What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting, explained.

* I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don’t think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not a woman in that same role.

How do you convince someone that something they know to be true isn’t?

In psychology, what is known as the illusory truth effect is a phenomenon in which a listener comes to believe something primarily because it has been repeated so often.

When an abuser continually tells you that you are oversensitive or that what you are experiencing is in no way abuse, you begin believing it, even if you know deep down it isn’t true.

In other words, a lie that is repeated long enough eventually can be seen as the truth.

Researchers Hasher, Goldstein and Toppino (1997) discovered that when a statement (even when it is false and readers know it to be false) is repeated multiple times, it was more likely to be rated as true simply due to the effects of repetition.

This is because when we’re assessing a claim, we rely on either the credibility of the source from which the claim is derived or familiarity with that claim.

Surprisingly, familiarity often trumps credibility or rationality when assessing the perceived validity of a statement (Begg, Anas, and Farinacci, 1992; Geraci, L., & Rajaram, 2016).

The illusory truth effect can cause us to become susceptible to the effects of another dangerous form of reality erosion known as gaslighting.

Deliberate manipulators who gaslight with the intention of eroding your reality and rewriting history tend to use the “illusory truth effect” to their advantage.

They will repeat falsehoods so often that they become ingrained in the victim’s mind as unshakable truths.

When this is done repeatedly to override what was truly experienced, it can leave an immense dent in the fabric of someone’s perceptions and ability to trust themselves.

When used chronically to control a victim, it becomes a damaging aspect of psychological abuse, placing the survivor at risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal ideation and even what is called by some therapists as “Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome” (Van der Kolk, 2016; Walker, 2013; WolfFord-Clevinger, 2017; Staik, 2017).

What is Gaslighting?

The term “gaslighting” first originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, in which a manipulative husband drives his wife to the brink of insanity by causing her to question her own reality.

It was also popularized in the 1944 film adaptation, Gaslight, a psychological thriller about a man named Gregory Anton (played by Charles Boyer) who murders a famous opera singer and later marries her niece, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman) to gain access to the rest of her family jewels.

Gregory erodes his new wife’s sense of reality by making her believe that her aunt’s house is haunted in the hope that she will be institutionalized.

He does everything from rearranging items in the house, flickering gas lights on and off to making noises in the attic so she feels as if she’s becoming unhinged.

He isolates her so that she is unable to seek support for the terror she is experiencing.

The real kicker? After manufacturing these crazymaking scenarios, he then convinces her that these events are all a figment of her imagination.

Gaslighting has become a well-known term in the abuse survivor community, particularly for the survivors of malignant narcissists.

Unlike more vulnerable narcissists who may possess more of a capacity for remorse, malignant narcissists truly believe in their superiority, are grandiose and lie on the higher end of the narcissistic spectrum.

They have antisocial traits, demonstrate paranoia, bear an excessive sense of entitlement, show a callous lack of empathy and display an egregious liking for interpersonal exploitation.

Gaslighting provides malignant narcissists with a portal to erase the reality of their victims without a trace. It is a method that enables them to commit covert psychological murder with clean hands.

Is Gaslighting Intentional?

One might wonder: is all gaslighting intentional?

After all, we’ve all had experiences where we’ve inadvertently invalidated someone’s experience without meaning to. Perhaps we lacked enough information about the matter.

Maybe we were defensive about being right. Or, we just didn’t agree with their “interpretation” of events.

What Dr. Sherman calls “everyday gaslighting” may occur due to human error – but that does not negate the danger of gaslighting when it is used to emotionally terrorize someone.

In the context of an abusive relationship, gaslighting is used to deliberately undercut the victim’s reality and make him or her more malleable to mistreatment.

As Dr. Sarkis writes in her article, “Are Gaslighters Aware of What They Do?” not all gaslighters engage in it intentionally, but those who are cult leaders, dictators and malignant narcissists most certainly do so with an agenda in mind.

As she writes,

“The goal is to make the victim or victims question their own reality and depend on the gaslighter…In the case of a person who has a personality disorder such as antisocial personality disorder, they are born with an insatiable need to control others.”

Gaslighting allows perpetrators to evade accountability for their actions, to deflect responsibility and exercise their control over their partners with alarming ease.

“Narcissists are like Teflon; nothing sticks. They don’t take responsibility. For anything. They are master deflectors and try to avoid the blame when cheating, stealing and everything in between. They make up complex excuses and can rationalize anything. When they are finally called out, they are quick to claim they are being persecuted, though they may be apologetic for a minute. When someone never takes responsibility for anything – words, actions, feelings – it is a challenging, if not impossible way to maintain a relationship,”

Dr. Durvasula, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist.

Beliefs, after all, are immensely powerful. They have the power to create division, build or destroy nations, end or start wars.

To mold the beliefs of an unsuspecting target to suit your own agendas is to essentially control their behavior and even potentially change their life-course trajectory.

If narcissistic Calvin decides he wants to wreak havoc over his girlfriend Brianna’s reality, all he has to do is to convince her that she cannot trust herself or her instincts – especially about the abuse she is experiencing.

How Does Gaslighting Unfold?

As Dr. Robin Stern notes in her book, The Gaslight Effect:

“The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people: a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self, and his sense of having power in the world; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define {his or} her sense of reality because she idealizes him and seeks his approval.”

It is in the victim seeking validation and approval from the gaslighter that the danger begins to unfold.

Gaslighting is essentially psychological warfare, causing a victim to habitually question himself or herself. It is employed as a power play to regain control over the victim’s psyche, sense of stability and sense of self.

By playing puppeteer to the survivor’s perceptions, the manipulator is able to pull the strings in every context where his or her target feels powerless, confused, disoriented and on edge, perpetually walking on eggshells to keep the peace.

What Gaslighting Looks Like: An Example

Imagine this scenario: Diana and Robert* have been dating for several months. Diana thinks she’s met the “one” – Robert is generous, kind, supportive and funny.

They become enamored with each other quickly and move in together shortly after their one-year anniversary. As soon as Diana signs the lease on their new apartment, however, it is evident that there is some trouble in paradise.

Robert’s usual warmth and affection begins to wane. After several months, Diana notices that he has more become inexplicably cold and withdrawn. 

He lashes out more often, creates nonsensical arguments (in which he uses Diana as a scapegoat for every issue) and criticizes her on a daily basis.

It’s almost as if he’s undergone a personality transplant from the once charming and down to earth man she thought she knew.

He has also stopped paying his half of the rent, claiming that he has been struggling financially ever since the move.

Though Diana remembers him enthusiastically choosing the neighborhood where they currently live, he now complains it is far too “expensive” for his taste and accuses her of being too extravagant.

She notices he has more than enough funds to spend on drinking with his friends or gambling late into the night, but grudgingly agrees to pay his half until he gets back on his feet.

Diana recognizes that Robert is not only taking her for granted, but taking advantage of her.

When she finally confronts him one night as he stumbles into the apartment at an obscenely late hour, his response is rageful and defensive. He accuses her of not trusting him.

He calls her horrible names. He threatens to leave and never come back. He refuses to speak to her at all about his behavior and ends up going to a “friend’s” place, leaving Diana in tears and filled with anxiety about his whereabouts.

In the midst of her despair, she begins to wonder if she’s been too hard on him. She calls him multiple times, begging for him to come back and apologizing profusely for the things she’s accused him of.

He does come back, but the cycle only continues. After only a few blissful days of “making up,” where Robert “graciously” forgives Diana for her “overreactions,”

Robert begins disappearing during the nights and reappearing with a suspiciously unkempt appearance. He also receives mysterious phone calls at odd hours, which he takes privately in the bathroom with the door locked.

Each time Diana tries to raise questions about where he has been and whether he’s been seeing other women behind her back, he pushes back, accusing her of being “crazy,” “needy” and “paranoid.”

Despite her attempts to uncover the truth, she starts to wonder if she really is being paranoid. Maybe it really is her fault that he is distancing himself. Maybe he just needs time to “unwind.”

She begins avoiding confrontation with Robert altogether and instead tries her best to please him instead – doubling her efforts to show him more affection and understanding.

Her hope is that, once he realizes what a great partner she is, he will stop his shady behavior and go back to being the man he presented himself to be in the beginning.

Unfortunately, as most victims ensnared in the vicious cycle of emotional abuse know, this is rarely the case. This is just the beginning.

(Note: This example was created using the accounts of multiple survivors from surveys on narcissistic abuse; the characters are fictional and only used for the purpose of illustration. Although in this particular scenario the gaslighter is male and the victim is female, gaslighting is not exclusive to any gender and can happen to anyone.)

Why Does Gaslighting Work So Well?

Diana and Robert’s story illustrate a classic example of the cycle of narcissistic abuse – one in which idealization is followed by devaluation and the honeymoon phase dissipates into the unmasking of a covert predator.

Robert is able to gaslight Diana into believing she is the problem – all while she financially supports him and doubles her efforts to be a more loving partner.

Meanwhile, he engages in infidelity, verbally berates her and subjects her to bouts of narcissistic rage, without any consequences or accountability.

This isn’t at all the healthy, loving relationship Diana signed up for, but the powerful effect of gaslighting is that Robert’s version of reality (Diana is crazy, he is the one putting up with it) replaces the truth.

Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?

Gaslighting lets the perpetrator off the hook while the victim is left picking up the pieces and then some.

Why do survivors believe in gaslighters?

Executed effectively and done chronically, gaslighting causes self-doubt and cognitive dissonance – a state of turmoil stirred by inconsistent attitudes and beliefs.

Survivors of emotional predators sense that something is amiss, but when they attempt to address it, they are often blindsided by their abuser’s complete dismissal and invalidation of their reality.

Diana “knew” something was wrong and felt like she was being taken advantage of when Robert stopped paying his half of the rent and began coming home at odd hours, but after being on the receiving end of his gaslighting and verbal abuse, she rationalized that her behavior must have caused the conflict.

She did not want to lose out on her emotional investment in what appeared to be a great relationship in the beginning. As a result, she instead invested more – unfortunately, risking the loss of her own sense of self.

Gaslighting, after all, begins insidiously in stages; in the first stage, survivors still have a grasp of their perceptions even if they might not understand what is happening.

Like a frog in slowly boiling water, they become accustomed to the insidious warping of their reality, until they no longer recognize their reality or even themselves. Initially, like Diana, they may attempt to reiterate their perspective and express disbelief at the gaslighter’s claims.

As gaslighting continues, however, it wears down the victim. Diana eventually tries to “win” Robert back because she feels unable to self-validate after his constant verbal attacks and rageful responses.

This is not uncommon for victims of chronic gaslighting, especially when a repetition or reinforcement of false claims is involved.

According to Lynn Hasher, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, “Repetition makes things seem more plausible…and the effect is likely more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information.”

Chronic gaslighting eventually leads to pure exhaustion – victims develop a sense of learned helplessness as they are met with the intense consistency of denial, rage, projection or accusations from the gaslighter.

Exhaustion from abuse and retaliation for asserting oneself creates a mental fog of epic proportions, one in which a survivor can easily drown in even the most ridiculous excuses as long as they carry a grain of truth.

The survivor of a conniving gaslighter becomes submerged in confusion about what actually occurred and whether anything truly occurred at all.

So instead of questioning the gaslighter, they attempt to prevent further psychological assault by feeding their own self-doubt and uncertainty surrounding the abuse that is occurring. Dr. George Simon, who specializes in the character disordered, writes:

“Gaslighting victims question their judgment. They can even come to question their very sanity. Crafty covert-aggressors know how to make you doubt. In your gut you feel they’re trying to play you. But they can have you feeling like you’re a fool for thinking so. They can even have you questioning what’s real and what isn’t,”

– Dr. George Simon, Gaslighting Victims Question Their Sanity.

To summarize: Why does gaslighting work? There are more than a few reasons:

  • Gaslighting exploits any existing self-doubt about one’s capabilities as well as any past traumas that may cause the victim to feel too “damaged” to see reality clearly.
  • Gaslighting exhausts a victim’s internal resources so they are unable to self-validate and eventually give into a sense of learned helplessness.
  • Gaslighting depletes individuals of a stable sense of self-worth and certainty about how they interpret the world.
  • Gaslighting manufactures insecurities and fears that never existed, causing the victim to focus on his/her perceived flaws rather than the abuser’s transgressions.
  • Gaslighting causes the survivor to investigate whether he or she has done something wrong, instead of looking at the perpetrator’s behavior as the cause of concern.
  • Gaslighting sets up survivors to fail no matter what they do; abusers will demonstrate disapproval regardless of how hard the survivor tries to please the abuser. Whether victims stay silent and compliant or aggressive and assertive, they will be punished. By moving the goalposts, the perpetrator is able to shift their expectations and their claims at the drop of a hat.
  • Gaslighting diverts from, denies, rationalizes and minimizes horrific acts of psychological and physical violence.
  • Gaslighting creates a dangerous form of retaliation for victims speaking out, because each time they do, they are met with a psychological or even physical assault that causes them to feel increasingly diminished.

Survivors often take on the responsibility for reducing the cognitive dissonance that arises when what they know to be true is threatened by gaslighting of an abuser.

They do so by essentially “gaslighting” themselves into believing in what their manipulators are telling them, rather than trusting their own inner voice.

They may even socially withdraw and become overly defensive about protecting the gaslighter due to their need for validation from the relationship.

The gaslighter “trains” and conditions them into seeking their approval, and they fear losing that approval because it symbolizes the loss of the relationship itself.

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