If you have ever made a complaint about a public body the chances are your valid complaint will be referred to at some point as a ‘perception of injustice’ as if your experiences are just illusionary. Gaslighting is commonly used to deflect criticism and deter persistent complaint. So when you are up against authorities in collusion to deny the facts, knowing that others can validate your experiences with their own life events is vital to maintaining your mental stability.
Tactic #1: Gaslighters override your reality.
At its heart, gaslighting is overriding your reality to the point that you question your own judgment. Like most things, there are degrees. It can be as small-scale as telling a child, “You can’t be hungry—you just had a snack,” or as large-scale as denying fully obvious facts, such as this 2015 story about a man who got married, posted the wedding photos on Facebook, and then told his long-distance girlfriend it was a figment of her imagination. To sum up, if the gaslighter had a mantra, it would be, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes truth.”
Tactic #2: Gaslighters aren’t out to destroy you; they’re out to make things easier for themselves.
Unlike in the movie, most gaslighters aren’t pursuing anything as concrete as a treasure chest of jewels. What they want is more psychological. The gaslighter wants control of the target on a specific set of terms, with the gaslighter in charge. For the same reason, gaslighting isn’t always conscious. Indeed, gaslighters don’t sit around stroking their goatees or petting a white cat while plotting to undermine your sanity. Instead, gaslighting comes from the need—conscious or unconscious—to control. Gaslighters work to undermine you so you can’t challenge them. Then the relationship can go the way they want. They get to have their cake and eat it, too, without the inconvenience of having to discuss things, compromise, or work together.
Tactic #3: Gaslighting is often fueled by sexism.
Of course, gaslighting can be used by anyone against anyone—it’s not always gendered. But it’s often used as a form of emotional abuse against women. It “works” in part because it feeds off sexist stereotypes of women as crazy, jealous, emotional, weak, or incapable. For example, in an excellent 2014 paper published in Philosophical Perspectives, Dr Kate Abramson of Indiana University details a story where a female grad student discovers the male grad students have made a list ranking the female grad students by attractiveness. When she expresses that such a list is inappropriate, she is told she’s overly sensitive, that she’s policing innocent conversation among male friends, and really she’s just insecure about her ranking on the list, isn’t she? By not allowing their sexist behaviour to continue unchecked, the male students suggest she is acting like the stereotypical “crazy woman.”
What just happened there? If a woman rings the alarm on sexist behaviour, gaslighters use sexist stereotypes to undermine the woman’s complaints. Instead of taking her seriously, each of her complaints might be refuted as a silly misinterpretation or dismissed as her being too sensitive. In this way, the sexist stereotypes are used to reinforce themselves—an uninterrupted pattern of circular logic: “See, she’s just another insecure, overly emotional woman we don’t have to listen to.”
Tactic #4: Gaslighters make disagreement impossible.
Once you are discredited, any argument you may have is casually written off. When credibility is undermined — you’re crazy, a liar, unstable, a failure, or have lost your mind—anything you say is automatically suspect and builds the case against you. Therefore, you can’t disagree or protest. And the louder your objections, the more your gaslighter can smile smugly and say, “See, I told you so.”
Tactic #5: Gaslighters make you agree with their point of view.
Gaslighters need the world to conform to their standards. And they need the very individuals they gaslight to agree with them. Therefore, it’s not enough for gaslighters, for example, to insist that sexual harassers were just having a little fun. They need the target of the harassment to agree that it was all just a little fun. Ideally, the target would not only agree but also believe that she deserved to be undermined because she was being crazy, overly sensitive, or imagining things. Now, refusing to witness or substantiate your reality is invalidation. But gaslighting means getting you, the target, to invalidate yourself as well. Not only does no one take you seriously, you wonder if you can take your own experience seriously: your common sense, your feelings, your memory, even what you’ve seen before your very eyes. In other words, gaslighting not only invalidates your experience, it also makes you question your capacity to trust your experience in the first place. At this stage, your gaslighter has you right where they want you: beginning to doubt yourself and your ideas even when they’re not there to continue enforcing the message.
As for Ingrid Bergman as Paula, she is validated in the end and Gregory is arrested, but not before she dishes out some gaslighting revenge of her own as he sits tied to a chair. In a final attempt to manipulate her, Gregory tells her to get a knife and cut him free, but as she pulls his knife from a drawer she proclaims, “There is no knife here; you must have dreamed you put it here,” before tossing it away and quipping, “I am always losing things.”
Whether in Hollywood or your own household, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Isolation is a key ingredient to gaslighting, so if this article spoke to you, reach out. Having just one person validate your experience can be a lifeline that begins the process of reeling yourself in from all the lies to believing your own truth again.