In 1944, a film (based on an English play of the same name) was released called “Gaslight.” That movie isn’t very well known, but the term “gaslighting” is famous.
In the movie, a husband tries to make his wife think she is losing her mind. As a teenager, the wife witnessed the murder of a beloved aunt years earlier, whose perpetrator fled the home without the fortune they intended to steal. After the murder, the wife was sent to Italy. Years later, upon meeting her future husband, he insists the couple move into the deceased aunt’s home, where the murder occurred.
Once they are living in the residence, the husband sets about to make the wife question her sanity. His goal is financial; he plans to separate his wife from her fortune.
In a nutshell, he continually contradicts her thoughts and memories, and tinkers with the lights in the house (gas-powered lights). When the wife complains that the lights seem to be malfunctioning, the husband tells his wife that the lights are just fine. She must be imagining things. This progresses to other types of behaviors that the husband uses to convince his wife that she isn’t seeing things the way they really are.
She must be crazy.
Gaslighting, in the real world, is typically more nuanced and complex. But make no mistake: It is psychological abuse.
When the Lights Go Out
Have you ever had a person in your life who made you feel small? Inadequate? Unsure of your abilities? Sure, most of us have felt this way at one time or another, but someone in a true gaslighting situation feels this way most or all of the time.
Gaslighters are typically people closest to their targets, as the technique is used to control the moment; to pause, stop, deflect, or feel in charge.
Gaslighting goes far beyond just making a person feel insecure. It can completely upend a person’s belief system. The gaslighter makes the target question their own memory, perception, or judgement. Isolation from family and friends typically follows because it’s much easier to control someone when there is no access to an outside support system.
Examples of Gaslighting
A couple, let’s call them Bob and Jane, begins dating and everything is going great. As they spend more time together, Bob starts questioning Jane’s opinions. He tells her that she is not remembering situations the way they happened, and she must be confused. He questions her judgement of situations and makes her feel as though she isn’t capable, suggesting that he knows what’s best for her and she’s lucky to have him there.
The relationship progresses and the couple move in together. Bob begins monitoring where Jane goes and with whom she visits. Bob tells Jane that he doesn’t trust her friends or her family. He tells her that they aren’t looking out for her best interests. He is the only one dedicated to her and her wellbeing. Bob chooses where the couple go, what they eat, and with whom they interact.
Little by little, Jane pulls away from her family and friends. This leaves Bob’s influence unchecked, and he is free to manipulate Jane unencumbered.
Jane begins to feel insecure about her abilities to judge situations (I mean, how could she not see that her friends were bad influences on her?). As things get worse, Jane falls deeper under Bob’s control. Even when she starts to realize that something is wrong, she finds it difficult to tell anyone what is happening.
So, is Bob’s goal to steal Jane’s inheritance? Not necessarily. People like Bob often have an overwhelming need to be in control — and to control others. Often, they have their own insecurities and have an unconscious need to ensure they set the tone in a relationship.
While most common in romantic relationships, gaslighting can happen in any relationship where there is an unequal power dynamic and the target has given the gaslighter their power and respect. The gaslighter becomes so important to the target, that the target fears upsetting or losing the gaslighter.
Sometimes, the gaslighter doesn’t recognize they are doing anything this strategic because gaslighting is often a learned behavior. Whether the gaslighter has previously witnessed it or felt its effects, they see it as a tool that works to get their needs met.
Breaking the Cycle
If you think you are being gas lit, there’s a good change you probably are. Gaslighting happens in different degrees and ranges of severity, but it’s never appropriate. It may be difficult, but once you realize what is happening, you have the ability to change the trajectory.
Try to re-establish connections with friends and family. Seek out the advice of a mental health professional. Having increased emotional awareness and knowledge can help you to begin to define your own reality again.
Being the target of a gaslighter is not your fault and it does not have to define you.