Bringing Gaslighting to Light, Part II

As discussed in Part I, gaslighting is defined as “a sneaky, difficult-to-identify form of manipulation (and in severe cases, emotional abuse)” that results in the gaslightee questioning his or her own perception, experiences, and even reality. In severe cases, this psychological warfare can result in the victim becoming dependent on the gaslighter for his or her own sense of reality.

Gaslighters must be villains, setting out to destroy the lives of unwitting victims. Right?

Not necessarily. If you’re looking for scary predators lurking in the night, ready to jump out and gaslight you, you’ll miss the real danger. Many writings on gaslighting portray gaslighters as vicious and intentionally manipulative, but this isn’t always the case. People who gaslight aren’t always monsters, rather, they are friends, romantic partners, parents, and siblings. They are people with whom we laugh and fall in love, and their identity is more complex than “part-time gaslighter.” This is important to realize because when we vilify gaslighters, we tend to overlook the gaslighting behavior of those close to us and make excuses for it because we don’t want to see those we love as bad. As the old saying goes, “love blinds.” Also, when we believe that gaslighting reflects a sort of inherent badness within the individual, we miss the broader context of gaslighting and the ways societal norms and history encourage and perpetuate this phenomenon.

So if gaslighters aren’t gaslighting because they’re bad people, what underlies the behavior and why are they doing it? Here are the three main underlying destructive beliefs that can lead to gaslighting. Note that these beliefs are often not consciously held, but are deeply ingrained and subtly communicated through patriarchal values, the media, our legal system, politics, etc.

Destructive Belief 1: Overwriting another person’s reality is okay. Gaslighting occurs because the gaslighter, at some level, consciously or unconsciously, believes that it is both possible and acceptable to overwrite your experiences and replace them with his or her own. This seems outrageous to say, but the fact is that the erasure of certain people’s lived experiences is not new. We have a long history of erasing the histories and realities of a whole lot of people, including but not at all limited to…

We see erasure happening through cultural appropriationwhitewashing, media and movies, the enforcement of harmful stereotypes, and many other ways.  The overwriting of experience is so common that it’s hard to recognize most of the time! But given its pervasiveness, it’s not unreasonable for people in positions of power and/or privilege to have an unconscious (or conscious!) belief that it is both possible and okay to overwrite the realities of others. After all, history has shown that it is indeed possible, and common. In fact, it’s a really effective way to reinforce one’s own power and privilege by making sure only their perspectives and realities exist.

Destructive Belief 2: People can be controlled or possessed. According to Shea Emma Fett from Everyday Feminism, “The distinguishing feature between someone who gaslights and someone who doesn’t is an internalized paradigm of ownership.” Gaslighters often equate closeness and intimacy with control and possession. This can be seen through jealously and controlling behaviors, which are often misidentified as romantic gestures early in a relationship. Examples might include grabbing a romantic partner and kissing them to “shut them up” when they are angry, persistently pursuing a potential partner in a response to believing the partner is “just playing hard to get,” etc. While movie portrayals of such behaviors are intended to be romantic, they encourage a dynamic of invalidation, control, and ownership in real-life relationships. This dynamic often grows with time, and can lead to gaslighting and other forms of manipulation and even abuse that are designed to maintain control. 

Destructive Belief 3: Challenging me is unacceptable. We all find being challenged frustrating sometimes. Parents of toddlers often become exasperated due to constant questions and challenges presented by their children, and in response may blurt out, “Because I said so!” in irritation and exhaustion. Disengaging while being challenged isn’t ideal, but sometimes we just don’t have the resources to handle it well.

In gaslighting, however, the gaslighter doesn’t shy away from being challenged because they’re too tired or in a bad mood. Rather, the mere act of being challenged is intolerable and unacceptable to the gaslighter, who not only needs to be right, but also needs you to wholeheartedly believe that he/she is right. “Agreeing to disagree” is not an option; the only acceptable outcome is for you, the gaslightee, to unquestioningly align with the gaslighter. You must see the world exactly as the gaslighter does, because even the possibility of being challenged causes intolerable anxiety. Strong anxiety in response to being challenged may be linked to childhood abuse or other traumatic events, a lack of self-regulation or coping skills, or just plain arrogance. In any case, when challenged, the gaslighter works hard to undermine the gaslightee’s perceptions and to overwrite their reality. Over time this erasure of experience eliminates all possibility of being challenged by the gaslightee, as the gaslightee’s self-confidence and personal sense of reality diminish. Eventually, not surprisingly, the gaslightee begins to look to the gaslighter to define reality for them. The result is that the gaslighter may go through life unquestioned and unchallenged, while the gaslightee suffers a devastating loss of self.

These three destructive beliefs (one or more of them) are often at work when gaslighting occurs. Overwriting reality, a need to be in control, and an inability to tolerate being challenged can serve as attempts to maintain power or privilege, to avoid loss, or to preserve and elevate the gaslighter’s self-esteem. If you want to learn how to recognize the signs of gaslighting, revisit the blog soon for Part III of “Bringing Gaslighting to Light.”

This article was originally published at Psychology Today on May 5, 2016