Covert-Aggression and the Gaslighting Effect

The Gaslighting Effect

The gaslighting effect gets talked about a lot these days. But when I first wrote about it in In Sheep’s Clothing, no one even had a name for it. Now, we have a commonly accepted label for a certain kind of phenomenon.

Gaslighting is the “feeling crazy” reaction you have when someone engages in covert-aggression. Your gut tells you someone is trying to get the better of you. You feel under unfair assault. But they act innocent. They may even act like they feel attacked by you. In fact, they act like they’re doing almost anything else but trying to have their way with you. Moreover, you can’t objectively prove what you suspect they’re doing or why. Worse, they may engage in other behaviors specifically designed to convince you that you have everything all wrong. You start profoundly doubting what’s true and what isn’t, what’s real and what isn’t. That’s the gaslighting effect.

See also: Covert Aggression Causes Gaslighting

Covert Aggression and Manipulation

I began studying covert-aggression and manipulative, abusive relationships because so many folks were telling me how crazy someone was making them feel. In the process I learned a lot about disturbed characters and the many subtle, underhanded ways they fight. Everything I learned went against traditional teaching about why most folks do the things they do. Like many others, I’d been trained to believe that most folks are unaware of most of their motives. The primary task of therapy, therefore, was to help  them “see” what they were doing, the likely reasons why, and the unhealthy consequences.

It’s true that some folks really are oblivious. They don’t understand themselves and have no insight into what drives a host of maladaptive behaviors. We’ve often called such folks “neurotic.” And traditional therapy is tailor-made for them. But some folks know exactly what they’re doing. And they willfully aggress, even when they don’t feel threatened. They might simply want something. And they’re more than willing to do whatever they have to do to get it – to win! I also learned that some accomplished fighters aggress in subtle, stealthy tactics that enable them to be ruthless – to stop at nothing as they use and abuse – while still looking good! No wonder folks on the receiving end of their behavior feel crazy! Covert-aggression underlies most manipulative behavior and causes the gaslighting effect.

See also: Disturbed Characters Can Be Crazy-Makers

See also the comparison between “neurotic” individuals and disturbed characters in Character Disturbance, pp. 25-58

More about Gaslighting on an AVAIYA Online Course

Recently I gave an interview to Ande Anderson at the online university AVAIYA. During the interview, we talk about the gaslighting effect. And we explore the kinds of behaviors covertly aggressive people engage in that make their relationship partners feel crazy. We also discussed the basics of what folks have to do to overcome the gaslighting effect. Perhaps you’ll want to avail yourself of the discussion. If so, just follow the link to access: Overcoming Emotional Abuse and Deception.

Character Matters

The next installment of “All About Narcissism” on the “New” Character Matters program is available for viewin or listening on YouTube. Access the podcast here or on the Archive section of the Character Matters page of the blog.




12 thoughts on “Covert-Aggression and the Gaslighting Effect

  1. Gaslighting in my opinion is a cruel and an insidious act. I’ve been subjected to it and it is troubling to witness it being done to someone else.

    My brother is married to a devout born again Christian and has been for 38 years. She said to me on one occasion “I cannot lie.” Well, that’s a lie because she does it all the time.

    Without exaggeration, when I see my brother and his wife I will bring up a topic we all enjoy and my brother might say “I didn’t know that.” And my sister in law will interject and say “yes you did, I told you about that a long time ago.” I cannot count how often this has occurred and so I became suspicious.

    I ran a test during a long ago visit we had, I related an experience to them, and my brother said, “I never knew that!” Again sister-in-law said “yes you did.” He emphatically denied ever hearing it, and she in turn emphatically insisted that he had. It is very weird to watch. Many evenings prior to my test were tense because of these exchanges.
    Well, in this instance he’s right and she’s wrong. I’ve never told that story before. I was very worried about my brother having onset dementia because her reactions indicate he never recalls anything!

    When she is changing his memory of things he gets a confused look on his face but he lets it go. How often is this happening in their day to day life, in private or amongst their adult children I have to wonder. My sister-in-law has many good qualities but she is extremely controlling and manipulative within her family dynamic.

    I have no idea how or even if I should approach my brother about this.

    Any advice?

    1. D.
      Assuming this is still going on…
      Approaching your brother depends upon many things including how is your relationship with your brother and how well he will take everything as insightful information.
      On how to approach, you can state everything as you just stated here. You could leave out last paragraph containing your conclusions that she is controlling and manipulative despite having many other good qualities.

      1. Thanks Andy D. I haven’t seen your name in a very long time.
        My relationship is very good with my brother, so far as to say that he is more receptive when conversations are presented in a positive light. His wife constantly contradicts him, but they are a package deal. I find he is not very intuitive and my trepidation in having a talk with him is me over explaining myself. I seriously don’t think he will get it. I wouldn’t use the word gaslighting either. I am rarely alone with him, we used to meet as couples once a month pre Covid for a meal but since Covid I only keep in touch with my sister in law.
        I’d not ever mention manipulative or controlling to him, ever. Their dynamics are very interesting and my husband and I enjoy his company so I’d not risk losing it.
        They have a 40 year old son who lives at home rent free who has a child (9), he doesn’t pay support and we asked delicately if they might be enabling him in his failing music career and other ventures and they looked at us and didn’t understand the reference. That is an example of being unintuitive driven by her need to make her son happy. It’s crippled him. If she could have it her way they’d all live in a compound with their daughter two grandchildren and son in law so she could control their lives. The son in law we think is attuned to her controlling nature and he allows it to only go so far.
        I think I’ll have to keep an eye on my brother but it would be a huge risk to intervene. Then again, I’d want someone to do it for me.

        1. D.

          This is a tough one. I can see why you are struggling with how best, or if you should approach it.

          Like Andy D, one thought was to mention that in fact you hadn’t related the experience in the past, so, in fact, he was right. It provides validation for him and his experience/reality.

          If you can find way to help him validate his reality and boost/validate his critical thinking skills, it may help him to stave off further deterioration. Of course if she realizes that you’re doing that, she may (likely?) sabotage that effort. So you would likely have to find excuses to have one-on-one time with him.

          I agree, I would want someone to do it for me. It gets worse as times go on.

          1. Mindful, sometimes I’m wondering if SHE is the one suffering memory loss and she is doing this to protect herself from embarrassment. It is hard to explain but interesting to witness. My brother will get an expression on his face that I read as, she’s gone too far! And when my SIL sees this expression she rubs his back to placate him. The contradictions she voices are mind boggling, and I think I might have to handle this with humour. My sister in law loves my sense of humour and as recent as an hour ago I’ve started thinking about taking this approach.
            Until our Covid restrictions are lifted we won’t socialize. So I have time to practice my stand up routine:)

        2. D.

          Yeah. It is tough one. If people have been set in a way of life and not really seeking outside help, then maybe it is not really useful to meddle in there.
          I guess you just stay in touch and meet when possible. Just be yourself and honest around them.

          Maybe you repeat your experiment. This time laugh in the end telling that you were just pulling legs. 😀

  2. This is so common in the medical arena. I’ve experienced it from every level of staff. It’s their “normal” way of operating and getting compliance. If you’re not aware of what they are doing, which most aren’t, it sets you up to be used, abused and neglected. It’s very dangerous. I’ve had doctors tell me I’m imagining things that when I go to another doctor they run the test and sure enough, I wasn’t.

    Just yesterday the patient relations department of a very well known university hospital in the states, when responding to my request for assistance with them repeatedly dropping the ball and not following up on sending scripts or authorizations. And that my MRI that was scheduled 3 weeks prior was going to be cancelled do to lack of authorization, told me that the facility I was going to to have my MRI (not their facility) was not in network. And that they could schedule me at their facility. Now I’ve used the other facility many times with my insurance for these procedures (unfortunately, I’m somewhat of a frequent flier for US and MRI after cancer diagnosis). But, her statement immediately prompted confusion in me. So I asked her again, and she said yes, they said it was out of network for me. I responded with that it was weird since most of my scans are done there. I let her know to continue with the authorization and I would reschedule at the other facility.

    But I was left with lingering feelings of subtle doubt. Since I have been gaslighted all my life, I’m super susceptible to it. I was even tempted to call my insurance company to verify. But, I knew better. Yet it still pulled at me. It is crazymaking.

    When I called the woman back and the other facility to reschedule, I told her what they said and she said it’s in network. I asked her if it was common for them to do that sort of stuff and she simply said – yes. They had told her that they don’t do the requests for authorizations – they do.

    My experience is that medicine is a super competitive BUSINESS, it is run like a business and we are all just means for profit. That is not to say that every doctor/nurse/etc.. wants it that way, feels that way, but the is the system and the way it is currently designed and operated and they are incentivized to continue deceiving and coercing patients. They are either overtreating to cover themselves from liability/and/or depending on the pay structure neglecting you because they are incentivized not to treat you (if they get so much per month to treat you, no matter how much “care” they provide). Or they send you for all kinds of procedures/tests that could do more harm than could, because they are very profitable.

    The use of lies, coercion and abuse after my cancer diagnosis was a huge wake up call to me. I could not rely on them to have my best interest at heart. Since it is a business they have a built in conflict of interest.

    As far as preventative tests, like mammograms and thryroid cancer screening, etc.. Researchers are finding that often they do more harm than good in the long run.

    Do your own research, trusted sources like medical journals.
    U.S. Preventative Services Task Force is a great resource of information to make unbiased informed choices about which preventative services might be in your best interest and at what age.

    Dr. H. Gilbert Welch , “Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health.” offer more insights on this.

    I apologize for the rant of sorts. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch helpless as people unknowingly are being harmed thinking the person has their best interest at heart, when in many cases, it’s anything but because of the way the system is designed. It’s really important to me to help people to understand what is happening and to protect themselves.

    1. Mindful you’ve really been through the wringer!
      I live in a country with free healthcare so competition is not in play but I can see why you are in a state over this. Nigglings of self doubt are so counter productive especially when a person frequently has to prove a memory is right. The red flag should be slapping in the wind when in a relationship. My brother should be at this place in his relationship with his wife. Let me clarify though, he’d never leave her or her him, but there are aspects of her treatment of him that are troubling.

      I was gaslighted? gaslit? In my first marriage but I was so young and malleable that I hadn’t a clue. I was discarded and it was the best thing that happened. I am aware of the damage it can do especially when one is in the age range where dementia would be a consideration. I don’t know any people in my circle familiar with the term gaslighting.

      Sharing these experiences is why I visit here so thank-you Mindful. Andy D. how about an update?

      1. D.

        Yes, it’s been challenging.

        That’s good you don’t have to worry about competition. Hope they are allowed to spend enough time with patients. For sure, the red flags are there when you have t keep proving your memory. I think they mix it up enough and use other tactics and by that time you don’t know which end is up – especially if you are exposed constantly. It’s understandable that he’s not going anywhere. Sounds like it’s not healthy, but that he seems to be fairing pretty well all things considered.

        It is a concern of mine that my daughter or a doctor would use dementia as a cover for their intentional gaslighting. In regards to self concern over dementia, I’m still sharp in keeping on top of things and keep documentation so if I’m temporarily derailed/overwhelmed by their BS, I get right back on track. Also keep my world pretty small and spend quality time caring for myself and my senior pet.

        Thank you, D. Hope whatever you decide to do for your brother proves to be helpful.

    2. A big caution about medical journals. They are corrupted, too. Read the book Cracked. It’s interesting to find out just how much Big Pharma has corrupted the R&D, medical journals, doctors’ prescribing habits, and deceiving the general public.

      Most don’t know that the FDA will approve a drug if Big Pharma can provide research results that show it does more good than harm. Well, there are all sorts of ways to stack the deck and manipulate research in order to produce what is required to get FDA approval for a new drug. Big Pharma can throw away all negative (studies showing their new drug harms patients more than helps) results and continue creating studies so long as they can bankroll them, until they get a couple of ‘success’ study results to submit to the FDA to get a drug approved.

      Medical journals have lots of articles about the efficacy and successes of ECT (frying poor soul’s brains with electricity under the guise of treatment) and lobotomies!

      The medical establishment is an industry. It is a business. And it’s all about the money.

      It’s also very male dominated. Psychologists still revere Freud and his BS. Look at all the victim-blaming (women-blaming) in the mental health sphere. Girls and women subjected to male violence, abuse, perversions, and intimidation are then diagnosed as being mentally ill when in fact they are appropriately traumatized. Then, under the mistaken belief they are mentally ill (instead of understandably traumatized) they become money-maker patients with all sorts of psychotropic cocktails prescribed to them, CBT, and a bunch of other nonsense about mindfulness, gratitude, etc.

      The longer a person is duped into taking psychotropic poison pills, the more likely it is they will become lifetime patients.

      The “do no harm” oath is a bunch of BS, too. Plenty of a-holes working as nurses and doctors. Narcs, sociopaths, and predators abound in the medical field. The saying, “nurses eat their young” isn’t for nothing. But doctors are worse. Support staff are just as bad, too.

      One should be so lucky as to always be healthy until dead, so as to not fall prey to the corrupt medical establishment. The mental health field is even worse and more predatory. Supposed mentally ill clients/patients are the easiest to discredit and standards of care are really lax in MH field. The number of predators, abusers, and cluster Bs I’ve met or known working in the MH field is staggering.

      1. That’s a good point, Nancy. It’s my understanding that even the medical journals now are suspect, not just because of the FDA as you say, but also due to who is funding them. I look to see who funded the study first thing. Follow the money. I guess now ghostwriters are writing the articles too and then a real scientist is paid to put their name on it. Scary.

        So many good points, Nancy. It’s disturbing, but true.
        One has to be careful with a mental health diagnosis as it can easily be weaponized and open one up to be preyed upon. I’ve met so many unwell therapists/doctors/nurses.

        I went to a female allergist/immunologist shortly after my traumatic cancer treatment nightmare (coercive tactics, open bullying and threats). I was still very traumatized and distrustful of doctors but had very debilitating symptoms that no one could/would help me figure what the cause was (was losing about 3-5 lbs a week and was down to skin and bones) and every time I ate my nose ran and I slept around 2 hours per night. I suspected it was a histamine issue and asked her to test my levels. She blew me off and said I had acid reflux. (I did not have acid reflux). I was tearful (not sobbing, but tearful) telling her what had happened and was rightfully very concerned. I was exhausted. I noticed after the visit that she put in as one of the diagnosis – anxiety about health and also added tearfulness. I was so pissed.

        Went and had the histamine checked someplace else – it was 8-9 times the normal level. Jerk.

        Waited a few months and wrote her an email through the system and asked her to remove that diagnosis. Told her that of course having just been diagnosed with cancer and having lost 40 pounds and doctors not able to tell me the cause, I was understandably concerned and it was not something to be pathologized. She waited a month and she wrote to tell me she removed it and it was not meant as a denigration.

        I could see how that could definitely be used as license by herself and others to dismiss/discredit me and my concerns. Which as previously mentioned, seems like a common M.O.

        Sorry folks, my righteous indignation is coming up! Can’t tell you how pissed and helpless I feel dealing with them sometimes. I pray that I’m never truly reliant on them. They would have killed me many times over if I had let them/listened to them.

        1. Big Pharma pays their doctor shills to put their well-known name on their ghostwritten article for medical journals. Big Pharma also gets research done by colleges and universities and then takes the gains and patents it. Big Pharma also strategically donates to research institutions of higher learning in order to dictate the research to be done at those schools.

          When looking at the list of names to any supposedly peer-reviewed, published study, it’s important to see how much money each is being paid to put their name on the research Big Pharma created (donate to dictate research in medical schools, etc. then ghostwrite for the medical journals, bankroll medical conferences, pay doctors to be their shills and salespeople to other doctors) and see how much money those top names were paid.

          When some of the better-known names in psychiatry are getting bonuses of millions of dollars per year, you be sure it’s not truly in the best interest of the patients. Doctors and Big Pharma are getting rich off of experimenting on vulnerable patients.

          The chemical imbalance myth was always just that – a lie, a myth told by doctors to patients to get them to take meds and make money for the medical establishment.

          Almost all psychotropics, and certainly all antidepressants have been shown to be no better than placebo. And look at the side effects! No real benefit beyond the placebo effect with serious risks, expensive drugs, and mind-altering pills that mess up your brain chemistry.

          If doctors and psychiatrists aren’t taking any of the drugs they readily push onto patients, that should give you pause.

          Also, there really are no long term studies done on the commonly prescribed psychotropics of today. Being a guinea pig and having to pay through the nose for such?

          Moreover, in taking psychotropics, you are more likely to commit a felony. commit murder, and/or suicide. Quite the risky side effects!

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