What is Gaslighting?

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: My husband and I are estranged, living in separate locations due to his verbal abuse. I could not tolerate it anymore, so I left the relationship. Though I have not contacted him, he sends me very condescending emails and texts. I have chosen not to respond to any of these. Today, he accused me of gaslighting. I have been told it is some kind of psychological term. What is gaslighting?
Answer: Great question. I had to look up the term because it is not something I was exposed to in my years of graduate education. However, after a Google search, I have found that it is a form of psychological manipulation that attempts to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, with the intent of causing the individual to question his or her own memory, perception, or sanity. This is often done by persistent misdirection, contradiction, denial, or even lying in an attempt to destabilize the victim and undermine the victim’s belief in self.
The term “gaslighting” has been a lay term used since the 1960s to describe attempts to manipulate another person’s perception of reality. And it has been used in psychoanalytic literature since the 1970s to describe such behavior. The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton called Gaslight. In the play, a man attempts to convince his new wife that she is losing her mind. He alternately draws her close and alienates her, making her paranoid and fearful. Eventually she is convinced her memory is faulty and everything is her fault as he continues to push her towards a “nervous breakdown.”
Examples of “gaslighting” may range from denial by the abuser that previous incidents of abuse ever occurred all the way to staging bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The ultimate goal is to make the victim second guess his or her every choice and to question his or her sanity, with the intent of making the victim more dependent on the abuser.
There are two characteristics of gaslighting that have been identified: (1) The abuser wants full control of feelings, thoughts, or actions of the victim; and (2) the abuser carefully abuses the victim emotionally in hostile or coercive ways.
Some of the common signs of “gaslighting” are:
Withholding information from the victim;
Changing information to fit the abuser’s perspective;
Discounting information that might reveal the abuser as abusive;
Put downs in the form of jokes and condescending comments;
Attempts to prevent the victim from accessing outside sources of information;
Trivializing the victim’s worth; and,
Undermining the victim by gradually wearing the victim down until the victim believes he or she has created the problem, or the victim believes he or she is insane.
Three common methods of “gaslighting” described in the literature are:
The abuser may hide things from the victim and cover up what he or she has done. Instead of feeling shame of guilt for the abuse, the abuser may attempt to convince the victim to doubt his or her own beliefs about the situation and turn the blame on self.
The abuser is convinced there is a need to change something about the victim, so the abuser attempts to mold the victim into his or her fantasy. If the victim does not comply, the abuser may up the ante by turning to blatant denigration of the victim.
The abuser wants full control and power over the victim. To take control, the abuser may try to seclude the victim from friends and family for fear of losing control. What makes this so pathological is that the abuser gets pleasure from knowing the victim is being fully controlled by him or her.
Though there is benefit in considering your own behavior, it sounds like your estranged husband may be dabbling in “gaslighting,” rather than you. This is not uncommon. If you need help sorting this help, please consider getting professional help.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].