Gaslighting is a term that has grown in popularity over recent it years. It is understood to be a manipulative technique which can inspire people to question their sanity . The term Gaslighting became popularised by a 1940s film called Gaslight, where a man with malevolent intent encourages his wife to question her sanity by challenging her experience of reality by deliberately messing with her head and emotions. Therefore, the term gaslighting has been reserved for those who intentionally manipulate others to the point where they begin to question their own reality; the sort of behaviour reserved for sociopaths, psychopaths and narcissists; those with minimal compassion and empathy. Yet what if I told you that empathy can also inspire gaslighting behaviour? And would you believe that as a society we are routinely gaslighted on a collective level? This article aims to provide a fresh perspective on what gaslighting means.
Gaslighting is incredibly damaging when experienced. At its core gaslighting is best understood as inauthentic behaviour. Whether intent is associated with this behaviour or not could be considered irrelevant; the result to the victim is still damaging as gaslighting can pave the way for mental health difficulties to emerge.
Traditionally gaslighting is associated with the behaviour of sociopathic, psychopathic and narcissistic people; gaslighting with intent. But it is worth noting that even without intent gaslighting behaviour can still emerge, often associated with sensitive, empathic and caring people. This is because we are all susceptible to behaving in an inauthentic manner at times. Take a moment to think about what it means to be polite and professional; the pressure upon us to behave appropriately.
Authenticity is not necessarily appropriate, polite or professional, therefore, it could be argued that authenticity is not welcomed in our society in the same way falseness is, and to be false is to gaslight.
The result of being gaslighted inspires people to start questioning their inner evaluating processes. This is incredibly dangerous because when we lose trust in how we experience the world we become vulnerable to being manipulated and losing touch with reality. In person-centred terminology gaslighting inspires incongruent experiencing to develop which can be incredibly dangerous, regardless of the intent of the gaslighter.
We begin to lose trust in our reality when our outer and inner world do not match for whatever reason. This is what makes the insidious aspect of gaslighting so effective, the perpetrator is intentionally making sure their victims inner and outer world do not consistently match, encouraging self-doubt. This creates a breakdown in trust with experience.
Regardless of whether it is the inner or outer world the victim loses trust in, the victim is likely to find themselves in a vulnerable position. If they lose trust in their inner world, they become very easy to manipulate and are likely to become submissive and vulnerable to experiential distress as they lose touch with their true sense of self . If they lose trust in their outer world they become susceptible to socially withdrawing and/or behaving in strange ways that could lead to them becoming diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder; paranoid schizophrenia for example.
However it is looked at, gaslighting can be extremely damaging. And although it is traditionally believed to be dangerous if experienced in high intensity within one relationship, we exist in a collective society. Meaning that if an individual is being gently gaslighted, on an innocent level, by many different people in their social/professional network they are just as vulnerable as a victim of the more insidious approach of gaslighting with intent.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back” is an idiom which holds relevance to this perspective.
Innocent gaslighting is whenever we are being inauthentic in anyway. It is not always necessarily damaging, as it is only when inauthenticity is noticed, questioned and denied that can have a detrimental impact.
A typical example is “I’m fine”. I believe this to be something that the vast majority of us are guilty of - experiencing an inner turmoil of some description but being unwilling to share it with others for whatever reason; shame, fear, anger, empathy etc…
For example, I was once really annoyed and feeling somewhat hurt after discovering that a few of my friends had met up without contacting me to see if I wanted to join them; I was feeling neglected. My wife picked up on my negative state of mind and asked me what was wrong and I offered the I’m fine response. I suppose I felt an element of shame for how much I was impacted by being left out by my friends; I didn’t want to be perceived as overly sensitive within that moment perhaps. Anyway, my wife was persistent with her enquiries and I ended up getting angry with her. This is accidental gaslighting, I am not intending to encourage my wife to question her inner evaluating process but this is likely the result of my actions.
I have also been angry with my wife for silly reasons in the past but attempted to disguise it, as I want to avoid an argument. In fact there have been countless times I have tried to disguise or distort my emotional state of being from my wife for numerous different reasons, but normally to avoid conflict and/or embarrassment. And although there has never been any intent to damage my wife in any way from this inauthentic way of being, there is still the risk that this behaviour could. The explicit example I provided in the paragraph above encouraged my wife to re-examine the events that had occurred between us up to the point my state of mind had changed. She had concluded that it was her way of being that had impacted me somehow, inspiring potential vulnerability.
These innocent gaslighting events may not be particularly toxic if they only happen occasionally within a relationship for whatever reason. But now imagine these innocent gaslighting events are recurring in an individual’s life within numerous relationships – the potential for a vulnerable state of mind to become normalised grows exponentially.
Gaslighting does not have to carry intent or be insidious to be present. Gaslighting is not necessarily deceptive or manipulative either, but it is always inauthentic. And even if it is not malevolent, it is not necessarily innocent.
There is corporate gaslighting which is a completely normalised method of business. Corporate gaslighting can be witnessed during any political campaign. Notice how corporate media outlets will align with a political campaign and then release distorted facts to fit in with the narrative they are trying to push out onto the public. For example, it was discovered that 75% of the press coverage of Jeremy Corbyn during his first 2 months as Labour’s leader was misrepresentative. The press acted like an ‘attack dog’ in an attempt to undermine him and what he represented. They did this by being selective with what they published and distorting the facts they did publish, attempting to symbolise him as an unelectable leader.
There are also political gaslighting events that occur regularly; have you ever witnessed a politician answer a question clearly and transparently? What about ad hominem, when a political discussion of ideas is reduced to personal insults and attack of character; a common sight within parliament. All of these are political attempts to manipulate the perception of others in an attempt to develop and/or maintain power.
Another more sinister element of gaslighting is when it is imposed upon a collective; propaganda. The most sinister of which being false flag terrorism. The Reichstag Fire, which helped the Nazis’ to develop and maintain power in Germany is just one example of many false flag attacks being publicly admitted, inspiring questions over more recent events; 9/11 for example.
The point being made is that we are lost in a gaslighting epidemic right now and it is not only manifesting in isolated and abusive relationships. It also occurs within loving relationships, often accidently plus it is also engineered and imposed upon us on a collective level as well. Have you noticed how the media have treated Muslims over recent years? Have you seen a correlation between this propaganda and a rise of bigotry views being openly shared? I must admit I have, but I digress.
There are many different elements to gaslighting; it appears a spectrum has emerged. On one side we have malevolent intent with insidious implications, on the other side we have a fear of, or a resistance to, being genuine and open. The unifying construct that binds this spectrum together is inauthenticity. Therefore, to get over this gaslighting epidemic we must challenge ourselves to become more authentic.
To become authentic is a challenging endeavour. Many person-centred practitioners accept it is a lifetime’s work. It is incredibly difficult to be authentic because many of us have lost touch with who we truly are, we are more accustomed with being who we think we should be, rather than how we truly are in the moment. The secret to discovering our authenticity is found within our relationships. Many good relationships are grounded in acceptance and understanding. These two therapeutic attitudes allow one another the freedom to discover their authentic inner evaluating process. This allows for growth and change to occur. It breaks away from the shoulds of life and opens up the coulds. This is what Carl Rogers meant by a quiet revolution. Through this process of endeavouring to accept and understand one another whilst being genuine with our process allows for a collective process of becoming to begin to emerge, releasing a dormant potential which is inherent within us! Authenticity is not only the key to change, it is the only way to combat the collective effects of ongoing gaslighting.
Gaslighting is not as simple as having an evil perpetrator and an innocent victim. It doesn’t only occur within one to one relationships and it is far more insidious than what we realise. This is because gaslighting has become normalised throughout our society, to the point we are susceptible to accidentally gaslight the people we love. There is no way to provide a quick fix for what appears to be a global epidemic. Learning to value and demonstrate truly authentic behaviour is the only way we will find ourselves outside the maze of smoke and mirrors we have collectively developed. Yet how to be authentic is not something that can be necessarily taught; it has to be rediscovered. To endeavour to accept and understand ourselves and others is the first step of a lifelong journey of growth and discovery. If we take this journey collectively gaslighting behaviour will fade into history. The person-centred revolution has begun; will you join us?
1 - S. A. Sarkis. (2017). 11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting in Relationships.Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting-in-relationships. Last accessed 09/01/2018.
2 - Rogers, C.R. (1995). Ellen West – And Loneliness in: Rogers, C.R. and Yalom, I.D. A way of being. 9th edn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
3 - B, Cammaerts. (2016). Our report found that 75% of press coverage misrepresents Jeremy Corbyn – we can't ignore media bias anymore.Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-media-bias-labour-mainstream-press-lse-study-misrepresentation-we-cant-ignore-bias-a7144381.html. Last accessed 09/01/2018
4 - Washington's Blog. (2015). 53 Admitted False Flag Attacks. Available: https://www.globalresearch.ca/53-admitted-false-flag-attacks/5432931. Last accessed 09/01/2018.