“Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, in which a person convinces the other that she is going crazy. The word is taken from the 1944 film Gaslight that casts Ingrid Bergman as the woman being manipulated by her scheming husband, played by Charles Boyer.
“Serial cheaters are often the ones doing the gaslighting,” says George Simon, Ph.D., and author of In Sheep’s Clothing (Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People) and Character Disturbance (The Phenomenon of our Age). “A serial cheater might berate a suspecting spouse with such intensely feigned righteous indignation over being ‘falsely accused’ in the absence of definitive evidence that the accuser feels not only like a complete louse but also like a crazy person for accusing. As is the case with all manipulation tactics,” adds Dr. Simon, “the gaslighter successfully gets the other person to back down or cave in while concealing obvious aggressive, exploitative intent, and therefore ‘looks good’ (maintains favorable impression management) while victimizing.”
When you’re being gaslighted, you question your instincts, your memory, and your mental state. You are told you are crazy, paranoid, insecure, too sensitive, too stressed, forgetful, or are overreacting. You start believing their lies and perceptions. You feel so beaten down that you find yourself always backing down. You are confused and second-guess everything. Finally, you might believe you are losing your mind and/or fall into a depression.
Though many people have been in relationships where they’ve been lied to, manipulated, and, in some cases, called “crazy” at least once (especially if you’re a woman), true gaslighting is much more diabolical. “True gaslighting is a specific, conscious, deliberate tactic of manipulation and control,” says Dr. Simon. “A disturbed or disordered character gaslights someone to make their target self-doubt or to cause their already self-doubting target to further self-doubt. The objective is simple: make your target believe their gut instincts are both ludicrous and irrational and you successfully con them.”
Many psychiatric professionals agree that even strong, intelligent, confident, and stable people can find themselves in this situation. “That’s one of the most disturbing things about gaslighting, that even incredibly intelligent and emotionally healthy people are vulnerable. You don’t have to be dumb or a damaged person to fall victim to gaslighting. Intelligence and emotions are not the same thing. And a gaslighters’ key maneuver is to prey on emotion rather than intelligence. That said, it is not unusual for many of those who bond with gaslighters to have their own early-life trauma, which in essence taught them to look the other way and/or not question’ when a painful or confusing stimulus is presented,” explains Robert Weiss, a licensed social worker, senior vice-president of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health, and author of Always Turned On,.
While little research has been done on gaslighting, there is evidence to suggest that this behavior is not exclusive to romantic relationships; parents have been known to gaslight their children. “Strangely enough, my mother used to do this type of thing to me,” says Tim. “I do think it is much more prevalent in parent-child relationships than people think. She would accuse me of taking $200 off her table when I definitely didn’t take it, then sent me to a lie-detector test. If there were a pair of pants she didn’t like, she would offer to do my laundry and the pants would disappear. When I brought it up she would tell me I was crazy and she didn’t steal my stuff.”
Who does this? Common culprits include narcissists, sociopaths, people with borderline personality disorders, or anyone who needs to control the one they love or hide their own misconduct. As Dr. Simon explains in his book In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, it is the more aggressive narcissistic characters “who are out to dominate, manipulate, and control; and will use any means necessary, including gaslighting to further their ends.”
Weiss adds, “Gaslighters are generally men and women who were narcissistically wounded early in life—through emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, inconsistent parenting and the like.” I won’t go into details of my ex-husband’s emotional past, but I can say that he has some of these issues that could’ve played into what he did. As for myself, I’m educated, intelligent, confident, successful, and stable and wondered how this could happen to me. That said, I was teased through grade school for being too skinny, flat chested, and having a big nose. And though I’m sure this isn’t exactly early life trauma Weiss is referring to, it might have played a role in why I held onto my marriage so tightly and just kept believing in his lies. Though he never actually apologized, knowing his past helped me tap into some forgiveness for him, which is the only way to start the healing process.
The long-term impact of gaslighting runs deep. “Long-term effects of gaslighting can lead to depression, anxiety, and instability. Gaslighting results in a loss of confidence and trust in your own perceptions and ability to make decisions, which makes everything, including relationships more difficult. Trusting the other person will come in time if the relationship is mutually respectful, if you feel seen and understood, and ‘met’ where you are,” says Robin Stern, Ph.D., associate director at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.”