Mind & Body

How Gaslighting Makes You Question Your Sanity

We've all had disagreements with friends when recalling something that happened — you didn't tell that joke, I told that joke! — but they're pretty rare and mostly friendly. But when a person makes someone else repeatedly question their reality to gain control over them, that's manipulation. It's called "gaslighting," and while the term has been around for decades, it's been picking up steam in the last few years.

It Wasn't Me

The term comes from a popular film from 1944 called "Gaslight", an adaptation of an earlier film and even earlier stage play. It's about a beautiful socialite, Paula, who marries a charming musician, Gregory, and moves into her dead aunt's mansion, away from all of her friends and contacts. Little by little, strange things start to happen: items disappear and reappear a day later, the lights flicker and dim for no reason, and Paula hears footsteps in the attic when no one is around. Gregory convinces her that she's imagining things, and even goes so far to say she's going insane, seeing and hearing things that aren't there and suffering bouts of kleptomania she can't remember. In the end [spoiler alert!] you find out that Gregory is actually her aunt's murderer under a pseudonym who is manipulating Paula so he can steal her aunt's jewels.

Like the villain of the film, gaslighters will create so much doubt in their victims' minds that they have no choice but to trust the gaslighter's version of events. They'll often assert lies with such conviction that the victim questions their own perspective, or turn accusations around on the other person, no matter how ridiculous, in order to put them on the defensive. It's a cheater accusing their partner of cheating; a parent telling their child an act of abuse never happened; a drug addict accusing their concerned parent of drinking too much.

It often rears its head in family and romantic relationships, but it can be just as destructive among friends and coworkers. As Dr. Robin Stern, associate director at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect, told The Guardian, usually "when people are abused there are signs that you can point to that are much more obvious. Someone who has been hit or threatened for instance — it's easy to see and understand how they have been hurt. But when someone is manipulating you, you end up second-guessing yourself and turning your attention to yourself as the person to blame."

Protect Yourself

Even for the sharpest minds, it can be easy to fall prey to gaslighting. It often starts out as minor, barely noticeable events. "It's the 'frog in the frying pan' analogy," writes Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. "The heat is turned up slowly, so the frog never realizes what's happening to it." Luckily, there's a way to avoid gaslighting before it happens, or at least extricate yourself once it does. You've done the first step already: educating yourself about what gaslighting is.

It's also important to maintain connections with people you trust. One tactic many gaslighters use to maintain control is separating their victim from their support network, often by instigating conflict and spreading lies. But people on the outside are your best mode of defense. Take it from the movie: in the end, Paula figured out what Gregory was up to because a witness came forward to assure her she wasn't imagining things. Make sure you have a witness, too.

For more tips on how to tell when you're being manipulated (and how to respond), listen to "Communicate Like A Mind Reader" on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

Gaslighting: Abuse That Makes You Question Reality

Written by Ashley Hamer September 25, 2017

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