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Gaslighting is a sophisticated manipulation tactic which certain types of personalities use to create doubt in the minds of others. Here’s how it works and what to watch out for.
In a stage play and suspense thriller from the 1930s entitled “Gas Light,” a conniving husband tries to make the wife he wishes to get rid of think she is losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly and steadily dimming the flame on a gas lamp. In recent years, the term “gas lighting” has come to be applied to attempts by certain kinds of personalities, especially psychopaths — who are among the personalities most adept at sophisticated tactics of manipulation — to create so much doubt in the minds of their targets of exploitation that the victim no longer trusts their own judgment about things and buys into the assertions of the manipulator, thus coming under their power and control.
Effective gas lighting can be accomplished in several different ways. Sometimes, a person can assert something with such an apparent intensity of conviction that the other person begins to doubt their own perspective. Other times, vigorous and unwavering denial coupled with a display of righteous indignation can accomplish the same task. Bringing up historical facts that seem largely accurate but contain minute, hard-to-prove distortions and using them to “prove” the correctness of one’s position is another method. Gas lighting is particularly effective when coupled with other tactics such as shaming and guilting. Anything that aids in getting another person to doubt their judgment and back down will work.
Gaslighting is just one of the many weapons in the arsenal of personalities hell-bent on having their way, even if it means doing so by subtle and covert means of conning others. One of the most important points to take away from my story and many others just like it is that narcissistic personalities, especially when aggressive will do whatever it takes to secure and maintain a position of advantage over others. And some of the most effective means at their disposal are tactics that conceal their malevolent intent while simultaneously prompting their “target” to accede to their desires. Of course in my case the problem was compounded when he got my family to help him obscure the truth, and of course there was the fact that I wanted so badly to believe him. You might ask yourself why, but try to see it through my eyes at the time. If I didn’t believe him what would that mean? That the people I loved most in the world were using my illness to take advantage of me, that they didn’t care at all about me and that they were an aggressive enemy. That was far worse than thinking I was losing my grip and my husband and family were concerned and trying to help me.
My family practices deception by boldly denying reality, but my husband was a much more accomplished liar and his tactics were much more sophisticated. He would recite a litany of absolutely true things — while deliberately and cleverly leaving out one or two crucial elements that would change the entire character of what he was trying to make the person believe. But a common element among all the tactics manipulators use is that they cause the person being targeted to doubt their gut instincts about what’s going on. Their gut tells them they’re under attack or that someone is trying to get the better of them, and they intuitively go on the defensive. But because they often can’t find any clear, direct, objective evidence that the other person is merely trying to disadvantage them, they start doubting and questioning themselves. This is the real secret of effective manipulation. If the “target” were solidly convinced they were in the process of being done in, they’d more likely put up more resistance instead of capitulating. Manipulators know this. They win by getting the other person to back down or give in. When he got me to go to drug treatment I gave him the only evidence that ever existed to say I had a drug problem. I went, not because I believed it was what I believed it was what was best for me, but because I believed my family believed it was, and I was in a catch 22. If I went it was accepting a bogus premise, but if I didn’t go I was positioning myself in opposition to the people I desperately needed on my side. I thought the only answer was to let the “experts” say that either I had no significant problem (NSP) or that I was in compliance with their recommendations. Not once was their any report to the contrary, but somehow this never seemed to relieve the concerns of my husband and my parents. It seemed only to irritate them, and I could see that it had nothing to do with my well-being. If they were worried about anything it was that they would be exposed, so they worked to keep the focus on me with all of their contrived concern. If anyone had looked at what was really going on they would have seen that for all their alleged concern they never participated in the family program, never sent a letter or made a phone call, or in any way offered me their support. The way they behaved was completely contrary to what concerned loved ones would do. I know this of course, because not only did I see the contrast all around me as I sat alone on family weekends and visiting days, but also because a few years later I became the mother of a heroin addict. Becoming a mother, and later becoming the mother of an addict cut through all the confusion and helped me to see instantly that their was something missing in the way my parents felt about me, and that something was everything.
It just didn’t add up to them really believing I had a drug problem or caring about my recovering from it if I did. By the time I got home he had emptied the bank accounts, and turned even more people against me.
Gaslighting has come to some prominence lately because several authors have highlighted it as one of the more crafty tactics psychopaths use to disadvantage their victims. But many character-disturbed individuals, most especially the aggressive personalities, are prone to using numerous tactics, including covert techniques, to get the better of their targets. Their goal is always to win or secure whatever it is they want. And they’ll do whatever they have to do to get it. Sometimes the most effective way to do that is to avoid red-flagging their intentions but rather get the other person to unwittingly but voluntarily surrender. Instill shame, instill guilt, instill fear, or instill great doubt, and the other person will likely back off the stance they really wanted to take.
In my case, having a rare illness and a severe disability became the crux of his deception. He became the gatekeeper of information. I’d been through a terrible trauma, and I was very vulnerable. I told myself that he was traumatized too and being protective, but he and my parents never took care of me, and they made sure that my friends didn’t either. No one was told the truth about what happened, and I didn’t realize it until it was too late.