*This week has been a marathon of activity in which I have accomplished much but produced little in terms of writing. Continuing ed., a precarious work schedule, and Spring Break for two of my kids have made the challenges of deadlines even more difficult to meet. My intention was to post a piece regarding Borderline Personality Disorder by week’s end. Unfortunately, that post must wait until Monday for completion. (Don’t ask… it’s complicated.) However, as a precursor to my up-coming post on BDP, I have decided to re-post a short and to-the-point piece that I wrote over a year ago regarding a manipulative tactic used by emotional abusers referred to as “The Gaslight Effect.” My hope is that the reader will gain not only knowledge of this diabolical technique but also gain effective tools of response to combat pervasive psychological warfare perpetrated by those who wish to control them and do them significant harm.
original publication date October 17, 2011 @ 1:00pm EST
“Gaslighting” is clinically defined as “intimidation or psychological abuse in which false information is deliberately presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory and/or perception of an event or events.” The most diabolical and deceitful personalities use this tactic in their daily lives to get their way and avoid responsibility at the expense and to the detriment of their victims. Power relationships are hot-beds, if you will, for this out-right evil tool of hidden manipulation which thrives on the aggressor dominating and asserting power, coupled with the victim acquiescing to their demands and giving them power. Although, traditionally seen in male/female romantic relationships, Gaslighting can, and often does occur in parent-to-child relationships with mothers the common perpetrators. Additionally, this dynamic can be found in female-to-female relationships often described as “frenemy” (of frienemy, if you prefer) relationships in which the self-professed Alpha female dominates all others for personal gain. Something akin to the movie Mean Girls likely just sprung to mind which is a somewhat accurate example of the dynamic that exists in such power relationships.
Where did we acquire the term Gaslighting Effect? From the 1944 movie, Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in which Boyer’s character tries to drive “insane” his wife played by Bergman. Relative to nothing, it should be noted that this version of the film was a remake of the 1940 film of the same name starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. The original film was an adaptation of the play “Gas Light” written in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton. Personally, I believe the later version of the film with Boyer and Bergman tells a better story and better defines the hidden manipulative behavior in question than the original film. I strongly recommend to the reader that if you have not seen the film, then go now – after you finish reading this, of course – and rent it from Netflix for a better understanding of the behavior in action.
“Enough background!” you say? “What exactly is Gaslighting? What does the tactic entail?” My hope for the reader in this next section is that it elicits at least one, if not many, “Eureka!” moments as perhaps each of you recognize that you are in one or more of these power relationships and that, no, you aren’t crazy! The gaslighter’s over all goal is to modify evidence then falsify information for the purpose of making their intended target(s) question their own recollection, memory, analysis, and perception of events and/or behaviors. In other words, they reject reality and substitute it with their own for personal gain and entertainment. In short, they enjoy inflicting psychological pain onto others and will stop at nothing to psychologically abuse their targets in order to get their own way. So what is it that they do? The primary behaviors are listed as follows:
- Deny existence of an event even when presented with evidence (Denial);
- Deliberately block their victims from source data (Compartmentalizing);
- Deny behaviors by immediately putting their targets on the defensive (Deflection);
- Insist that their targets are imagining things (Chronic Invalidation);
- Shame their targets for expressing very real hurts (Minimization);
- Insist that others are the source of their poor choices (Blaming);
- Mentally abuse their targets with criticism veiled as “advice” (Depreciation);
- (Usually) must have the last word (again, Chronic Invalidation);
- Force agreement by their targets to accept their false reality (Domination);
- Engage in gossip in order to hurt and control their targets (Humiliation);
- Has the ability to “sell ice to an Eskimo” meaning that they are persistent and manipulative enough to convince someone to invest in something that they could receive for free (Insincerity).
The above described behaviors are perpetrated in concert and incessantly by ambient abusers, always. At their very core, those who Gaslight others are accomplished con artists who know how to select, isolate, and then stealthily psychologically abuse their targets into submission for their own personal gain. Gaslighters are bullies who often hide behind a good-guy (or girl) persona and have no hesitation about portraying themselves as a “victim” to be pitied for the purpose of maintaining control over others. They are utterly anti-social as evidenced by their persistent choices in violating the rights of others. They are never to be trusted. Let me be perfectly clear before I go any further that within a parent-to-child gaslighting dynamic the child has little choice but to comply with their ambient abuser so the term “enabling” does not apply in that context. However, within peer-to-peer relationships, enabling drives the behavior forward and does nothing to stop the relentless abuse.
Dr. Robin Stern, author of the book The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life describes the dynamic between the abuser and abused as “The Gaslight Tango” which I think is a brilliant description of how the manipulative tool works collectively with those who enable them. She offers a fresh perspective on the enabling behavior of the gaslighting victim which shines a much brighter light on how abusers often get away with their diabolical behaviors. The abuser understands clearly that there is an energy cost associated with their targets disengaging from their abusiveness and they exploit that cost to their advantage whenever possible.
Ambient abusers are classic nit-pickers who redirect attention away from their own abusive behavior by engaging in insidious forms of abuse that are not clearly recognizable by the general public as abusive behavior. For example, ambient abusers often publicly shame their targets for insignificant errors as a deflective tactic to keep others from looking at the abuser’s behavior. When questioned about their own behavior they use the following phrases to gain the silence and compliance from their targets:
“I can’t talk you to you when you get like this…” (Makes their target sound unreasonable and puts the responsibility entirely on the target.)
“After everything that I’ve done for you…” (Routinely tries to buy the targets willingness to comply through gifts and favors only to turn around and, when convenient, demand “repayment.”)
“How can you be so selfish…” (Usually said when they meet resistance at getting their own way.)
“If you loved me you would [xyz]…” (Classic coercive tactic.)
“Can’t you see how you’re hurting me…” (Which is usually said when confronted about their own abusive behavior.)
Psychopathic personalities very often hide in plain sight and seek refuge behind those persons whom they know can be easily controlled. The psychological, emotional, and physical abuser knows how to exploit others for their own deceitful gain. These abusive persons – who very often are women – will “gaslight” their victims relentlessly and will also flat-out deny all abusive behaviors even in the face of physical evidence. All that is needed for the abuser to continue without consequence is the buy-in and silence of those who know the truth and yet say nothing. Plainly stated, family members, friends, pastors, counselors, teachers, and any other persons that know of and/or witness abuse then do nothing to stop it are complicit in its perpetration. Make no mistake in understanding that psychological aggression is, in fact, a form of violence which leaves no physical scars making ambient abuse both insidious and pervasive.
I hope that the reader has found this information enlightening and helpful. I further hope that it challenges those who allow themselves to be dominated by emotional abusers to rethink their choices and then stop the cycle of abuse by disengaging from the madness. There is an energy cost associated with disengaging the ambient abuser; however, it is far less than the cost of allowing them to continue to perpetrate abuse. For further reading on the subject (that I promise is not too technical) yet addresses the topic effectively, I recommend the resource material listed below.
Forward, S. (1997). Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You. New York, NY, Harper-Collins Publishing.
Jacobson, N. S., & Gottman, J. M. (1998). When men batter women, new insights into ending abusive relationships. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.”
Simon, G. K. (1996). In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people. Parkhurst Brother’s, Inc. Little Rock, Arkansas.
Stern, R. (2007). The gaslight effect: How to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life. (1st ed.). New York, NY: Random House.
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