“Gaslighting is a form of narcissist abuse distinct from widespread use of words to attack and hurt another as a result of frustration and conflict. It is perhaps one of the most insidious tactics of emotional manipulation because of its intent to disturb a target’s sense of self and agency, safety and wellbeing, sanity and common sense” (Stalk, A., 2019).
A form of psychological abuse, gaslighting seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own recollection of events, perception of reality, and ultimately their sanity.
As used in clinical research, literature, and political commentary, the term comes from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play “Gas Light,” and its film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944, where a murderous husband slowly drives his wife insane by consistently dimming their home’s gas-powered lights without her knowing. When his wife complains, he convincingly tells her the light has not changed (Longley, R., 2018).
The overarching goal of gaslighting is to intentionally traumatize another into participating in their own abuse and exploitation, making it exceptionally insidious. What could be more inhumane?
Gaslighting in Society
Since almost anyone can fall victim to gaslighting, its a common tactic of domestic abusers, cult leaders, sociopaths, narcissists, and dictators and can be perpetrated by either men or women (Longley, 2018). In our contemporary society where disinformation, “alternative facts,” divisiveness, and narcissism are prevalent, “gaslighting is often utilized in business, politics, media, at the workplace, and in personal relationships” (Ni, P., 2019).
Examples of gaslighting in society include companies which advertise addictive products to children, politicians who scapegoat entire groups to divide the community, media talking heads who spout hate to gain notoriety, executives who exploit employees for profitability, and relational abusers who blame their victims for victimization. “Gaslighting is psychological violence” (Ni, P., 2019).
Gaslighting in Psychiatry
Not suprisingly, the methodical use of gaslighting is linked to persons who meet the criteria for narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders (NPD and APD). “Key identifying characteristics of APDs and NPDs is that, in varying degrees on the spectrum, they not only feel no remose for the emotional and relational trauma they orchestrate, but also derive pleasure from hurting and exploiting others, regarding this as an entitlement and “proof” of their superiority” (Stalk, A., 2019)
The effects of gaslighting can be traumatizing, and should be taken seriously. Researchers have identified a cluster of PTSD-type symptoms that result from abusive relationships proposing its inclusion in the next edition of the DSM, some labeling this narcissistic abuse syndrome.
Many of an abuser’s coping mechanisms are abusive – hence the term, “narcissistic abuse.” However someone can be abusive, but not be a narcissist. Addicts and people with other mental illnesses such as APD can also be abusive. Abuse is abuse, no matter what the abuser’s diagnosis.
If you’re a victim of abuse, the main challenges for you are:
- Clearly identifying it
- Building a support system
- Learning how to strengthen and protect yourself
Identifying Gaslighting – 8 Signs To Look For
Below are eight common manipulative and controlling tactics of gaslighters, with references from Preston Ni’s book How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters and Stop Psychological Bullying.
- Chronic Lying. One of the most common and strident traits of gaslighting is the invention of false narrative by the gaslighter, which they use to brainwash, attack, belittle, discredit, and/or disempower their victim(s). “Rather than basing assertions on facts, evidence, objectivity, and proof, the gaslighter’s accusations are often blatant lies or gross exaggerations” (Ni, P., 2019). The abuser uses this tactic in order to stay on the offensive, seize the conversation, and dictate the relationship – remain in control. By keeping on the attack and being highly aggressive, the gaslighter takes the focus off of his or her significant weaknesses, flaws and inadequacies, which they are deeply afraid of exposing. By lying and exaggerating, the gaslighter keeps the victim(s) on the defensive and maintains social and psychological leverage (Ni, P., 2019).
- Normalizing Falsehoods and Inducing “Insecure Complex”. Much like psychological warfare, gaslighting falsehoods are repeated over and over in order to overwhelm the relationship often inducing an “insecure complex” in their victims. Those who suffer from an insecure complex become beside themselves with confusion, anxiety, sharme, and inferiority over their own identity and self worth. Until one breaks free psychologically, one may lose the ability to affirm oneself in relation to the gaslighter’s repeated brainwashing.
- Debilitating the Victim and Suppressing Dissent. As the gaslighter continuously instigates put-downs and marginalization towards targeted individuals or groups, some victims may suffer “gaslightee fatigue”; where the victim is so “worn out by the gaslighter’s constant attacks and coercion, and tired or afraid of defending themselves, they “freeze” psychologically and tolerate abuse with numbness and resignation” (Ni, P., 2019). In this way, the gaslighter gets away with suppressing dissent and extorting the victim and relationship.
- Aggressive and Hostile When Confronted. Since one of the key tactics of gaslighting is staying on the offensive, many gaslighters can become highly aggressive and hostile when called out on their lies and falsehoods. Rather than justifying their words and actions, they try to regain control by doubling or tripling down on their attack, while discrediting and dehumanizing their victims. By creating this “toxic drama,” the gaslighter intends to intimidate and bully victims into submission while getting away with their character flaws and moral corruption. Distraction.
- Isolation and Division . By strategically isolating the gaslightee(s) from certain people, resources, information, support, and rights, gaslighters maintain control. Depending on the situation, a victim may be coerced by an abuser to limit their interactions with friends, family, associates, the wider community, or broader media. By doing this the gaslighter places the gaslightee(s) in a psychological straight jacket, and further establishes an authoritarian relationship.
- Perpetuating the “god-like superiority complex”. Gaslighters desperately need others’ subservience to “feed” their sense of toxic supremacy and distorted self-importance (narcissistic supply). Without acting “superior” toward their victims, many gaslighters feel like nobodies. Some gaslighters cast themselves as the “savior,” “hero,” “superior,” and the only one with the power and solution to alleviate the victims many issues and difficulties (real or invented). In order to seek relief the victim is made to feel as if they must submit to their directives, no matter how manipulative and exploitative.
- False Promises. Some gaslighters will occasionally dangle false hope in front of their victims – promising to reduce the harsh treatment or hinting that things will eventually get better. But beware! This is yet another deceptive tactic to give victims unreal hope and encourage them to let their guards down to tolerate more abuse (Ni, P., 2019).
- Social Domination and Psychological Control. For pathological gaslighters, the ultimate purpose of gaslighting is about power and control. “By aggressively weaponizing false information, and repeatedly bombarding their victims with propaganda, while delivering disempowering messages, the gaslighter aims to psychologically subjugate and subdue an individual, a group, or an entire society. The gaslighter can then exploit their victims at will, for the purpose of social domination and personal gain” (Ni, P., 2019).
If you’re in a relationship with someone who gaslights, its important to get outside support to understand clearly what’s going on, to rebuild your self-esteem and confidence, and to learn to communicate effectively and set boundaries.
Do you have experience with gaslighting? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments! What did you do to overcome the psychological abuse? If you liked this article, like, comment, and share! Hit the follow button to get new post notifications when they’re hot off the press!
More on Gaslighting:
Medium: Gaslighting – The Narcissist’s Favorite Tool https://medium.com/@OwnYourReality/gaslighting-the-narcissists-favorite-tool-caeb7345177
Blackburn Center: What Is Gaslighting? https://www.blackburncenter.org/post/2019/10/09/what-is-gaslighting
Psych Central: Narcissistic Abuse and the Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome https://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2017/03/narcissistic-abuse-and-the-symptoms-of-narcissist-victim-syndrome/
Psychology Today: How to spot Narcissistic Abuse https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201709/how-spot-narcissistic-abuse
The Daily Targum: How to avoid grievances of gaslighting in relationships https://www.dailytargum.com/article/2019/10/the-facts-about-gaslighting
Longley, R., (April 17, 2018), ThoughtCo., Understanding Gaslighting and Its Effects https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gaslighting-4163621
Staik, A., (January 29, 2019), PsychCentral: 7 Insidious Goals of Gaslighting https://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2018/02/7-insidious-goals-in-the-use-of-gaslighting/
Ni, P., (August 4, 2019), Psychology Today: 8 ways Gaslighters Manipulate and Control Relationships https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201908/8-ways-gaslighters-manipulate-and-control-relationships