“Gaslighting is an attempt to change the truth.”— Tracy Malone
Allow me to take you on a brief, time-traveling journey.
The year we are heading for is 1880.
The place is an upper middle class home in foggy London.
This is where we meet our bad guy, Jack Manningham. Jack is a handsome, well-dressed man in his 40s. Oh, and this lovely guy has decided that he will convince his wife, Bella, that she is insane.
He does so by altering small elements of her surroundings and insisting that his wife is only imagining these changes.
As we observe Jack berating his wife (“Don’t be such a little silly”) and see the dynamic playing itself out, let’s take this one step further.
What is an example of gaslighting?
For a moment, let’s explore what it would be like to be in this situation:
Imagine turning off a light, leaving the room, returning a few minutes only to see the light still burning, while your spouse (who secretly switched on the lights again) insists that you never turned them off in the first place.
Now picture this happening again and again and again — all while your spouse tries to convince you that you’re mental.
Over time, that would feel rather crazy-making, wouldn’t it?
Welcome to the world of gaslighting.
Where does the term gaslighting come from?
First, here's a quick definition of gaslighting:
“Gaslighting” describes the experience of having one’s own reality manipulated by another.
Gaslighting is an increasingly common but also rather recent term that we owe to British playwright Patrick Hamilton.
Patrick Hamilton, who was able to draw on his own experience as the son of a bullying alcoholic, clearly was onto something a few generations ago.
It’s his 1938 play called “Gas Light (two of whose characters you have just met) that gave the phenomenon we now know as “gaslighting” its name.
When I first wrote about gaslighting in April 2017, here’s how I described the situation:
Since then, the term gaslighting has become even better known. In 2018, Oxford Dictionaries named it one of the most popular words of the year.
Why is gaslighting so disturbing? Is it emotional abuse?
Gaslighting is a cognitive strategy that can create cognitive dissonance and low self-esteem. It’s disturbing because it leads to people questioning their own reality.
Thankfully, I’ve never been subjected to gaslighting in my personal relationships.
That said, I recently had an experience that allowed me to understand it more deeply and feel a ton of compassion for people who are subjected to it.
Let me share with you the story of how my (amazing!) husband and I unintentionally gave each other the smallest taste of it— without intending to.
While I was on my laptop in laser-focus work mode, my husband took my empty glass and announced he would get me more smoothie.
20 minutes later, I looked up and wondered where my smoothie was. There was nothing in my cup.
I inquired and my husband insisted he had refilled my glass and that I simply must have finished the beverage.
In turn, I insisted he hadn’t come back with a glass.
Even though this wasn’t actually gaslighting, our disagreement over what had happened felt crazy-making.
While we were arguing, I knew that since we couldn’t both be right, one of us had to be misremembering an event that just happened.
Eventually, I realized that I had finished the second glass of smoothie in a classic “absent-minded professor move.” (To the annoyance/bemusement of those around me, I can get very focused sometimes.)
However, before I figured this out, it was deeply unsettling to not know which description of events — mine or my husband’s — was accurate.
If even this benign situation is unnerving, I can only imagine what it feels like to actually be gaslit.
Forms of gaslighting
Gaslighting can occur in different settings where we interact with other people, for instance, in the family, within intimate relationships, or in the workplace.
Let’s look at these:
Gaslighting in parent-child relationships
Children are particularly susceptible to gaslighting, as science writer Peg Streep explains:
“The parent-child relationship isn’t one of equals — in fact, it’s terrifically lopsided. All of the power is vested in the parent and while it’s a thought that might make you cringe, where there’s power, there’s also the potential abuse of power.”
She goes on to explain that while it takes work to gaslight adult,
“There’s not much work involved making a love-deprived and insecure child doubt his or her reality.”
Comedian Randy Rainbow gives an example of what it feels like to grow up with someone prone to gaslighting:
“My father was a textbook narcissist. If he didn’t like the narrative he’d start gaslighting you. He threatened the democracy of our family.”
Gaslighting in relationships
As Lachlan Brown describes, when compared to a parent-child or boss-employee relationship, in
“a romantic partnership, gaslighting can be more difficult to observe and admit, as there is an assumed equal power dynamic between two partners.”
That doesn’t make it uncommon. For instance, according to psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, gaslighting is present in about 30–40% of the couples she treats (where this is more commonly represented) and is just as likely to be done by men as women.
Gaslighting in the workplace
Based on my observations, I assume that gaslighting and general toxic behavior in the workplace happens more often than we might think.
As a career coach, it’s not uncommon for me to have clients describe situations that amount to gaslighting in the workplace.
Similarly, a Twitter poll by HR software and services provider MHR found that 58% of respondents have experienced what they consider to be gaslighting during their working lives.
Their employee engagement expert, Chris Kerridge, describes gaslighting in the workplace as follows:
“Unlike bullying, which is very clear and obvious, gaslighting is a very subtle form of manipulation which can destroy a victim’s confidence, leave them feeling extremely vulnerable and, in some cases, force them to quit their jobs. In many cases it can be so subtle that some people may not even know it’s happening until they stop and think about it, which is perhaps why it happens so frequently.”
This is in alignment with Sarkis’ observation that gaslighting is
“underreported in the workplace, because gaslighters who are particularly adept at manipulation may make the victim feel as if it was all his or her fault.”
Even if you’re lucky enough to not experience this dynamic in your personal relationships or at work, it probably still impacts your life. That’s because gaslighting also extends to other levels.
What about gaslighting in politics or on the collective level?
Gaslighting isn’t limited to personal relationships. It can also happen in a more widespread form, for instance, if an organization or entity tried to manipulate everyone’s experience.
This excerpt from George Orwell’s novel 1984 would be a classic example of gaslighting in real life: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
As Sarkis remarks in an article:
“Gaslighting behavior has always been present in history, to a degree. It is par for the course whenever a person or entity wants to exert as much control as possible over others. But we haven’t seen this level of gaslighting since the Axis powers of World War II.”
In his 2008 book “State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind,” psychologist Bryan Welch makes the point that political gaslighting isn’t anything new:
“To say gaslighting was started by the Bushes, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Fox News, or any other extant group is not simply wrong, it also misses an important point. Gaslighting comes directly from blending modern communications, marketing, and advertising techniques with long-standing methods of propaganda. They were simply waiting to be discovered by those with sufficient ambition and psychological makeup to use them.”
Given how frequent gaslighting is in all our lives — whether or not you’ve ever personally experienced it— we must get good at recognizing this dynamic and learning how to deal with it.
This will make us more resilient and harder to manipulate.
What are some steps you can take if you're being gaslighted?
To find out how to deal with and heal the effects of gaslighting, let’s turn our attention to a man we don’t know a lot about, the fabulist Phaedrus who lived in the 1st century CE.
According to Phaedrus: “Gentleness is the antidote for cruelty.”
While Phaedrus doesn’t state this specifically, his choice of antidote is based on a wider-reaching principle that I would call the “Exact Opposite Principle”:
the remedy for a negative emotional influence is its exact opposite.
Gentleness is the exact opposite of cruelty — which is why it can be its antidote.
So, let’s apply this newfound principle to gaslighting, which is exposure to people who make one question one’s reality in ways that are hard to detect.
As you can see, there are 3 components of gaslighting each of which needs its own antidote:
- hard to detect (antidote: awareness of the telltale signs of gaslighting).
- exposure to gaslighters (antidote: avoidance of gaslighters),
- doubts about one’s reality (antidote: confirmation of one’s reality).
Step 1: Increasing awareness of gaslighting
Sharing resources about gaslighting with people who may be subject to it is helpful because it can make them aware of what is indeed happening.
For instance, imagine if Bella had come across a newspaper article describing this dynamic early on. It would have made it easier for her to realize that her perception was accurate all along.
And what a relief that could be! (If you know someone who could benefit from finding out more about gaslighting, would you share this or another article about gaslighting with them?)
However, even though it’s helpful to raise awareness about the dynamics of gaslighting, by itself it’s not enough.
Which brings us to the other two antidotes or action steps you can take.
Step 2: taking action to limit exposure to gaslighters
Like many issues, the antidote to gaslighting has an external and an internal component.
On the external level, the most obvious solution is to limit contact with people who engage in gaslighting as much as possible.
You don’t need to spend time with a friend, acquaintance, or family member who makes you feel bad. While handling your closest relationships might be more complicated for logistical reasons, you can still strive to limit the time you spend with an immediate family member who gaslights you.
The same advice applies to workplace gaslighting. If it’s not possible to avoid or handle toxic people at work, you might want to consider changing your job.
I would also recommend that you stop reading the news so much.
Manipulative behaviors tend to lose their power over you the less you get exposed to them. This also gives you space and safety to explore how you feel and get back to your own equilibrium.
Step 3: retain your sanity by having your reality confirmed
One of the main things gaslighting does is to make people doubt their own experiences and emotions. That's why it is necessary to get back to a place of trusting one's own reality.
Even in healthy relationships, fully trusting our own experiences can be challenging at times. That is because, for all the talk about individualism, humans have been communal beings throughout most of our history depending on others for our very survival.
And as communal beings, there is a way in which we frame our reality by considering how those around us are acting and how they are perceiving the world.
When people get manipulated or otherwise hurt in relationships, the damage caused needs to be repaired where it originated in relationships.
One extremely helpful approach for healing relationship wounds and getting to a place where one trusts one’s own experience is a little-known spiritual practice called greenlighting.
Let’s explore this in more depth.
What is greenlighting?
Greenlighting is a form of profound compassion and radical acceptance for your inner experiences or the experiences of someone else.
As such, it differs radically from the idea of “fixing” ourselves or somebody else — thinking that something needs to be “fixed” assumes that it is broken.
Greenlighting is something I use a lot in my coaching but because few people are familiar with this specific meaning of the term, I instead describe it as “compassionate self-understanding” (which is close enough).
However, one thing that is special about the term greenlighting is that it has a more active undertone than words such as “self-understanding” or “acceptance” etc.
In fact, to me greenlighting is the opposite of passive complacency.
As a term borrowed from the film industry, it refers to the stage where a project is given permission to go ahead, which allows it to move out of the development stage. That a project receives the “green light” doesn’t mean that it’s already a polished and finished movie that can be shown on the screen.Greenlighting involves treating your experience of life like that movie project — something that is simultaneously okay just as it is, while also being in flux and having a lot of potential for further development.
It is a way of constantly saying, “Yes!” to all of whom we are, to our entire past, current, and emerging being.
In short, it is the exact opposite of gaslighting.
As such, greenlighting is the perfect antidote for healing it
How to experience greenlighting
“Relationships are like traffic lights. And I just have this theory that I can only exist in a relationship if it’s a green light.” — Taylor Swift
There are two ways in which we can experience greenlighting: by another person or by ourselves.
If you want to give yourself more greenlighting, I've prepared a free meditation for you that can help. You'll find everything you need to receive it at the end of this article.
Typically, we first need to receive this type of holding and support from somebody else before we can more deeply give it to ourselves. This might require finding the right person(s) to receive greenlighting from.
If you're looking to work with someone who can give that to you, I highly recommend my husband Elijah who is a spiritual teacher in the tradition in which greenlighting was developed.
As you can probably see in that video, Elijah is very loving and compassionate. (Okay, I'm admittedly biased...)
Of course, not only those who have been gaslit can benefit from greenlighting.
As I can attest to from personal experience, people who receive greenlighting over time typically become more compassionate with themselves and develop deeper self-trust.
Experiencing this type of support and holding can help all of us become more of ourselves.
As we are getting near the end of this article, you might be wondering what happened to Bella, the victim of Jack’s gaslighting.
The paternal Inspector Rough from Scotland Yard describes her situation as follows: “You are not going out of your mind, Mrs. Manningham. You are slowly, methodically, systematically being driven out of your mind.”Gradually, Rough manages to restore Bella’s confidence in herself and finds evidence that Jack committed a murder.
With the police leading Jack away, the heroine of our story gets the happy ending she deserves.
By applying the 3 antidotes I describe above, you can do the same for yourself— or help others who are going through this experience.
Just like Bella, you can emerge victorious.
Just like Rough, you can administer the antidote to someone who’s being gaslit by helping them become aware of what gaslighting is, helping them distance themselves from the person doing it to them, and greenlighting their experience.
And, above all else, you can give yourself the green light to become the amazing person you want to be and do what you most want to do in the world.
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