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Terms you NEED to Know: Gaslighting

Let’s start with gaslighting. Psychology Today suggests a person is victim of gaslighting when then are "deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity.

This term comes from a 1944 movie titled Gaslight. In this movie a man decides that he no longer wants to be with his wife. Rather than divorce her, he figures it’ll be easier if she just goes away. He begins his plot to make this happen by slightly unscrewing a gas powered light. Since the connection is not solid the light begins to flicker. As it flickers the wife comments on it, “can you fix the light, it’s flickering?” The husband denies that it’s flickering and says it must just be her imagination. This continues with the wife getting more fervent in her surety that the light is indeed flickering. “The light is working fine, you’re crazy” comes the response. Over and over this happens until the wife finally begins to believe that SHE really is just crazy. She knows it is flickering but his persistent denial of the flicker leaves her not trusting her own senses and instead believing what she’s told, “I’m crazy” until she finds herself in the madhouse.

The movie version of gaslighting may seem extreme. It may seem like nothing along these lines happens in real life. Let me explain it further with a few examples. (All names have been changed for anonymity.)

ANECDOTE 1 - The Thermostat

Jamie and her husband, Stewart, had rented a hotel for the weekend. They splurged and rented a suite that had a living room with a completely separate bedroom. Previously, Jamie would come into a hotel room and immediately turn the a/c down into the 60’s but this would freeze Stewart. This time Stewart politely requested that they find a temperature where both could be comfortable. After a discussion, they agreed to 68. Jamie would sit next to the A/C, and Stewart would grab a blanket. They settled in and were feeling rather proud of themselves for being able to find a happy medium. As the night went on they moved their television watching from the living room to the bedroom so they could easily fall asleep while watching a movie. Within minutes of starting the movie Stewart started shivering. He shifted deeper into the blanket and checked with Jamie, “did you turn down the thermostat?” “No. It’s set at 68 just like we agreed.” After a few minutes Stewart still couldn’t get warm. “Are you sure you didn’t lower it? It’s freezing in here.” “You watched me set it at 68. We had a whole discussion about it.” Through shivering teeth, Stewart asked again a little while later, “I know I watched you set it, but I swear it’s so much colder now than it was before. Don’t you think it’s colder, too?” “No, it feels fine to me. You’re crazy.”

Later that night Stewart went into the kitchen area to get a drink and there was a noticeable difference in temperature between the bedroom and the living room. The living room wasn’t cold at all. Stewart checked the thermostat and it was set at 68, just like they had talked about. Confused what could be causing the difference Stewart called to Jamie, “Hey. It’s so much warmer in here. Come out here, doesn’t it feel different?” “No. It’s exactly the same! Lol. You’re nuts!” Stewart asked one more time and Jamie started laughing. “Okay, okay! There’s a separate thermostat in the bedroom! I have it set down to 50 degrees because I wanted to be cooler. It feels so good!” As Jamie laughed, Stewart found himself getting angry. Jamie assured Stewart that it was just a joke. She wasn't being mean and suggested that Stewart just relax. Stewart ended the evening feeling frustrated and unsure of the cause of his frustration.

In this story, Jamie is clearly gaslighting Stewart. Remember, 'gaslighting' refers to being fed false information that leads a person to question their perception or what they know to be true. Stewart knew he was cold. He knew that something was different. Jamie consistently fed him false information to the point that he was questioning his sanity. The difference between teasing and gaslighting comes from the motivation and how it makes the other person feel. Good-natured teasing leaves both sides chuckling. Gaslighting leaves one person questioning what happened after the other manipulated their way into controlling the situation. Teasing goes back and forth, gaslighting is pervasive and one-sided. In the above scenario, Jamie wanted the room cooler. She misrepresented the truth, claiming she was willing to find a middle ground. She repeatedly denied there being a difference in temperature. She strategically kept Stewart from finding the truth. And she was motivated by a desire to have the control.


A more subtle example comes from Amy's husband’s favorite argument, “I didn’t say that.”

For years Amy and Jim had different versions of the same conversation, which usually went something like this: Amy: “Okay, the Johnson's will be here at 6:00, so could you - ” Jim: “Wait, the Johnson's are coming over?” Amy: “Yep” Jim: “Why didn’t you tell me?” Amy: “You were there when we planned it - last week when we were at dinner at their house. We invited them to come here today. At 6.” Jim: “I must not have been in the room because I didn't know that.” Amy: “You were definitely sitting at the table with us. You suggested 6 instead of 5 this week because of your work schedule.” Jim: “No, I didn’t.” Amy: “You absolutely did.” Jim: “It must have been someone else who said that because I definitely didn’t.” Around this point in the conversation Amy realizes that the conversation isn't going anywhere so she tries to move on: “Okay. Either way, the Johnson's will be here at 6, so can you grab chicken on your way home from work?” Then Jim launches into excuses. He finds a million reasons why the Johnson's shouldn’t come over after all. He insists that the evening be cancelled and that Amy be the one to cancel with them since she is the one who "made a plan without telling him."

See. See how even you, reading this paragraph, have the thought, “Well it probably was just someone else who said it - it was probably just a simple misunderstanding and she forgot who changed the time.” I know I had those thoughts, even while typing it. That’s what is so dangerous about gaslighting. Remember, it causes its victims to doubt their own memory and perceptions. Amy knew Jim had participated in the conversation. She could cite things he had said and ways he was involved. Jim's repeated denial and misrepresentations of the truth began to confuse and manipulate even you, the reader. In its scariest form gaslighting makes logical sense. For example, it makes sense that someone else in the room might have been the one who made those comments instead of Jim. So logically, Amy might be incorrect. This is how gaslighting convinces the victim that they are crazy. That they misunderstood. Perhaps they mis-remembered something. And since being misunderstood and mis-remembering things DO happen in real life it's easy for the victim to loose trust in themselves and their perceptions. Selective-memory, like exhibited above, is a tactic of crazy-making. Crazy-making is a type of gaslighting.

If your loved one is in a relationship with someone who gaslights, you’ll notice that the story changes once they are away from you. Plans get canceled, often last minute. You may get a quick text, “Hey, what time did we make plans for again? I forgot”. Subtle cues that your loved one is trying to gauge if she’s crazy/misremembering something. She might also suddenly uninvite you, "hey, we decided that we just want to have it be the two of us tonight. Rain check?"

Gaslighting can appear in a few forms, crazy-making and DARVO are some of the most common forms of gaslighting to look for.

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