Gaslighting is a type of emotional and psychological abuse, meaning that it is a non-physical abuse in which the perpetrator intends to frighten, isolate or control another person. Simply put, gaslighting is when the perpetrator constantly and dishonestly disputes your own accounts of your experiences, causing a growing sense of self-doubt and isolation.
Those who experience gaslighting often can’t put their finger on exactly what is happening, which makes it difficult to articulate, even to themselves. Constant gaslighting makes a rational conversation about what’s going on impossible to have. Instead, you come off looking confused, and petty or have your fear that something is wrong with you reinforced.
Where does the term come from?
Gaslighting is a term that originates from a 1940s movie called Gaslight. In it, a charming man marries a woman, Paula. He then deliberately and systematically sets out to convince her that she’s insane. His end goal is to have her institutionalised so that he can find the hidden stash of rubies he believes is in her home. He starts off by disputing small insignificant happenings, then advances to bigger scenarios. Thereby reinforcing her growing belief that she’s losing her mind. Thankfully she meets an astute investigator who helps validate her experiences and thus her reality. Through this, she’s able to see the chronic manipulation her husband is subjecting her to. And thereafter free herself from him and his abuse.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is the action of repetitively (and often brazenly) lying to someone to manipulate, and ultimately control them and the relationship. It could be divided into four different types: outright lying, manipulation of reality, scapegoating and coercion. Often the experience is a combination of these four types and not just limited to one of them. Gaslighting often happens over a period of time, with the abuser discreetly victimising someone in a disguised or passive manner, chipping away at one’s confidence and sense of self.
While it is true that some abuse is perpetrated with the intention to cause harm to others, those who gaslight others actually might not be aware that they are being abusive. Although it has the same effects, people may unintendedly gaslight someone for many different reasons. Some might be fearful of being alone or abandoned, others may only have experiences of unstable relationships and some may have even experienced some form of abuse themselves.
The Types of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can take many forms, but to help us understand it, some describe gaslighting in four main areas. They are all similar in one way, however: they all use dishonesty to deny the experiences of the other and reinforce that the problem lies with them, rather than the abuser.
1. Outright Lies
The purpose of lying here is to hide bad behaviours from a partner. The lies sow deep feelings of mistrust and doubt in the relationship. What people often find baffling is the boldness, ease and frequency of the lies told by some gaslighters. Someone who gaslights you should be judged solely by their actions because what they say is often untrue.
One of the many problems with someone who lies is that they project what they are doing onto others. Claiming that they’re not lying, but instead everyone else is lying. Very few of us know someone who has the audacity to “double down” on their own lies, and so instead of questioning their integrity further, we believe them. At its root, this is a manipulation tactic that is very successful at isolating someone from the truth and one’s support structures.
2. Manipulation of Reality
When someone constantly denies your experiences or perceptions, you start to question what and how you remember something. You start to doubt your judgement, as well as your memory of events or what was said. Over time, this erodes your self-esteem and ultimately your mental well-being. Eventually, even if you have proof that you are right, you still doubt yourself as a reliable witness to your own reality. The result is an increasing acceptance of the gaslighter’s description of events and continuous questioning of your own memory, interpretations and perceptions.
Sometimes, if the perpetrator fears they may lose their relationship, they may switch to being very affirming and sensitive to the others’ experiences for a while. This serves to conceal the gaslighting for enough time to repair the relationship and regain some trust. Their fluctuating between warm-and-cold behaviour tends to make you question if things are as bad as you’re beginning to suspect. And you may again question whether you weren’t being overly judgemental and harsh, deepening the deception and restarting the cycle of abuse.
Scapegoating is assigning blame to someone else. And by doing this taking responsibility and attention away from one’s self. Usually, it is to justify bad behaviours. This is done through nit-picking and criticising the other. The result is the accused (scapegoat) takes responsibility for things that aren’t their fault. And the abuser feels that their actions are justified and their bad behaviours are thereby exonerated. Additionally, by focusing your attention on defending yourself, they’re distracting you from seeing their behaviour for what it is – unacceptable.
A healthy relationship has an aspect of constructive criticism and honest feedback. However, it’s harmful when done in a hurtful or confusing manner and thus prevents instead of fosters good communication. Furthermore, when this happens it often also means that one person is constantly being required to improve themselves. While at the same time being trapped in a cycle of defending their integrity. This often results in deep-rooted feelings of shame. In contrast, the accuser takes on the role of being the victim or magnanimous, long-suffering and forgiving partner.
Coercion is a spectrum of behaviours. It ranges from convincing someone by using charm or seeming to be very caring. It can also be exerting pressure or being emotionally and/or verbally manipulative in order to get one’s way. Often the gaslighter uses something important or close to your heart as ammunition. And then on the opposite end from charming, being outright violent towards or bullying a partner. At this end of the coercion spectrum, other forms of abuse can also creep in.
Coercive control is about making you dependent on someone else. There are signs that it’s happening. For example, if you are feeling increasingly isolated or less independent or your everyday actions are monitored and/or regulated.
Recovering from Gaslighting
Gaslighting is an insidious type of abuse that is difficult to identify and break free of. It’s about entitlement and seeking to control another person. Total recovery from gaslighting is possible. It requires time, self-compassion, self-care and patience with oneself. You’ll need a few trusted people you can lean on and safely share things with. And for a while, might need to only engage in situations you know you’ll feel safe in. It might also be helpful to seek the services of a trained professional, such as a counsellor or psychologist.
How to Help Someone Recover
If you would like to help people recover from gaslighting, then consider a degree in Applied Psychology from SACAP. A Bachelor of Psychology is a professional degree approved by the HPCSA for the education and training of registered counsellors. Graduates of this programme are eligible to sit the National Examination of the Professional Board for Psychology in the Registered Counsellor category. This allows them to register with the HPCSA as Registered Counsellors. As a four-year NQF 8 degree programme, the SACAP BPsych has a ‘built-in’ Honours equivalent. Successful graduates are therefore also suitable to register for a Master’s programme with a view to becoming a psychologist. Contact a student advisor for more information or enrol online to join an upcoming course.
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