What is Gaslighting? Another Word for Psychological Abuse
I have recently become aware of a “new” term used to describe psychological abuse – “gaslighting”. I put “new” in quotes because the term was actually first used in a 1938 play called Gas Light. The play was made into the movie Gaslight in 1940 and 1944. In the play and films, a husband dims the gas lights in the house and when his wife remarks on it, he claims that she is mistaken. He does this to convince her that she cannot trust her own judgment, so she won’t be believed if she tries to report other strange things that are really happening, which he wants to keep secret.[i] The husband of my coauthor, Debbie Stafford, took gaslighting to the extreme. He was having an affair with a teenage girl. When Debbie caught him with the girl at a restaurant one day, he told her, “You don’t see me here, you must really be crazy.” Kellie Jo Holly talks about several ways abusers use gaslighting in her blog entitled, “Gaslighters Seek to Destroy Your Sanity” from October 27, 2011. Here is the link: Here are the categories of gaslighting that Kellie Jo identifies in her blog:
Manipulating Your Physical Environment
Just like in the movie, Gaslight, an abuser could purposefully alter his victim’s physical environment and then insist the environment had not changed.
For example, the abuser could pick up your keys from your usual storage place on the kitchen counter and place them on your dresser. The next morning as you frantically search for the keys, he says nothing – he watches you search or “helps” you. When you finally find the keys, you wonder, “How did they get on the dresser?” but your abuser says nothing.
The abuser may put you through this and similar “missing item” scenarios periodically. He’ll eventually use your “inability” to remember where you placed your things to infuse further doubt in your mind. He may say something like, “How can you be so certain you remember what I said yesterday when you can’t keep track of your own belongings?! Is there something wrong with your memory?”
And poof – you haven’t been able to keep track of your own stuff so maybe there is something wrong with your memory – the seed of self-doubt takes root. You begin to believe that maybe your abuser is right. This opens the door to self-doubt; self-doubt corrupts your perception of reality.
Once you begin doubting your perceptions, your abuser gains power over you.
Exploiting Your Worst Fears
When your gaslighter engages in intimate conversation with you, he is actually probing your mind for weapons to use against you. Your abuser listens to you intently, his eyes doe-like, concern emanating from his every pore. You feel as if he is listening to you, and you expose your soul.
Every intimate detail you reveal during this conversation will come back to haunt you very soon.
One example of this in my life was when I told my husband that when I was in junior high, my friends decided one day to stop speaking to me. This went on for an entire month. At the time, he pretended to be so sympathetic towards me. Yet, later when his abuse escalated, he would stop speaking to me, sometimes for up to a month at a time! He used the knowledge of one of the most painful times of my life to abuse me.
“Knowing” the Motives of You and Strangers
For example, if you smile at a dad who is playing with his little daughter at a park, your gaslighter may insist that he knows that the dad (who smiled back at you) just wants to “get into your pants”.
You abuser says that you smile at too many people – everyone thinks you sleep around or are naive and can be taken advantage of easily (or other such nonsense). Your abuser claims he doesn’t smile at other women; therefore you shouldn’t smile at other men. Your abuser presents himself as being concerned about your well-being. You begin to wonder if you had a wrong motive when you innocently smiled at the sweet scene.
I (Caroline) have a similar memory. I once shared with my husband something that I was happy about that happened at work. Some co-workers had told me that they appreciated my skills in my job, and were thankful for me. He looked at me with pity in his eyes, and told me that they were “just stroking” me. In one moment, I went from feeling happy, fulfilled and appreciated to feeling confused and used.
Denying The Truth
Finally, Kellie Jo says, “then, to add insult to injury, when you feel bold enough to tell your abuser that you were hurt by one of their statements, they will say, ‘What? I never said that’ or ‘You misunderstood’ or ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ or ‘That’s not what happened.’”
My husband was adept at denying things that he had said or done, especially promises he had made. When he came out of an explosive stage of his cycle of abuse, we would talk, and he would promise me that he would not do “those things” again. However, the next time his explosive stage rolled around, he would say, “I never said that.” He would say this with such sincerity that I almost believed him.
What Can One Do to Stand Up To a Gaslighter?
Kellie Jo recommends reading Dr. Robin Stern’s book, The Gaslight Effect, which gives ways to nip gaslighting in the bud or recognize and stop it at its later stages. I also invite you to read my book, A Journey through Emotional Abuse: from Bondage to Freedom. In my book, I describe in detail how to stand up to many tactics emotional abusers use to gain and keep power and control over their partners.
In general, I believe it is helpful to be aware of what these abusers are doing. Once you know their tactics, it will be harder for them to pull the wool over your eyes. Even if he seems sincere when he looks you in the eye and says something that doesn’t seem truthful, trust your own judgment. What he is doing is nothing new. Paul saw it in his day, he described it in Romans 3:13:
Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips.
Even King David saw evidence of people like this back in his time, as he says in Psalm 55:20 – 21:
My companion attacks his friends;
he violates his covenant.
His speech is smooth as butter,
yet war is in his heart;
his words are more soothing than oil,
yet they are drawn swords.
But David finishes this psalm in verses 22-23 by encouraging us, saying:
Cast your cares on the Lord
and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous fall.
But you, O God, will bring down the wicked
into the pit of corruption;
bloodthirsty and deceitful men
will not live out half their days.
But as for me, I trust in you.
Question: Have you ever been gaslighted? What happened? How did you finally realize what was happening?
Lord, please give us wisdom to discern when someone is doing this to us. Help us to trust in our own thoughts and memories. Amen.
May God bless you all today!