The term derives from the 1938 stage play Gas Light (originally known as Angel Street in the United States), and the 1940 and 1944 film adaptions. The plot concerns a husband who attempts to drive his wife to insanity by manipulating small elements of their environment, and insisting that she is mistaken or misremembering when she points out these changes. The title stems from the husband's subtle dimming of the house's gas lights, which she accurately notices and which the husband insists she's imagining.
"Gaslighting" has been used colloquially, since at least the early 1980s, to describe psychologically upsetting manipulations of the type depicted in the play and film. In her 1980 book The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children Florence Rush summarizes George Cukor's 1944 film version of Gas Light, and writes, "even today the word [gaslight] is used to describe an attempt to destroy another's perception of reality."
The classic example of gaslighting is to change things in a person's environment without their knowledge, and to explain that they "must be imagining things" when they challenge these changes. Similarly, the Manson Family, during their "creepy crawler" burglaries of the late 1960s, would enter homes and steal nothing, but would rearrange furniture to upset and confuse residents.
According to psychologists Gass and Nichols, another relatively frequent form of gaslighting occurs when a husband has cheated on a wife. The husband may strenuously deny the affair and insist "I'm not lying; you're just imagining things." Further "male therapists may contribute to the women's distress through mislabeling the women's reactions. [...] The gaslighting behaviors of the husband provide a recipe for the so-called 'nervous breakdown' for some women [and] suicide in some of the worst situations."
Psychologist Martha Stout explains how sociopaths frequently use gaslighting tactics. Sociopaths are often cruel, manipulative, or conniving, and are often convincing liars who consistently deny wrongdoing. When coupled with the personal charm that can characterize sociopaths, many who have been victimized by sociopaths may doubt their perception.
Jacobson and Gottman report that some physically abusive husbands may gaslight their wives, even flatly denying that they have used violence.
Are You Being Gaslighted?
Your husband crosses the line in his flirtations with another woman at a dinner party. When you confront him, he asks you to stop being insecure and controlling. After a long argument, you apologize for giving him a hard time.
Your boss backed you on a project when you met privately in his office, and you went full steam ahead. But at a large gathering of staff - including yours - he suddenly changes his tune and publicly criticizes your poor judgment. When you tell him your concerns for how this will affect your authority, he tells you that the project was ill-conceived and you'll have to be more careful in the future. You begin to question your competence.
Your mother belittles your clothes, your job, your friends, and your boyfriend. But instead of fighting back as your friends encourage you to do, you tell them that your mother is often right and that a mature person should be able to take a little criticism.
If you think things like this can't happen to you, think again. Gaslighting is when someone wants you to do what you know you shouldn't and to believe the unbelieveable. It can happen to you and it probably already has.
How do we know? If you consider answering "yes" to even one of the following questions, you've probably been gaslighted:
Does your opinion of yourself change according to approval or disapproval from others who play an important role in your life, such as a spouse, parent, family member, bestfriend?
Do you dread having small things go wrong at home - buying the wrong brand of toothpaste, not having dinner ready on time, a mistaken appointment written on the calendar?
Gaslighting is an insidious form of emotional abuse and manipulation that is difficult to recognize and even harder to break free from. That's because it plays into one of our worst fears - of being abandoned - and many of our deepest needs: to be understood, appreciated, and loved. In this groundbreaking guide, the prominent therapist Dr. Robin Stern shows how the Gaslight Effect works and tells you how to:
Turn up your Gaslight Radar, so you know when a relationship is headed for trouble
Determine whether you are enabling a gaslighter
Recognize the Three Stages of Gaslighting: Disbelief, Defense, and Depression
Refuse to be gaslighted by using the Five Rules for Turning Off the Gas
Develop your own "Gaslight Barometer" so you can decide which relationships can be saved -and which you have to walk away from
Learn how to Gasproof Your Life so that you'll never again choose another gaslighting relationship.
Turn Up Your Gaslight Radar. Check for These Twenty Telltale Signs
Gaslighting may not involve all of these experiences or feelings, but if you recognize yourself in any of them, give it extra attention.
1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
2. You ask yourself, "Am I too sensitive?" a dozen times a day.
3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
4. You're always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend, boss.
5. You wonder frequently if you are a "good enough" sibling/spouse/employee/friend/child.
6. You can't understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren't happier.
7. You buy clothes for yourself, furnishings for your apartment, or other personal purchases with your partner in mind, thinking about what s/he would like instead of what would make you feel great.
8. You frequently make excuses for your significant other's (sibling's, friend's, spouse's, etc.) behavior to friends and family.
9. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses.
10. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
11. You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
12. You have trouble making simple decisions.
13. You think twice before bringing up certain seemingly innocent topics of conversation.
14. Before your partner comes home, you run through a checklist in your head to anticipate anything you might have done wrong that day.
15. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person - more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
16. You start speaking to your husband through his secretary so you don't have to tell him things you're afraid might upset him. You avoid speaking directly to your significant other (sibling, friend, spouse, etc.)
17. You feel as though you can't do anything right.
18. Your kids begin trying to protect you from your partner. Other people try to protect you from your sisignificant other (sibling, friend, spouse, etc.)
19. You find yourself furious with people you've always gotten along with before.
20. You feel hopeless and joyless.
How I Discovered the Gaslight Effect
I've been a therapist in private practice for the past twenty years, as well as a teacher, leadership coach, consultant, and fellow at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, where I help develop and facilitate trainings for women of all ages. In all these domains, I constantly encounter women who are strong, smart, successful. Yet I kept hearing the same story: Somehow, many of these confident, high-achieving women were being caught in demoralizing, destructive, and bewildering relationships. Although the woman's friends and colleagues might have seen her as empowered and capable, she had come to view herself as incompetent - a person who could trust neither her own abilities nor her own perception of the world.
There was something sickeningly familiar about these stories, and gradually I realized that not only was I hearing them professionally but they also mirrored experiences my friends and I had had. In every case, a seemingly powerful woman was involved in a relationship with a lover, spouse, friend, colleague, boss, or family member who caused her to question her own sense of reality and left her feeling anxious, confused, and deeply depressed. These relationships were all the more striking because in other domains the women seemed so strong and together. But there was always that one special person - loved one, boss, or relative - whose approval she kept trying to win, even as his treatment of her went from bad to worse. Finally, I was able to give this painful condition a name: the Gaslight Effect, after the old movie Gaslight.
This classic 1944 film is the story of Paula, a young, vulnerable singer (played by Ingrid Bergman) who marries Gregory, a charismatic, mysterious older man (played by Charles Boyer). Unbeknownst to Paula, her beloved husband is trying to drive her insane in order to take over her inheritance. He continually tells her she is ill and fragile, rearranges household items and then accuses her of doing so, and most deviously of all, manipulates the gas so that she sees the lights dim for no apparent reason. Under the spell of her husband's diabolical scheme, Paula starts to believe that she is going mad. Confused and scared, she begins to act hysterical, actually becoming the fragile, disoriented person that he keeps telling her she is. In a vicious downward spiral, the more she doubts herself, the more confused and hysterical she becomes. She is desperate for her husband to approve of her and to tell her he loves her, but he keeps refusing to do so, insisting that she is insane. Her return to sanity and self-assertion comes only when a police inspector reassures her that he, too, sees the dimming of the light.
As Gaslight makes clear, a gaslighting relationship always involves two people. Gregory needs to seduce Paula to make himself feel powerful and in control. But Paula is also eager to be seduced. She has idealized this strong, handsome man, and she desperately wants to believe that he'll cherish and protect her. When he starts behaving badly, she's reluctant to blame him for it or to see him differently; she'd rather preserve her romantic image of the perfect husband. Her insecurity about herself and her idealization of him offer the perfect opening for his manipulation.
Excerpted from The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life