Gaslighting is a communication technique that many people have never heard of but still deal with daily. It is a way of manipulation or deception but so subtle that it is hardly recognizable.
How can you recognize this type of manipulation, so you don’t fall prey to people’s deception in your environment or in the media? The consequences of gaslighting are bad. It can leave you feeling very disoriented, one that makes you question even your deepest beliefs.
What exactly is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which one or more persons secretly sow doubt, causing the person in question to doubt his / her own perception, memory, and judgments. This creates a sense of cognitive dissonance. The person feels highly uncomfortable because the information presented goes directly against their own beliefs, and the new data cannot be accepted. So what’s the truth?
The person also often develops reduced self-esteem. With denial, deception, contradiction, and misinformation, the subject is made unstable, and the core values are invalidated.
In extreme cases, saturating (constantly bombarding) someone with new controversial information can brainwash someone. It is comparable to the NLP technique Mirroring / Report, where you first tailor communication to your conversation partner so that you gain trust and then start leading the conversation. With gaslighting, someone’s self-confidence is first broken down to make someone unstable and insecure, then the person who applies gaslighting starts to lead the victim in the desired direction.
The term comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, in which the technique was applied. From the 1940s and 1950s, this form of manipulative communication was used by secret services, and much research was done in the scientific field of mass psychology to manipulate and direct masses of people.
In the 1944 film Gas Light, one of the main characters, Paula, is psychologically manipulated by her husband. He tells her that she is acting strangely, and he asks her if she is not getting insane. He does this in such a subtle way that she starts to question herself, although her mental state is fine. It gives Paula intense discomfort, developing deep feelings of madness. So she becomes insane.
In the end, Paula wrestles herself from the tentacles of her partner. She realizes what happened and how she has been manipulated.
Manipulation in the media
Now that you have a better understanding of what gaslighting is, you can probably recognize it better in your daily life. This manipulation technique is also frequently used in the media to control population groups, for example.
If you look at the news coverage of American politics, you see, for example, how Trump has been structurally “put in the limelight” with bold statements. Parts of press conferences that have been taken out of context and distortions of ideas. Whether you are in favor of Trump or not, it is clear that this kind of reporting is extremely harmful and very effective in discrediting him or any other politician who doesn’t work on ‘the agenda.’ All of these techniques are used to induce cognitive dissonance and mislead people.
Just take a look at a Google image search for Donald Trump. There are almost exclusively ridiculous photos that portray a certain image of the former American president. Do you believe there isn’t a nice picture of him? With his grandchildren? A shot where he is having fun? Gaslighting is used in the media daily to mislead people until they start believing it.
The same is done with other kinds of media. Take a look at the real-life shows. Obscene behavior is being normalized, and while being saturated with these kinds of shows, we start to believe it’s normal. At first, we are shocked, then we think, “Hey, it’s on tv, so it should be okay, right?” Then you start doubting yourself, “Am I so narrow-minded?”. The next step is that you think it’s normal that young children in a tv panel judge penises, like on a Dutch tv show.
Psychological manipulation in a private context
This manipulative way of communication is also used in the home situation. Gaslighting often takes place between two individuals who trust each other, with one subtly manipulating the other. Because it often occurs within intimate relationships, manipulation can be challenging to spot.
As with many other unpleasant situations, you better be aware of them quickly. The longer you are exposed to the manipulation, the greater the psychological damage, especially in the long term. By familiarizing yourself with the characteristics of gaslighting, you can arm yourself against manipulation.
NOTE: when someone is a victim of a (psychologically) violent relationship, it’s always wise to call in a qualified counselor. The information in this article serves only as information regarding the characteristics of gaslighting.
Types of gaslighting
This subtle way of deception can occur in all kinds of settings, ranging from a one-to-one relationship to very large-scale, such as used for political purposes. Especially in a family situation, gaslighting can cause lasting emotional damage when children are involved. It greatly affects a child’s beliefs that are not yet firmly established.
Intimate partner relationships
In an intimate partner relationship, one person can falsely accuse the other. Someone who constantly accuses his / her partner of being irrational or crazy isolates him/her and undermines self-confidence to control this partner more easily. The partner will also be accused of being forgetful until he/she starts to doubt himself/herself.
Primarily narcissistic parents are known to mentally abuse their children (intentionally or unintentionally). They gaslight their children to get or keep them under control. They can belittle their feelings and make them self-doubt, seriously undermining their self-confidence.
They are often people who have been gaslighted as a child who in later life have to deal with the fear of failure, are enormously insecure, and are socially disadvantaged.
Medical gaslighting is a mode of manipulation in which the doctor or practitioner rejects or trivializes a person’s health problems based on the assumption that they are mentally ill. They say that the illnesses are more mental.
The patient, who believes that the doctor is always right – because he is, of course, the medical professional – will believe the doctor and starts doubting himself. The cognitive dissonance will take over, often making the patient feel even worse.
Racial gaslighting is when people apply techniques to a group of people based on race or ethnicity. Consider the BLM movement, where entire groups of people mobilize to protest based on an individual victim of an incident.
An authority person can, for example, have a specific ethnic group stigmatized or have it stigmatized and make them believe that they are being discriminated against. By attaching negative emotion to this, this group will seek confirmation to substantiate this stigmatization, even though they know better.
Political gaslighting occurs when a political figure or group spreads lies, uses denials, or manipulates information to control people. Certainly, in 2020 you saw a perfect example of the refinement of gaslighting at it’s best.
Examples of political gaslighting include downplaying or concealing facts, also discrediting political opponents based on instability, or using controversy to divert attention from reality and other important events.
Institutional gaslighting is when a company or organization denies, distorts, or hides information to direct employees in a particular direction. They do this by lying about their rights or by portraying whistleblowers who reveal problems in an organization as incompetent or mentally ill.
Characteristics of gaslighting
1. Denial of statements made
One of the most disturbing features of gaslighting is that the culprit directly denies anything he has said before. The earlier statement may also be distorted, causing the victim to question himself and his / her sense of reality.
Think for yourself. If someone says to you that something did not happen that you are sure of, what does that mean for the rest of reality? Maybe you are wrong? Could it be your perception?
This is why this is such a harmful way of manipulation. It can simply turn a person’s entire worldview upside down, causing a victim to question his whole perception.
One way to deal with this is to make objective evidence of specific conversations. For example, record a difficult conversation. That way, you can be sure that the perpetrator is less able to manipulate.
2. Projection of emotions
A commonly used technique is to project the emotions onto the victim. When someone experiences frustration, such as feelings of impatience, or difficulty handling money, these emotions will often be projected onto the victim.
By constantly exposing the victim to their frustrations, the partner, at a certain point, starts to doubt their sense of reality.
3. Crystal-clear lying as a precedent
When people lie, we often have to think before we can see through the lie. We will often recognize someone who lies blatantly. Gaslighters use their past lies to base their current statements.
Then, when the victim accuses them of lying, they make the victim assume that everything they said from the beginning is a lie, making the manipulation a regular routine.
4. The reputation of friends
As victims of this manipulation, many people do not realize what kind of situation they are in. You become blind to what you are used to. Often, the perpetrator makes the victim feel they cannot trust their friends. These friends are, of course, a threat to the perpetrator because they are better able to expose him or her.
Friends and family are often discredited by the perpetrator so that he/she can freely continue the technique and further destabilize the victim. For example, the integrity is questioned, or the contact frequency is severely limited.
5. It’s not all negative
Abuse is almost always associated with negativity, but that’s the insidious thing about gaslighting. Emotional manipulation can also occur through positive comments, where the perpetrator camouflages his attempt to undermine the victim with fun, common statements.
Often, this involves cynicism or sarcasm to bring the stitches underwater with a smile. This typical hot/cold communication is the cornerstone of abuse.
6. Sowing confusion is a priority
Many abusers make their victims feel confused all the time. People who use gaslighting always surround themselves with distractions and smoke screens. It’s important to see these traits, so you don’t fall prey to emotional abuse.
7. The power of repetition
Gaslighting is a technique that does not pay off for the abuser in the short term. It takes time to condition the victim to fall into certain patterns, especially patterns of uncertainty.
Over a longer period, the abuser slowly introduces more and more tactics to condition the victim, “working” the ego a little more and more. Because this process is so slow, it is barely perceptible. By being aware of this, you can protect yourself and intervene in a timely manner.
8. Others are made to doubt
A perpetrator can significantly disrupt a victim’s perception by involving and influencing others. With this, others are also guilty of manipulating the victim. By doing this, they assign small features to the victim that are then magnified in the victim’s face.
A perpetrator, in company with other persons, will always ask for confirmation when he has spoken something negative about the victim, for example, a character trait. Those involved will agree with the perpetrator’s allegations, making the victim feel guilty and insecure.
9. Using their emotions
In any partner relationship, it is common to share emotions and needs. However, these relationship dynamics are often abused, with the perpetrator manipulating the other to do things they don’t actually want to do. That way, the victim feels uncomfortable. The perpetrator does this subtly, so there is no “hard evidence” of manipulation.
The above properties of gaslighting give a glimpse into the unpleasant situations in which you can become a victim. It is therefore important, however subtle gaslighting may take place, not to take the consequences too lightly. Long-term mental abuse, in particular, can cause lifelong trauma.
Gaslighting is an incredibly harmful form of emotional manipulation. By learning to deal effectively with gaslighting, you can protect yourself or people in your environment in good time. If you or someone close to you has become a victim of gaslighting, always contact your doctor and have yourself referred to a medical professional who will guide you through the recovery process.