Mental abuse is difficult to assess. Unlike physical abuse where there are visible marks, mental abuse leaves no marks but its effect is just as damaging. One of the tactics of mental abuse is a term coined gaslighting. Understanding this scheme better can help prevent more victims and heal those who have already been victimized.
History: The term gaslighting originates from a 1944 movie called Gas Light. In the movie, the husband convinces his wife that she is insane through intentional manipulation. When the wife notices a dimming in the gas lights of their home, she addresses it with her husband. He, wanting his attic search to remain a secret from her, insists instead that she is imagining the difference and subsequently persuades her that she is instead going insane. Psychologists have used the term ever since.
Basic Tactic: Gaslighters lie about the past making a person doubt their memory, perception, and sanity. They are talented in taking a miniscule about of truth and surrounding it with lies. They claim and give evidence of past wrong behavior further causing doubt and insecurity. This paves the way for portraying themselves as the reasonable and logical party. Sometimes they go to the extreme of staging false events or proof to validate their deception.
Broad Implication: The movie Schindler’s List (1993) portrayed gaslighting on a national scale through the propaganda films the Nazi’s created about the Jewish camps. These short films showed healthy Jewish families enjoying food at a picnic table in a work camp while children were running around playing. This is a stark contrast to the reality of the concentration camps where families were separated, people were starved, no one was happy, and millions perished. The fabricated films were played to show the camps in a positive light and justify further alienation of the Jewish people. Many nations and people believed the propaganda which seemed far more plausible then the reality.
Personal Implication: Gaslighting can be done on a small or large scale to an individual. It can be as simple as the Gaslighter claiming they have a relationship with an influential person when in actuality they have only met them once. Then they use that “claim” to further a career or agenda. Or, in a marital situation, the Gaslighter could allege they have one career when it is actually a cover for another. In either case, any attempts to assert the truth would be met with “you are the crazy one.”
What to do:
- Relive the past. Look at past gaslighting events and pick them apart. Try to spot the moment the lying started around the sliver of truth. Recall any emotional reaction, insecurity, or feelings of guilt. Gasllighters tend to use the same tactic over and over. Studying the past is good preparation for the future.
- Just the facts. Remember Joe Friday from the 1950’s TV show Dragnet? He was famous for saying, “just the facts.” Stick to factual information that can be confirmed and verified. Do not rely on data or corroboration that is dependent on the Gaslighter. When there is no valid way to confirm the evidence outside of the Gaslighter, don’t believe them. Since Gaslighters are natural liars, it is better to assume they are being dishonest.
- Don’t react emotionally. Gaslighters feed off emotions to sway a person. While it can be frustrating in the moment to deal with the tactic, an emotional response will add fuel to the fire. Instead, be as impassive as Mr. Spock from the 1960’s TV show Star Trek. This will aggravate the Gaslighter and steal their control.
- Go slow. Generally speaking, Gaslighters try to elicit a snap decision immediately following the tactic. Slow things down by saying, “I’ll have to think about that,” or “I need more time.” Distracting the Gaslighter or walking away can also have the same effect. This extra time allows a person to reflect on the logic being presented before making a decision.
While these methods are no guarantee that the gaslighting will stop, trying something is better than ignoring the issue and hoping it will disappear.