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Gaslighting behaviours, their origins and support

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that can be utilised against an individual or a group. This particular idea is designed to make the target person or group doubt their own memories, sanity and general confidence through a mixture of techniques such as manipulation, deception, misdirection and lying. The idea is to create a state of cognitive dissidence within an individual, forcing them to be completely confused and helpless as they doubt their own sanity.

This specific term originates from a British play entitled 'gas light' which was written in 1938 and performed extensively in the United States in the early 40s. The term has been adapted from this play and used in political commentaries, psychological literature and indeed philosophy.

The play centres around an abusive relationship between a husband and a wife. The husband begins to manipulate his wife by subtly changing her to convince her that her memory is at fault. He states she remembers things and she is either mistaken or completely delusional. The main way in which he manages to achieve this is he slowly dims the gas lights in their home and then pretends that there is nothing wrong with the lights.

The national domestic violence hotline and the American Sociological review have managed to characterise some of the key behaviours used by gas lighters.

Key behaviours of gas lighters

Withholding: this is a deliberate attempt by the abuser to pretend not to completely understand or refuses to listen to the other party. Examples might include: “I don't want to hear it again”; “You're trying to confuse me.”

Countering: this is one of the main forms of abuse that was witnessed in the play, and it is where the abusive individual will attempt to question the victim's memory of events; specifically their ability to remember them accurately.  “I don't know what you're on about?”; “You've always had a bad memory.”; “You can't remember anything for ****.”  

Trivialisation: this occurs when the abusive individual totally belittles or disregards the other person feelings. This is usually witnessed within individuals who have such mental health issues as narcissistic personality disorder, as this might be referred to as an element of the devaluing phase. This is where the individual has no further need for you, therefore the individual will seek to devalue you to the point where you either discard them or they will discard you. E.g. “You're too sensitive”; “You're too clingy.”; “Why should I care?”; “You’re getting mad over that?”.

The entire purpose of any of these techniques that are employed is sheerly to enforce power and control from the point of view of the abuser.

Denial: this is a very simple technique where the abuser will simply pretend to have forgotten a conversation or a promise that is kept to the other party. E.g. “I don't know what you are talking about?”; “You're making stuff up again."

Diversion: This is a deliberate technique that the abuser will use especially if they are being detected, and wish to avert blame from themselves. For example, if the victim has managed to state that their friends have recognised this gas lighter for who he is that individual might turn around and say: “Your friends have never liked me anyway, and this is just another excuse that they're using to try and split us up."

Stereotyping: this is where an individual abuser will pick on characteristics and stereotypes relating to a person's race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or age with the sole intention of manipulating them. E.g. For example if a woman wishes to break away from an abusive relationship the abuser may use the stereotype: "When you're on your period you're always this crazy’; thereby utilising the rabbit process administration as an ability to subjugate an individual as they may appear to be a rational or crazy during a specific point in the month.

The entire purpose of any of these techniques that are employed is sheerly to enforce power and control from the point of view of the abuser. They want to have absolute control and complete power, therefore they will utilise a variety of the above to ensure that they will maintain their power and control over their victim no matter what the cost.

Man walking in wheat fieldTypes of relationship where gaslighting may be prominent  

Intimate relationships: any relationship which is involved or intimate, an individual can find themselves easily gaslit. One of the main signs of this would usually be within a romantic relationship in which the abuser is isolating the victim from their friends and family.

Child-parent relationships: Abusive caregivers and parents may utilise toxic shame in a way to control their children. This could be as simple as belittling the feelings of the child, or deliberately altering their memories by stating that things did not happen when they did.

Medical gaslighting: this is a form of gaslighting which occurs within the medical profession, where a medical professional such as a doctor or a nurse may dismiss or trivialise a person's health concerns based upon the assumption that they are mentally ill. 

Racial gaslighting: this form of gaslighting aims to control individuals based upon their race or their ethnicity, for example, a person may deny that the rights of a certain group exist based upon their ethnicity.  

Political gaslighting: this will occur when a political figure or political party will utilise lies, comments, denials and deliberately manipulate information to control people. For example, downplaying the wrongdoing of a political party or person, altering statistics to show a favourable vote or outcome, using controversy to divert attention from important events (sometimes referred to as the distraction technique i.e. focusing on the scandal of a political party or individual rather than paying attention to unpopular laws that are about to be passed.)    

Institutional gaslighting: a company might quite simply deny or hide information, lie to their employees about their rights, or portray whistle-blowers in an unfavourable light (often as deranged and mentally unstable), especially if they uncover sensitive information that might be seen as embarrassing.  

Signs of gaslighting

Frequent signs of gaslighting can include: 

  • feeling confused and constantly second-guessing themselves.
  • finding it difficult to make simple decisions.
  • frequently questioning if they are too sensitive.
  • becoming withdrawn or unsociable.
  • constantly apologising to the abusive person.
  • defending the abusive person’s behaviour.
  • lying to family and friends to avoid having to make excuses for them.
  • feeling hopeless, joyless, worthless, or incompetent.

Gaslighting can lead to long term effects such as anxiety, depression and even suicidality. If a person suspects that they are being subjected to gaslighting it is important that they take every step possible to gain support and remove themselves from the situation.

Understandably, that might be very difficult especially if you're dealing with a difficult set of circumstances such as being in a domestic violence situation. Below, I shall provide some contact details for specialist organisations that can help you in your time of need.

  • 999: All immediate emergencies that would be an immediate risk to life.
  • Visit Victim Support
  • Women can call The Freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge on 0808 2000 247 for free at any time, day or night. The staff will offer confidential, non-judgemental information and support.
  • Talk to a doctor, health visitor or midwife.
  • Men can call Men's Advice Line on 0808 8010 327 (Monday and Wednesday, 9am to 8pm, and Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 9am to 5pm) for non-judgemental information and support.
  • Men can also call ManKind on 0182 3334 244 (Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm)
  • If you identify as LGBT+ you can call Galop on 0800 999 5428 for emotional and practical support.
  • Anyone can call Karma Nirvana on 0800 5999 247 (Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm) for forced marriage and honour crimes. You can also call 020 7008 0151 to speak to the GOV.UK Forced Marriage Unit

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Brian Turner BA (Hons.) MNCS Snr Accred / Supervisor. (Prof. Dip PsyC)

I am a psychotherapist that works with anxiety depression and suicidal issues. I use a diverse and wide spectrum of techniques to ensure that my clients feel empowered and confident, so they are able to achieve what they wish to achieve when presenting with a broad range of issues.… Read more

Written by Brian Turner BA (Hons.) MNCS Snr Accred / Supervisor. (Prof. Dip PsyC)

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