Gaslighting – at its root – is about control and power.
Whenever someone needs or wants to grasp power and be right and in control versus be in an actual, authentic, healthy, and functional relationship, the ground for gaslighting is laid.
Gaslighting can happen anywhere and with anyone, but that said, there are more common personality types and psychosocial profiles that may employ and deploy this psychological abuse weapon than others.
And, it’s important to say, those folks can exist across every stratum of society in every country in the world: from the small town PTA president to the actual President, from a washed-up old con man to a suburban stay-at-home-mom.
Anyone who has problems – significant problems! – confronting reality, being challenged, and sharing power may use gaslighting as a tactic to control their relationships.
What are the impacts of gaslighting?
Gaslighting can have impacts ranging from the innocuous and annoying to the profoundly damaging, often depending on the vulnerability of the victim and the imbalance of power between abuser and victim and the strength and numbers of those – if any – who collude with the abuser.
What do I mean by this?
A fully esteemed woman, confident in herself, her boundaries, and her reality when presented with gaslighting, let’s say on a dating app text exchange where someone blatantly denied a thing they very obviously did, will likely feel annoyed (and let’s face it probably more than a little tired with the whole online dating scene) but she won’t likely spin out and start questioning herself and lamenting how stupid she is.
A young girl, on the other hand, legally a minor, dependent on her parents for her financial and logistical and bodily survival who has grown up in a home where other family members collude with a narcissistic parent at the helm, may experience a greater degree of psychological distress and impact when and if she experiences gaslighting not only from the abuser but also from fellow family members who either tell her to keep quiet or who validate what the abuser said and did.
In these more vulnerable contexts, some of the more severe impacts of gaslighting may include:
- Mistrust of your own reality.
- Lowered self-esteem.
- Increased anxiety and depressive symptoms.
- Inability to recognize and seek out healthy, functional relationships.
- Greatly impaired boundaries.
- Heightened vulnerability to being taken advantage of or used and abused.
- Greater predisposition to crossing other people’s boundaries.
- Impaired relational attachment.
- Internalized critical self-beliefs and self-talk.
- Increased use and misuse of substances and behaviors to cope with intolerable feelings.
- And so much more.
Again, it’s not to say that every person who tunes into a newscast where a person in power is blatantly lying in the press conference will experience these psychological distress impacts.
Many people will, proverbially, be able to see that the emperor wears no clothes.
However, for an individual raised to doubt and question themselves, confined in the context of an abusive family or abusive relationship, gaslighting sustained over time and in this context may have profoundly more damaging and long-lasting effects.
How do I know if gaslighting is happening to me? How do I stop it?
The core intent of gaslighting is to seize control and power by making you doubt your reality.
The single most important thing you can do to regain control and power is to begin to pay attention to any whisper, intuition, or hunch you have that something is not right in the relationship.
You begin to trust your own reality again, as small and faint as the murmur inside you may be.
Once you begin to listen to yourself, honor this little voice. This intuition. This knowing.
Does something feel off about that interaction that just happened?
Does something feel, for lack of better words, simply not right?
Despite what that person said and did, do you still have a hunch that your version of reality is true?
What does your body have to say about what just happened?
Sometimes it’s worth ignoring our mind and tuning into the somatic signals of our body which are incapable of lying.
What do you – even if it’s a tiny part of you – truly believe about what you experienced?
Ground yourself back into your own reality. Honor what you know to be true for yourself.
With even a small part of you esteemed and trusting of your experience, it’s then deeply important for you to educate yourself about good, healthy boundaries, especially mental and emotional boundaries.
So often we think of boundaries as physical boundaries alone – this person touched me when I didn’t want them to, they stood too close to me on the bus, etc.
And yes, of course physical boundaries are a huge part of boundaries.
But mental and emotional boundaries are equally important in having good personal boundaries in the world.
When you begin to learn what good boundaries are and what they are not, it becomes easier and quicker to realize when yours are being violated (as they inevitably are with gaslighting tactics).
It’s important, too, to learn how to assert, affirm, and uphold your boundaries in the face of gaslighting or other boundary violations.
Also, it’s very important to find people who can validate your reality.
Others who can affirm and uphold what you know to be true for yourself despite what you’re being told by your psychological abuser.
This kind of external validation is often the air that kindles the little flame inside of us, causing the spark to grow stronger and stronger, helping ourselves to further believe in ourselves more and more.
How do you cope with gaslighting?
Well, the more boundaried, empowered, and validated you are (externally and internally) it’s harder for someone to gaslight you or even for you to allow those who might gaslight to come into your life in the first place.
It’s easier, too, as you become more boundaried, empowered, and validated, to take any and all steps to confront your gaslighter and/or remove yourself from them and their influence.
If you struggle with knowing and having good boundaries, I hope you’ll join me in my forthcoming course – Hard Families, Good Boundaries – which, while titled to reflect what it might look like to have good, healthy boundaries in challenging family systems, is really relationship indiscriminate.
It’s a course that will teach the foundations of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships plus assertive, effective communication skills, provide extensive boundary-recognition and boundary-setting education, and help you cultivate a rich set of emotional coping skills no matter who and what relationships are in your life.
If you struggle, even with someone in power at your company, church, or in your community, having a negative impact on you, you’ll want to attend this course.
Think of it like the psychological empowerment education you never received but always wanted (and needed!) to.
The course launches soon, so please sign up for the waiting list here so you can be the first to know when it goes live so you don’t miss the special early bird bonus of working with me directly.
I’m passionate about educating about gaslighting, good boundaries, and learning how to trust and assert ourselves more.
Psychologically whole, robust, resilient, and esteemed women and men who have good boundaries and who can respect and protect the boundaries of others are needed in this world more than ever.
I hope that you’ll join me in being curious about this topic and working to esteem and empower yourself even more.
Until next time, please take such good care of yourself.