Thoughts on Gaslighting

I started thinking about the subject of gaslighting recently, NOT because it relates to anything going on in my life right now, but because something outside of my life reminded me of the experience, and I realized, hey, I can actually blog about this without fear that someone in my life will read it and think I’m talking about them. Actually, there may be a few who still will, but it is what it is. I was also trying to think of something to blog about that was not about my writing struggles, although I do think this whole topic pertains in some way… but I’ll leave that link unexplored for now. You’re welcome.

I learned about gaslighting many years ago, in couples therapy. Recently, jd shared with me this spot on article about it, and I’m going to go ahead and quote extensively because the author explains the whole phenomenon very well.

Gaslighting is a term often used by mental health professionals. . . to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.

The term comes from the 1944 MGM film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman’s husband in the film, played by Charles Boyer, wants to get his hands on her jewelry. He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and hauled off to a mental institution. To pull of this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker off and on, and every time Bergman’s character reacts to it, he tells her she’s just seeing things. In this setting, a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim’s perception of him or herself.

[. . .]

Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction — whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness — in the person they are dealing with. Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren’t rational or normal.

As Ali points out, gaslighting does not need to be intentionally manipulative. Personally, I’ve most frequently experienced it with men who feel in some way cornered or “caught” in bad–or even not bad, but simply secretive or private–behavior, and who have done it in a very automatic, defensive way. They are less trying to manipulate me than to protect their own space, identity, or whatever. Still, it is a remarkably effective defense mechanism.

Ali discusses the gendered dynamics of the phenomenon, and its social effects:

It’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it. We continue to burden women because they don’t refuse our burdens as easily. It’s the ultimate cowardice.

Whether gaslighting is conscious or not, it produces the same result: It renders some women emotionally mute.

Amen, brother, on that whole ultimate cowardice thing. And, I think he correctly identifies the long-term effect gaslighting seems to have on women:

No wonder some women are unconsciously passive aggressive when expressing anger, sadness, or frustration. For years, they have been subjected to so much gaslighting that they can no longer express themselves in a way that feels authentic to them.

They say, “I’m sorry,” before giving their opinion. In an email or text message, they place a smiley face next to a serious question or concern, thereby reducing the impact of having to express their true feelings.

You know how it looks: “You’re late :)”

That last bit cracks me up. So true, so true.

OK, but what I actually want to talk about is something that Ali is too cautious to say (rightfully so). It’s the fact that gaslighting can ACTUALLY turn you into a crazy person. Not mute, but instead loud, persistent, aggressive, erratic, and unhinged. I mean, I can admit that I have been a crazy person under such circumstances. I have behaved in ways that make me cringe. Even in cases where I was aware that I was being gaslighted. Actually–come to think of it–especially in cases where I was aware that I was being gaslighted. As one ex remarked to me (years after our break-up), “hmmm, we really haven’t even begun to tap the layers of resentment here, now have we?”


So how can someone with these experiences be authentic without being crazy? I honestly don’t know. My primary response has been to adopt a Houseian view of relationships. In some ways that makes me more tolerant and passive than ever, because I just resign myself to everyone having their own agenda, and I accept relationships that are not “all that I deserve,” whatever that means. I’m not even sure this is a bad state of affairs. Indiscriminate cynicism has its perks. Of course, it nags at me, but then again, what doesn’t?

Anyway, I think I’m going to leave this on that pessimistic note. I really don’t know what the alternatives are. Really, I don’t. I suspect some people will read this and think this has little to do with gendered dynamics, but is really just about how all people are animals and we all screw each other over. I agree with that too. Still, I think the notion of gaslighting will resonate slightly differently across gender lines. And don’t you dare tell me I’m crazy.

2 Responses to “Thoughts on Gaslighting”
  1. jill says:

    i was so pleased to be referenced in post. i keep meaning to read more of yashar ali’s work. yay for feminist men! today i ended one email and one text with smiley faces, btw.
    also, i started watching “girls.”

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