Gaslighting – Mental Health Minute

By: Lisa Philippart

I will admit that several months after completing my master’s degree program in counseling and human services, I had forgotten about the term, gaslighting. So, when I began working with severely mentally ill adults, one of my clients reminded me exactly what it meant. That’s right, my client educated me about gaslighting from her personal experiences. (And I continue to learn something new from my clients every day.) The Psychology Today definition of gaslighting is “a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt herself or himself, and ultimately lose her or his own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth.”

If you have never seen the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight, it is worth your time. In the movie, a husband purposefully drives his wife insane by flickering lights, making noises in the attic, and then claiming that the very real experiences were all in her head. Thus, gaslighting is a tactic in which someone, in order to gain more power or control, makes the victim question reality. Anyone is susceptible to this manipulation tactic, which is commonly used by abusers, dictators, cult leaders, and narcissists. The process is done slowly over time, so the victim is unaware of having been brainwashed.

Let’s look at some of the characteristics of gaslighting. Gaslighters’ actions do not match their words. What they are saying is just talk, so look at what they are doing. Words are for manipulation and mean nothing to them. In fact, they can’t help but tell outright lies. Once you are told a huge lie, which you discover is a huge lie, you can’t be sure if anything they say is the truth. The gaslighter’s goal is to keep you unsure and off balance. Add to this the fact that some gaslighters will deny they ever said something, even if you have proof they did. Again this makes you start questioning your reality…maybe they really never said that. And the more they do this, the more you question yourself and what is real, and begin to accept their reality. The frightening thing about gaslighting is that it is done gradually over time. One lie here, then another lie there, then questioning what you said or they said. The best analogy I have heard is the frog in the boiling water. If you turn up the heat slowly, the frog never realizes what’s happening.

The client I mentioned who introduced me to gaslighting was in a divorce situation. Gaslighters know how important your kids are to you. And they recognize the importance of your identity. Her ex-husband had been using her daughter as ammunition both in terms of questioning her abilities as a mother and in questioning her sanity. This leads me to the most effective tool of gaslighters…telling you or others that you are crazy. If people doubt your sanity, they may stop believing you when you tell them what is going on. Gaslighters appears as the “calm” ones, explaining how you are the one out of control. Then you end up having to defend yourself! Often, too, gaslighters will throw in positive comments to confuse you. Just when they spent the last 20 minutes cutting you down or telling you that you are useless, they will throw in a praise (usually for something that was of benefit to them.) You think, “Maybe they aren’t so bad.” Yes, they really are.

Finally, gaslighters tell you that everyone (your family, friends, the media) is a liar. Again this is to force you to question what is real. It’s designed to make you turn to the gaslighter for the “right” information, which of course, isn’t correct at all. The more aware you are of these techniques, the better you will be at identifying and avoiding the gaslighter’s snare.
By: Lisa Philippart
Licensed Professional Counselor