Gaslighting might feel like a buzz word these days. It often seems to be used to describe another person’s long list of disagreeable behaviors, and the truth is we all gaslight to some degree. Part of being a healthy person is recognizing ways we exert power or control even in the most subtle and covert ways. What is gaslighting exactly? Gaslighting is the term used to describe a tactic used to control the way another person thinks, feels, or acts. Gaslighting is an insidiously effective tool of control and manipulation. It is not only used to manipulate someone’s perception but it is also used by the gas lighter to protect secrets and to avoid consequences. This may already be pulling up images of people in political or governmental roles who utilize this tool to stay in power, or, perhaps, the first person that comes to mind is your partner or a parent who has convinced you to believe mistruths through confusion, fear, obligation, or guilt.
Dr. Robin Stern, the author of a terrific book on this subject, “The Gaslight Effect,” explains that gaslighting is a bit of a dance because it requires at least two people to make this tactic work or tango together. There are also some specific qualities that make someone vulnerable to the grip of a gas lighter. We will get to that later, but first, let’s look at what happens in the act of gaslighting.
Imagine a cocktail with a special blend of ingredients such as manipulations, distortions, minimizations, and even some outright lies all blended in a lovely-looking drink. To convince the intended target that this cocktail is worth drinking, there must be one ingredient that the target trusts. That ingredient is a drop of truth. If the target focuses on the drop of truth, they are more willing to drink the whole cocktail. Sadly, when you drink this tiny drop of truth, you also swallow all the other poisonous ingredients with it!
To help paint a mental picture, I will refer to the person using gas lighting as the gas lighter and the person on the receiving end of gas lighting as the target. Gas lighters don’t offer you a gallon of lies in one dose. The process of consuming poison begins small with minor situations. For example, imagine a story that has elements that don’t quite add up, embellished details, minimized offense, and dismissal of someone else’s perspective. This may sound like, “I told you five times I was going to be there, but you don’t listen to people,” “I was ten minutes late, and I don’t even know what you are freaking out about because no one else thought it was a big deal but you,” “Your sister always tries to make me look bad,” or “Your friend Lisa is unreliable and crazy, and everyone knows it.” Statements like these may be offered, and the target understands there are some mistruths mixed in with the drop of actual truth. Maybe the target has been distracted lately. Maybe no one else mentioned to the target anything about the person being late. Maybe their sister does, in fact, feel the husband is rude, and maybe Lisa has been going through a difficult divorce and hasn’t been herself lately. See the tiny droplets of truth and the faint taste of B.S in the gas lighters cocktail. At the time of the interaction, however, it may seem to be petty or not worth the struggle to call out the half-truths. Yet, each time a drink like this is swallowed, traces of self-doubt build in the target’s system. Ignoring these subtle gaslighting attempts will not solve anything, because in time, the poison content and frequency of dosing will be increased.
Once self-doubt has set in, the gas lighter might increase the effects of the poison with ingredients such as fear or guilt. This will ensure the target is motivated to keep drinking and stay quiet. Feeling slightly inebriated when in the presence of the gas lighter due to all the confusion and fictitious details they have provided and the chaos that often ensues in their presence, they get to carry on while the target is left trying to make the wrong pieces fit in the puzzle. Without intervention, the self-doubt in the target becomes toxic as they begin to ingest large portions of the full-strength poisonous serum of lies mixed with tiny droplets of truth. This strong cocktail is now poisonous enough to cause a perpetual brain fog. Thinking is murky, self-doubt is strong, and self-confidence is now eroded. This state for the target is literally referred to as the fog of gaslighting. The fog traps the target in feelings of despair, helplessness, and eventually, paralysis. Both during acts of gaslighting or even reflecting on past gaslighting episodes can cause intense brain or thinking fog, leaving the target feeling helpless and hopeless all over again.
Gaslighting is unintentional at best and psychological torture at worst. It is a very serious threat to the emotional, psychological, spiritual, and even physical wellbeing of the target, causing anxiety, depression, and a loss of intuition and leaving targets vulnerable to mental health issues and to harm. Without a functioning intuition, we can’t protect ourselves adequately in familiar relationships, in the presence of strangers, or in imminent danger.
What makes someone vulnerable to being gaslit? Gaslighting feels cruel and is psychologically abusive. Sometimes we believe we really need someone else, particularly the gas lighter, to validate us or to validate our experience. Perhaps we overvalue and almost idolize someone in some way. We then depend on them to define our reality. The gas lighter is often in a position of power, and we often need something from them, such as validation, acceptance, or connection. Therefore, it is common for the gas lighter to be someone’s partner, parent, or boss.
Gas lighters are focused on themselves. They are focused on their narrative, their agenda, and their outcome. They do not truly see their target. They, too, are in a fog of disillusionment and controlled by the powerful need to protect themselves, their position of power, their agenda or perhaps secrets. To accomplish that, they believe they must control their target’s reality.
The gas lighting most often doesn’t stop with the gas lighter. If we want gaslighting to stop, we must stop dancing. That means we must see our part in the dance and stop participating. If we no longer dance with the gas lighter, they will have to face themselves, and we will be free to take care of ourselves. It is a painful truth to accept that if one needs the gas lighter to maintain their sense of self, they will remain stuck in a dissatisfied, confusing, and painful reality.
There are steps you can take to lessen the grip of a gas lighter and to self-protect. First, find a trusted friend, coach, or therapist, and share the struggles you are having in your relationship with someone who may be using gaslighting to interact or self-protect. Discuss ways you can become aware of unhealthy attachments to them and abusive or controlling elements to the relationship. Be willing to examine a disproportionate need to obtain their acceptance or validation to hold on to a healthy sense of self. Consider working on where this needs to overvalue someone else originated, and develop a plan to work on knowing oneself and valuing oneself apart from relying solely on this person and their reality.
Relationships where one person is confused, weakened, and left feeling afraid or alone are not healthy. It may take time to feel empowered again, but you can start now by being a very kind and compassionate friend to yourself. Listen to and respect yourself much like you would a best friend. Being trapped in a poisonous relational dynamic may feel hopeless at times, but this may be a courageous opportunity to grow because of this relational crisis.
Ellen Drews Coaching and Consulting