By Dana Morningstar
The term “gaslighting” is taken from a 1944 movie, called Gas Light, starring Ingrid Bergman. In the film, Bergman plays the part of Paula, a woman who is married to Gregory, a man who unbeknownst to her is a thief and the murderer of her rich aunt several decades earlier. Little does she know that Gregory only married her so that he could have access to her aunt’s house so that he can find her aunt’s jewels—which he had been unable to find in his earlier robbery attempt. Whenever Gregory is hunting in the attic for the jewels, he has the gas lights on (the movie takes place in a time before electricity). Since the lights are on in the attic, it causes the rest of the lights in the house to flicker. When Paula asks Gregory why the lights are flickering, he tells her that they aren’t, and that she is seeing things, and that this is yet another sign that points to her being “crazy.” As Paula begins to uncover things about Gregory that don’t line up, and in an effort to prevent being found out by her or others, he slowly begins to erode Paula’s perception of reality (and sanity) by moving objects around, as well as telling her that she is not well whenever she questions what is happening.
Today, gaslighting is a slang term that refers to a form of psychological abuse in which information is twisted, spun, or selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making targets doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. It is commonly used with narcissists and other types of emotional manipulators who are either trying to avoid being accountable for their behavior, or who are intentionally trying to erode their target’s sanity. Gaslighting is incredibly damaging and crazy-making behavior, which often has long-lasting results and leaves a person questioning their sanity and perception of reality not only when they are around the abusive person, but in general.
Example: On their second date, Tina asks Paul if he has any children, and he says that he has one, a daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Several months into dating, Tina comes across a picture online of Paul with three children. When she asks him about it, he says that those are his children. Tina is confused and tells him that she thought he’d said that he only had one child. Paul gives her a confused look, and tells her that she must have misheard him, or is misremembering. He tells her that he has three children and has never told her anything different. Tina says that she distinctly remembers him telling her that he only had one child. Paul begins to get upset and asks Tina, “Why would I have told you that I have one child, when I have three? That doesn’t make any sense. I’m starting to think you might be nuts and need a therapist.” Tina becomes embarrassed and self-conscious, and agrees that it doesn’t make any sense for Paul to lie about something like that, and so she accepts his explanation that she misheard him, or misremembered what he’d said.
Example: Janet and Roger have been married for five years, and while Janet was doing the laundry, she found a receipt for condoms in the pocket of Roger’s jeans. She shows him the receipt and asks if he’s cheating. Roger grabs the receipt out of her hand and tells her that it isn’t for condoms, but for candy and that apparently Janet can’t read—and must be looking for a fight. Then, he tears the receipt into pieces and throws it in the trash. Enraged, he spins the focus of the argument onto Janet by accusing her of having trust issues and being paranoid. Janet begins to wonder if perhaps she did read the receipt wrong. While she is lost in confusion, Roger then makes himself the victim by telling Janet how he does so much for her, and complains that all he gets are accusations in return. Janet is caught off balance by his response and finds herself apologizing for questioning him. She begins to wonder if she read the receipt wrong and is somehow subconsciously looking to pick a fight because she can’t appreciate a good man. Roger tells her that if she doesn’t get some therapy, he’s going to leave and find someone else.
Gaslighting doesn’t have to be done over a long period of time to cause devastating long-lasting effects on a person’s sense of reality. Even when done a few times, it can erode a person’s sense of faith in their judgment and in their perception of people and of reality, often to the point where they really struggle with trusting anyone or anything–even friends, family, their day-to-day decision-making, or their overall perception of reality. And when a person is told something they know to be true isn’t true (especially repeatedly), they soon begin to doubt themselves and look to others (oftentimes the abusive person) for confirmation of what is happening.
- A spouse claiming that the person they are sending flirty messages to is only a friend and that their partner is jealous and crazy for thinking otherwise.
- A boyfriend (or girlfriend) hiding their partner’s car keys in order to make them late to a job interview, and then pretending not to know what happened to the keys.
- A spouse abusing their partner and then denying that it ever happened.
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”