Trigger warning: this article contains information and discussion around issues pertaining to mental health
Gaslighting is a term you may have heard thrown around before. As our social discourse around mental health grows, there has been more and more attention on the topic of gaslighting. But what is gaslighting? A seemingly innocent term, gaslighting is actually an insidious form of manipulation and mind control that can destroy someone's self-confidence and even erode their entire sense of self.
In the interest of furthering the conversation around this area, we spoke to Noosha Anzab, a clinical psychotherapist & psychologist at Lysn. If believe that you yourself, or someone else in your life is being gaslit, here's what you need to know - and how to recognise the signs.
Gaslighting seems to be a very misunderstood term. Can you explain what it is?
Gaslighting is a form of behaviour that uses manipulation and brainwashing to cause a victim to doubt their reality. It’s psychological control where the perpetrator will use specific behaviour and tactics over time to gain power by causing the victim to lose their sanity, memory and self-worth. In worst case scenarios it can result in severe psychological abuse and mind control.
Are there any examples of gaslighting you can give?
Yes, gaslighting can happen in relationships (whether personal or professional). This is because of power dynamics where the victim trusts the gaslighter and is confused by the perpetrator’s behaviour. There is often a situation where the perpetrator is able to manipulate the victim into thinking what they know to be true may in fact be false. The perpetrator will typically make the victim distrust their own perceptions and question their own reality. Gaslighting usually happens in relationships over time and can range from subtle abuse through to pathological abuse. The perpetrator will often blatantly lie to the victim, making them feel insecure and alienating them from their friends and family. The victim will often feel confused, isolated, guilty and afraid to speak up or question the perpetrators behaviour.
We can see Gaslighting in many different scenarios, in our daily lives, even on the big screen in movies such as Gaslight (1944), an Academy Award winning film. A great example of this is the movie Girl on the Train. Emily Blunt’s character Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (played by Justin Theroux) gaslights her in the movie. At first, we see Rachel’s character portrayed as an unstable alcoholic who likely did a few things she regrets when drunk. However, as the movie unfolds, we see scenes where her ex-husband has undermined her sense of self so much that she no longer relies on her own judgement. Her ex lies to her repeatedly and exploits her vulnerability so much so that she doesn’t trust her own memories. Towards the end of the film, we see that Rachel’s fears towards her ex-husband are justified and her actions are to prevent another woman from being abused by her ex.
We also see gaslighting happen in workplaces, where the perpetrator abuses their power; grounded in many broken promises, blatant lies and just the right amount of positive reinforcement to make the victim think things that are false are actually true. The perpetrator will often assert something with such intensity that the victim believes them and questions their own sense of reality. Gaslighting is often coupled with other tactics such as shaming and any other way to make the victim doubt their own judgment. The abuser will often blame the victim, accuse them of being too sensitive and convince others around them that the victim is doing a poor job.
Is there a reason why some people gaslight others?
A lot of gaslighting behaviour stems back to the perpetrator wanting to gain a sense of control. Gaslighters are masters at manipulation and will often find people who they know they can gain control over (even if it’s over time). They think it’s okay to manipulate and confuse someone in order to put themselves in a power position. Clinically, there isn’t a gaslighter personality disorder however some people show personality traits that may signal that they have capability to, or are, a gaslighter. Most people who gaslight fall display signs of being an authoritarian personality, where they see no faults in themselves but find it very easy to point out the faults or shortcomings of others.
Gaslighting can also happen unconsciously, which is when a person displays gaslighting behaviour but isn’t even aware of what they are doing. This usually means that it is more subtle tactics and it is not as malicious as true Gaslighting, however it can be just as dangerous. The victim can be left feeling confused, frustrated and questioning their own perceptions, but not being able to pinpoint why they feel that way! The victim will lose confidence, second guess themselves and question everything they formerly believed to be true. The abuser might pretend to misunderstand their victim even though what they’re saying is seemingly obvious, they’ll dismiss the victim as being overly sensitive or dramatic and use tactics to confuse and trivialise the victims’ thoughts and actions.
Is gaslighting associated with narcissism?
Sometimes, yes. The act of asserting domination may stem from narcissism, or antisocial personality or other issues. A narcissist often feels entitled to control other people because in their minds, their opinion matters the most. A typical trait for a person with Narcissist Personality Disorder (NPD) is the exaggerated need for, or chase of ‘narcissistic supply’ of external validation, often using others to prop themselves up or put them in a position of power. Examples exist among dictators and cult leaders who displayed narcissistic traits and also exhibited gaslighting tactics.
How can you deal with or defend yourself against gaslighting, especially if someone close to you is the perpetrator?
Gaslighting often overrides your reality so can sometimes be tricky to recognise! You’ll feel confused, insecure, guilty, sensitive, isolated and perhaps might even feel as if you’re losing your mind. You’ll be questioning your own reality and judgment, and it will be hard to pinpoint exactly what is going on.
Do you have any advice that you want to share to anyone is this position?
Remember that gaslighting can occur over a long period of time, where subtle tactics of manipulation leave you feeling beaten down and insecure. Perpetrators will twist and reframe conversations to make you think you were imagining a different reality, causing you to question your judgment and sense of self. If you notice you are feeling any of the symptoms, start by confiding in someone close to you to explain your feelings. This will help to reinforce your perception and validate why you might be feeling that way. The important thing is to recognise and understand the manipulation and try to detach yourself from that person. Build an unwavering belief in your own thoughts and intuition and keep reassuring yourself constantly of your own strengths and abilities. Unfortunately, in most cases the abuser will likely not take accountability for their own actions; they won’t take responsibility. Understand that there is no need to try and change this person’s perspective, and it’s likely that you won’t be able to change their perspective anyway. If you are living with feelings of terror, anxiety, self-doubt, guilt and are questioning your sanity and sense of self, seek help of a professional. In some scenarios, years of abuse can take time for a person to heal.
Lifeline and Beyond Blue are services that provide free over-the-phone counselling with trained experts who can help you to understand your feelings. Services like Lysn provide access to psychologists via phone or video chat, which can be accessed from the comfort of your own home around the clock. These services can be instrumental in providing the support you need.
Noosha Anzab is a clinical psychotherapist & psychologist at Lysn. Lysn is a digital mental health company with world class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.