“You are overreacting.”
“It wasn’t that bad. I was just joking.”
“You are just being too emotional.”
“That never happened – you are just imagining it.”
Hearing any of these statements in a conversation can be frustrating. However, when they are a part of a regular barrage of criticism aimed at controlling another person, they are more than rude—they are abusive.
Called ‘gaslighting’, this type of abuse uses statements like the above to create doubt in a person’s mind by making them think they are going insane. The name comes from a 1930’s play Gas Light in which the main character attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the gas powered lights in their home and then denying the lights are changing.
MGM made the play into a classic thriller film in 1944, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In this story, the character of Paula marries the villainous Gregory, not realizing that he is the one who murdered her aunt and wants to steal her jewelry. To cover up his treachery, he tries to persuade Paula that she is going mad.
He plants missing objects on her in order to make her believe that she has no recollection of reality. He tries to isolate her, not allowing her to have visitors or leave the house.
Essentially, gaslighting describes forms of manipulation that are designed to make the victim lose their grip on the truth or reality.
Gaslighting can be a terrifying experience. It quickly puts people on the defensive to try to justify their own actions or behaviours when it actually starts out with a challenge to someone else’s questionable behaviour.
Gaslighting fabrications may be presented so convincingly, with such conviction a person begins to question themselves, their own memories and judgment. A fear begins, that other people who don’t know the truth might be persuaded to believe some of the gaslighter’s distortions.
Gaslighting often is found in conjunction with other abuse, such as physical or verbal. The abusive person may try to convince the other that what they remember happening in fact never did. Or, they may calmly ask, ‘why can’t you just get over it?”
Gaslighting may also start in the beginning of a relationship. The abusive person wants to get the other to begin doubting from the get-go. The self-esteem of the other will plummet and they will feel less than the other person – less intelligent, less capable, and less adequate.
This often leads to the person not having a sense of who they are, believing that they no longer are a person of any worth or have a voice that will be heard. This keeps them tied to the relationship.
What to do?
First seek counselling support. Next try to document what is happening. Write the incidents down in a journal and put the journal in a safe place. This can help to recognize the pattern of gaslighting and be a record of the truth. Lastly, know that gaslighting is a type of manipulation that anyone can fall victim to. This type of abuse is not just limited to lower education or lower income. It happens across the board, to men and to women. Gaslighting is very, very subtle and it is not until one is deeply caught, they get an inkling that something is really ‘not right’.
Pamela Ana MA, CCC, owns Wellness Matters Counselling and Psychotherapy. Call 250-723-9818 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org