Gaslighting has become a popular term these days. It was borrowed from the the suspense thriller play and movie Gas Light. Its plot involves a conniving husband who tries to make his wife think she is losing her mind. And he does this in part by making subtle changes in her environment, including causing the episodic slow dimming of the flame on a gas lamp.
Experts use “gaslighting” to describe what happens to some manipulation victims. A skilled manipulator can create so much doubt in the mind of their target that the victim no longer trusts their own judgment. And doubt prompts them to buy into the assertions of their manipulator, thus coming under the manipulator’s power and control.
Tactic or Effect?
Some professionals see gaslighting as a specific tactic. And manipulators employ it in several different ways. They can assert something with such intensity and apparent conviction that the other person begins to doubt their own perspective. Vigorous and unwavering denial coupled with a display of righteous indignation can accomplish the same task. Any behavior that gets another person to doubt their judgment and back down will work.
Other professionals, including myself, see gaslighting as an effect. As I point out in In Sheep’s Clothing, manipulation typically occurs through covert-aggression. That is, manipulators use a variety of tactics that effectively cloak their aggressive intentions. So, while the victim’s gut tells them they’re under attack, they often can’t objectively validate their feelings. This makes them feel crazy. They feel they’re being played but they can’t prove it. That produces the gaslighting effect.
The Power of Doubt
Like the other aggressive types, covert aggressors seek to win, dominate, and control. And they’ll do whatever they think they have to do to get their way. One highly effective way is to avoid red-flagging aggressive intentions and surreptitiously get the other person to unwittingly but voluntarily surrender. Instill shame, invite guilt, evoke fear, or create great doubt, and the other person will likely back off the stance they really wanted to take. Do all this with intensity and conviction, and you create greater doubt.
People often succumb to manipulation because they doubt their gut hunches. They might intuitively feel someones trying to take advantage. But because they can’t objectively back up their hunch, they begin to doubt. And if they succumb to their doubts, they’re likely to back down. Skilled manipulators know this. The more they can get their victims to doubt themselves, the more likely they are to have their way with them.
Victims of prolonged or intense gaslighting can suffer lasting negative effects. And they often need specialized help to overcome these effects. Gaslighting victims often lose their ability to trust themselves. They can suffer chronic doubt about their perceptions and capabilities. And for these reasons they need the counsel of someone who understands what gaslighting is and its typical impact on victims.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting more on gaslighting and its effects, using real-life examples. (As always, potentially identifying information will be altered).
Technical problems in New York disrupted the live broadcast of Character Matters last Sunday. And it’s uncertain whether this coming Sunday’s program will be able to air live. Listen for an on-the-air announcement about whether calls can be taken.