Many people experiencing emotional abuse are likely to also experience the phenomenon of gaslighting. I’ve talked about this before, but I now want to discuss it in more depth, as this is something that not everybody knows about, or really understands.
Gaslighting is an emotionally manipulative process whereby one person (or multiple people) convince someone else that they are going mad. This usually occurs when the manipulator tricks their victim into believing that things that haven’t happened did indeed happen, or vice-versa.
In 1938, Patrick Hamilton released a play called Gaslight. The play, set in nineteenth century London, features a husband and wife pair, Jack and Bella. Jack is frequently short-tempered with Bella, putting her down and openly flirting with the servants in front of her. He also disappears from the house at night, and won’t explain where he is going. Each time he disappears, the gas lights in their house appear to flicker and dim.
Jack insists to Bella that she is going insane and that the flickering gaslights are a figment of her imagination.
Anyhow, a police detective approaches Bella and asks for her help in exposing Jack as a murderer. A wealthy woman once lived in the apartment above them and it seems she was murdered for her jewels. It turns out that the flickering lights and footsteps from above that Bella hears every time Jack disappears are the result of his searches for the jewels in the apartment above. What Bella heard and saw was true all along.
The word gaslighting has gradually come into popular usage. The politics of Donald Trump and his comments and statements have even been described as political gaslighting.
But from the perspective of intimate relationships, we must remember that gaslighting is not a new phenomenon. It is a classic element of abusive relationships and is a key means by which abusers will break down their victims’ psyches and render their victims unable to depend on themselves. It’s a crucial aspect of making that victim dependent on their abuser.
But gaslighting isn’t just about pretending things are or aren’t happening – it’s a much more comprehensive process whereby a manipulative entity essentially attempts to wholly control another’s mind.
Here are some of the less commonly discussed behaviours that characterise gaslighting – and that you should be prepared to look out for:
Deliberately creating confusion
A gaslighter can create confusion in many ways. The classic method of doing this is of course confusing their victim about events or occurrences that did or did not happen.
But sowing the seeds of confusion happens in many ways. The abuser can make their victim feel confused by making them doubt their mental ability. If someone puts you down and makes you feel unintelligent or unable to think for yourself, then whenever you are presented with new information you are likely to have less faith in your ability to process it.
Similarly, abusers can do unsettling things, like moving objects around the house deliberately to make their victim feel as if they are unable to accurately remember anything. Ultimately, this puts the abuser in control of the household narrative: if the abuser has deliberately hidden your phone, they’re going to be the one who can find it again.
So, not only does the victim come to doubt their own mind, but they also begin to see the abuser as the only reliable source of information, and the only one they can trust to set the record straight when they’re experiencing confusion.
Projecting your insecurities about them onto you
Perhaps the abusive partner is cheating on their victim. Perhaps the victim senses this and confronts them. A common response from gaslighters is to turn the accusation around and suggest that it is the victim who is cheating. So even though the victim is probably not cheating, and the abuser probably is, this derails the topic of conversation significantly, allowing the abuser to make the victim feel insecure about how they appear in the relationship, and forget about the abuser’s behaviour.
This projecting is a common behaviour amongst gaslighters. If a victim wishes to broach their own unhappiness in the relationship with the abuser, the abuser can very quickly shut that conversation down by accusing the victim of making them unhappy. This then makes the victim doubt their own perception of reality and, often, causes them to defer to the abuser’s.
Calling you crazy
This one may seem simple and almost too overt, but a huge part of making someone doubt their mental reality is repeatedly telling them that they have good reason to doubt their mental reality.
If a victim is feeling overwhelmed by confusion and with insecurities about what their own mind is telling them, a partner whom they trust insisting that they must be ‘crazy’ or ‘going mad’ is only more likely to confirm for the the victim that they have indeed lost their mind. Part of feeling that your mental stability is in doubt is believing it to be – and if an abuser affirms that belief then the victim is bound to feel that they cannot trust their own mind.
In normal circumstances, and when you haven’t been manipulated by an individual, for them to turn round and call you crazy would likely illicit an angry response from you – as these kind of assertions are clearly damaging and intended to hurt and undermine you. But when you are already a victim of manipulation, you usually feel as though your manipulator is the only one you can trust – and so you assume that what they say must be true.
Making you question your values, choices and loved ones
This aspect of gaslighting serves to convince a victim that all their belief and value systems are somehow lacking and that they really cannot trust anything that is going on in their own mind.
Often this will manifest itself in an abuser convincing a victim that the other people they value in their life are not good people, or don’t really like the victim. This serves the dual purpose of isolating the victim from sources of support and convincing them that their own thoughts can’t be trusted. Consider this: perhaps a victim has a very close relationship with their mum, but occasionally the victim and their mum have arguments. Perhaps the abuser will use these arguments as a means to convince the victim that their mum is not a good person for them to be around. Perhaps the abuser will insist that from their perspective, it looks like the victim’s mum doesn’t want the best for them. This simultaneously might cause the victim to pull away from their mum and doubt their own judgements.
Additionally, an abuser could try to persuade a victim that their support for a certain cause or policy is misguided. This isn’t necessarily an abusive behaviour, but when carried out by an abuser, the primary aim is to make the victim doubt their own ability to reason and the values they hold. Eventually, the victim begins to see their own perceptions as not to be trusted – and instead starts to rely on their abuser to make judgements about other things and people for them.