What Is Gaslighting, And Why Is It So Dangerous?

Last updated by Katie M.

Gaslighting is one of the most destabilizing and covert forms of manipulation out there, and often makes victims feel completely lost and broken. This scary scenario essentially involves brainwashing via deception and is frequently characterized by blatant denial and emotional blackmail. ‘No, darling, I would never lie to you. I love you too much for that. Remember, it was you who stained my collar with lipstick... you forget everything.’ This is a classic example of this type of abuse, and trust me, I should know because I’ve been through it...

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Lies followed us around and almost swallowed me up

‘From the beginning of our relationship, lying seemed like a nasty and vicious cycle that my ex just couldn’t break out of. I remember when we first went out for dinner, a waiter was a little unkind and yet seemingly brushed it off and didn’t think anything more of it. Although, when we met up with some friends and a few days afterwards, my ex proudly described how he’d put the server in his place and told him what for. The problem was, all of this was false. He didn’t reprimand the guy, and in fact just sat there in silence, almost sulking. This wasn’t the only red flag I’d picked up on, either. He used to describe us having crazy nights out, hopping from bar to bar until the early hours, when in reality we were always in bed by 10. Yet, although it seemed as if he liked embellishing the truth, for a minute I have to admit I did find something charming about it.' 

As a natural introvert, I used to envy his chatty ways and talents for storytelling. And then I quickly realized that he was lying all the time and to everyone around him. I then understood that he was lying to me too. He once told me he was going to go to his favorite store and would be home late, long after the store closed. When I would express my concerns and ask him about it, he would get angry and tell me that I never listened to him, that he had told me he was going to a friend's house in the early evening. I didn't know if I'd heard wrong, if I'd forgotten, or if I was losing my mind. In any case, I was angry at myself for overreacting and not paying attention to what he was saying to me when, in actual reality, I was being gaslighted.’

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What does it mean to gaslight someone?

The term gaslighting isn’t a recent one because it dates back to the 1940s when it appeared in the movie Gas Liht by George Cukor in 1944. The thriller featured Ingrid Bergman, who was manipulated by her husband and thought she was going crazy. Today, we often hear this term used to describe Donald Trump's false statements, for example. In fact, it is typically practiced in a two-person relationship; a couple, a parent/child, sister/brother or even boss/employee. Here, the ‘gaslighter’ goes further than the narcissistic pervert and controls the actions of his victim, like a puppeteer, by making them doubt themselves. The victim is brainwashed with lies, omissions, and negations... Criticisms and humiliating remarks are also part of the game, as well as attacks on loved ones in order to undermine the victim's stability, by attacking people they care about.

‘My ex frequently told me that my mother was toxic, that she was trying to keep me under her thumb, didn't want me to be independent, which is why I shouldn't trust her. And yet she told me the truth, she alerted me, but I was gradually distancing myself from her and felt totally unsure of her intentions.’

What is the abuser's goal? Well, like any manipulator, the abuser wants their victim to doubt everything and no longer trust in themselves. They want people to question their mental health, their memory, and their perception of reality, while they prove their love for their victims over and over again. Isolation, alienation, and smothering are essential keys to this manipulator’s success.

Gaslighter

‘Little by little I was more and more alone, he was isolating me from my loved ones, I was becoming his plaything.’

I'm was a victim like any other

No one is safe! Anyone can fall victim to a gaslighter, but when you're trying to please and have low self-esteem, it's easier to get caught up in this cycle. The gaslighter has an impact because you let them in because you're looking for love and recognition. However, we are not weaker or less intelligent because we let ourselves be fooled by a manipulator. We can all experience periods when we are more fragile, more able to let ourselves be charmed, seduced, and had. A period when this person makes us feel better and that we need them to boost our self-confidence.

‘I had just lost my job when I met my ex. I needed his opinion to continue to believe that I was worth something. He often told me that I had talent, but that only he could understand me. That he wasn't sure that my skills would match this or that company, but that he believed in me. In the end, I really felt that he was the only one who understood me, but that I wasn't talented enough for everyone else. Funnily enough, I was only able to find a job when I left him.’

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How to put an end to the gaslighting 

‘If at first, the gaslighter makes us feel good, after a while we begin to feel very small, constantly prey to doubt, a little empty, and we touch madness with our finger. By dint of lying and questioning my word, I began to think that I had memory problems, and I went to see my doctor. I thought I needed rest or at worst a light treatment. She found some symptoms of depression and referred me to a psychologist. It was him who made me aware of my situation.’

A relationship with a gaslighter can damage self-esteem and mental health. It's important to cope and recognize the signs. Dr. George Simon, psychologist and author of the international bestseller In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, says, ‘Gaslighting is when you know in your gut that you have understood a situation, but the other person is trying to convince you that you have got it all wrong. If this happens over a period of time, the sense of reality slowly erodes. There is a scale to this abuse, which goes from lying and exaggeration to control and domination.’

When we come to doubt our memory, our understanding of things, and feel like a child in front of our partners, we have to ask ourselves questions. In a relationship, whatever it is, you can't always be wrong or always be right. If you are the person who is always wrong, that's another clue.

The expert's opinion - In the head of a gaslighter

According to psychologist Sarah Chiche, ‘There is, in some gaslighters, a pleasure in destroying people, in having all power over them, in making them believe anything, which often draws from the sources of childhood. However, it is important to know that one is not born perverse and manipulative, but develops these traits over time. Why? ‘Because we ourselves were confronted, in childhood, with emptiness or horror. This in no way excuses perverse behavior. It simply allows us to recontextualize them and to understand what precedes the manipulation, sometimes decades before.’ And then there are also narcissists and those with antisocial personality disorder who manipulate and exploit for the sole purpose of hurting, proving their power, and pleasing themselves.


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