While it may seem a vague concept, gaslighting is a more clearly defined cluster of behaviors than you might have thought. The term gaslighting comes from a 1930s play, turned into a 1940s film, called The Gas Light.
In The Gas Light, a husband sneaks around. His wife confronts him when she notices the gas lights in their home sometimes dimming or brightening. He says no, honey, it’s all in your head.
She sees the lights dim and brighten again and again.
Now he gets upset with her. She is being hysterical. She is overreacting. She is just being silly. She is going crazy.
Without any other witness to corroborate her story, the protagonist gradually ceases to trust herself. She questions reality. What if her husband is telling the truth? What if she is going crazy?
Even though our hero does go insane from the cognitive dissonance, she is at least able to get her husband arrested for burglarizing the upstairs apartment.
In real life, gaslighting does not always end with vindication.
A gaslighter lies strategically, commandeering the narrative of historical fact. In most cases, a gaslighter lies in order to protect his or her own interests or reputation. In some cases perhaps, the person gaslights unconsciously. Most of the time, though, gaslighting is a conscious act of self-preservation on the part of the perpetrator.
What’s interesting about gas lighting, borne out in the play that coined the term, is that it is a process that can be subtle and gradual. Being subtle and gradual makes gaslighting especially pernicious and difficult to detect. The slow process of gas lighting makes it akin to boiling a frog: slowly exposing you to a fate that, by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s too late.
Unless you have been gaslighted (gaslit?), you might be skeptical or confused about what it entails. If it has happened to you, you know instantly that it is a clear phenomenon. You are not alone.
When I came across this article in Scientific American today, I felt somewhat vindicated. I certainly felt less alone. The stories outlined in the article so closely mirror my own experiences, I felt driven to write this post. Perhaps it will help me heal.
I still find it challenging to tell my story, because I had been shut down, called crazy, institutionalized, discredited, and exiled. It turns out all of these things are common features of gaslighting.
The social isolation factor is crucial to gaslighting. A person who is already socially isolated, as I was, makes for a vulnerable victim. When it first started happening, I was simply angry. But my desperation for new friends made me lose my judgment. It turns out I was not alone in experiencing the sick push-pull pattern many victims of gaslighting endure: the gaslighter will accuse the victim (who is usually female) of “overreacting,” and then later offering solace and support to get her to trust him again. And therein lies the psychological abuse: he lies and accuses her of being crazy. He flips the story, and spreads rumors to discredit her. She becomes the bad guy. The social narrative becomes more powerful than the personal narrative, however true the latter may be.
Gaslighting can take many forms, and occurs at societal as well as individual levels. We have cases of structural gaslighting. A RAND blog article neatly covers the phenomenon of AI and the manufacturing of reality. Nefarious individuals and organizations can capitalize on AI to conduct gaslighting experiments en masse. We live in a “post-truth” world because gaslighting has blurred reality. The world has become absurd, surreal, leading to intense cognitive dissonance.
Gaslighting has altered the historical record. What is holocaust denial but gaslighting? Reducing the genocide of indigenous peoples, sidestepping racism in America, all of these things are forms of gaslighting.
Since I succumbed to gaslighting, I am entrusted—I alone—with the power to rebuild my life. I would not have considered myself a prime candidate for gaslighting since one of my most notable traits is being strong-willed. Being gaslit has less to do with trusting your instincts or having a strong sense of self as it does with lacking a support team to back you up. Gaslighting is, practically by definition, perpetrated by a person with greater social capital, greater power, than the victim.
Without social capital, you are at risk. What to do? Gaslighting creates a downward spiral, in which a person without social capital loses even more. My only advice is to cling hard to the knowledge that many successful people have tread lonely paths, fully in the dark or illuminated only by the pale light of their own trustworthy hearts.
Above all, remember this: