Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Turn Off the Gaslight: Manipulation through mindgames

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Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in California and professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and a visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg and author of numerous books, writes in Aeon:

‘He didn’t mean anything by it, stop making such a big deal out of it.’

‘Here, let me take care of it, you don’t know what you are doing.’

‘You’re too sensitive.’

‘Stop overreacting.’

‘You keep imagining things.’

‘That’s not how it happened.’

‘Your memory seems to be slipping.’

Such comments undermine our trust in ourselves and our belief in what we know. More than that, they trespass on our sense of identity. The more we hear such phrases, the more we stop trusting ourselves. When another person becomes a gatekeeper to our reality, then we’re in a precarious spot – vulnerable to further manipulation and control. This reality-doubting is called ‘gaslighting’.

As a psychologist in practice, I often see my role as the person who turns off the gaslights. I work with survivors of relationships with high-conflict, antagonistic, rigid, entitled, dysregulated people. These might be their partners, parents, adult children, siblings or colleagues. Once we remove the gaslight, and the house lights come on, my clients recognise that this one difficult person in their lives was the tip of a dysfunctional iceberg.

The term gaslighting derives from theatre and film. Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light (1938) was adapted as the British film Gaslight in 1940 and the American classic of the same name in 1944. To this day, Gaslight, a reference to the flickering gaslights featured in the drama, remains a masterclass on how one predatory partner captivates and then slowly undermines the other.

The play and films introduced the term ‘gaslighting’ into our vernacular to refer to a specific type of manipulation – one in which a person’s reality itself is hijacked by another. This can also be manifested by minimisation, deflection, denial and coercive control. The term is now ubiquitous, and we apply it not just to close relationships but also to any reality-bending that is generated by institutions, media and leaders. The genius of the films was to remind us that gaslighting is actually a grooming process, not just a singular event. It’s a process of establishing and then exploiting trust and authority to achieve an endgame of control and dominance.

The backstory (spoiler alert) is the murder of a famed London opera singer. The murderer fails to leave with the jewels he’s come for because he’s interrupted by the victim’s niece, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman). Years pass, and Paula meets Gregory (Charles Boyer), who unbeknown to her is the murderer. They marry after a quick courtship, and he insists on moving back to the house where the murder occurred, slowly manipulating her reality, including the flickering lights, all with the intent of retrieving the jewels, at last.

In Gaslight, we witness the architecture of abusive relationships. These are relationships that proceed too quickly, too intensely – ‘she was swept off her feet’. Paula was primed to miss the red flags because she’d endured the traumatic loss of her beloved aunt and, upon returning to London, was living in a space associated with grief. Gaslight also shows us the danger of romanticising behaviours such as showing up out of nowhere and surprising a new partner, of insisting on spending time with her alone and creating their own little world together, which can be harbingers of more insidious abusive relationship dynamics such as stalking and isolation. The relationship creates a dynamic in which it is simpler and safer for Paula to doubt herself than to question him.

Atherapist bears witness and validates the pain of her clients, hoping to engender insight, change, and the ability to steer one’s own life. I have spent decades turning off the gaslights that flicker and glow in my client’s lives. They experienced the denial of childhood trauma by parents and family, or the invalidation of controlling spouses who acted as judge and jury on their emotional states. My clients have been told by another person or persons how they feel for so long that they no longer feel able to identify their own emotions. To work with clients being gaslighted means dismantling childhood and religious teachings, societal frameworks and cultural codes of conduct. Year after year, I listen to stories of ‘wonderful’ childhoods that devolve into a Eugene O’Neill play under the harsh glare of sunlight and therapeutic interpretation.

Where this struck me most was in working with clients who have endured gaslighted marriages for 20 years or longer. (My specific focus is in an area called narcissistic abuse, a phenomenon whereby people become riddled with self-doubt, anxiety and confusion after being in a relationship with an unempathic, entitled, arrogant, egocentric, manipulative partner, family member or other individual.) These were marriages littered with a range of patterns including control, infidelity, a malignant neglect, deceit, an adult life spent having their realities and voices erased.

There was the moment in therapy, when the word ‘abuse’ would come out of my mouth, and the reactions were almost universal:

‘Abuse, no, that’s not me, it was just difficult, in fact, I think maybe my expectations were too high.’

‘He only pushed me once, we were both really mad.’

Over the years of their marriages, the self-gaslighting started to become reflexive. My clients fell into the propaganda that they termed marriage, and a chorus of enablers allowed them to maintain the delusion and the illusion. Once the word ‘abuse’ entered the conversation, a transformation occurred, a new narrative entered the room.

Some would terminate therapy. They would say: ‘Thank you for returning my reality to me, but I won’t leave the relationship, and now I understand I was fighting the wrong battles.’ Others used the therapeutic validation as a call to arms, once the gaslight was turned off, once they no longer fell into the narcissist’s reality, the mortar went out of the bricks of the relationship and, the next time the partner threatened divorce, they smiled and said ‘Sounds good.’

To watch a client come out of gaslighting is to witness someone come back into their own (or come into it for the first time). But I also witnessed clients become isolated. Nobody around them wanted to hear about it, and they would often face gaslighting outside of their marriage. ‘Are you sure it happened that way?’ or ‘That’s just your version of the events.’ They were rarely told that their reality was valid. Many of them were looking for a simple benediction that would strengthen their resolve. However, I wasn’t just seeing this in marriages. My clients who experienced abuse in childhood were still hearing family members tell them in adulthood: ‘Just let it go, he’s dead, and far worse abuse has happened to other people.’ The gaslighting of childhood was sustained in adulthood and made the trauma far more difficult to release. These lights can flicker for a lifetime.

Deconstruction of gaslighting as a concept is something that philosophers have done better than psychologists. Recent papers by

Andrew Spear (2019) and Kate Abramson (2014) addressed this phenomenon through a dispassionate lens, and proposed that gaslighting is a multistep process of indoctrination. It is comprised of initially drawing in a target; establishing trust and authority (or capitalising on existing trust – for example, a family member or a spouse); slowly dismantling that person’s sense of trust in herself through doubt and questioning or by manipulating elements of the physical environment (eg, moving or hiding objects – and then denying it); eroding a sense of self-trust and self-knowledge in the victim so the victim is less likely to doubt the gaslighter’s word; and finally winning over the victim’s agreement with the gaslighter’s reality. Ultimately, this robs the victim of his or her autonomy and cements the victim’s ongoing consent.

Traditional conceptualisations of gaslighting focus on the emotional abuse inherent in doubting a person’s reality with a goal of destabilising the victim. This isn’t just about the gaslighter’s need for control and capitulation, but their need for consent. The ultimate ‘agreement’ of their victim renders a picture of the relationship to the world that looks consensual and cooperative. The impact of gaslighting is most acutely observed in cult members or others who seem brainwashed – they espouse agreement with the tenets of the cult leader, and over time it appears as though the views of the cult are their own. Once that kind of agreement and acceptance are issued, it is far more difficult for the victim to exit from the situation or relationship.

There is a menacing simplicity to the gaslighter’s motivations – by and large, they appear to be motivated by power and control, which is likely a compensatory offset of their own sense of insecurity. Gaslighters project their own insecurity onto their victims and magnify any insecurity that their victims already have. To achieve this, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. And gaslighting is much more common than many (including current victims) realize.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 January 2021 at 4:16 pm

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