What is gaslighting?

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Gaslighting is not just a buzzword or an interesting term, but a very common phenomenon in the modern world. This is a form of psychological violence, the main task of which is to make a person doubt the adequacy of their perception of the surrounding reality. 

There is also such a phenomenon as an unconscious gaslighting; however, some tyrants and manipulators do this quite consciously, in order to shake the confidence of another person and take full control over them.

The aggressor creates an alternative reality for the victim, focusing on individual events and treating them in a specific way, using the falsification of facts. Such people do their best to play with the feelings of the person. The key problem is the fact that such behavior is hard to find because it doesn’t seem that terrible. There are no clear signs of violence in this case. There are no shouting, threats, aggressive statements, or even physical violence. In addition, his intonation may be incredibly soft and even friendly, which makes the entire situation even more dangerous. 

As a result, the victim has two realities. The first reality is their own. They have to doubt it more and more. The second one is created by the aggressor. In the majority of cases, the second reality becomes the winner. It happens because it humiliates the person, penetrates very deeply, coming through all the psychological defenses, sitting in the head, and settling fear and anxiety inside.

Alya constantly hears the following words from her mother: “No one needs you, your husband only needs one thing from you, guess what? He wanted to marry you just because he wants to ‘get it’ once in a while. You have to fight for him because you are worth nothing without him. Anyway… Who else would want to spend time with such a useless person!” It seems that Alya is trying to understand that her mother is wrong. Many people in this world love and need her. Men love her too… It seems like that. Her husband doesn’t really want to have only sex with her. She has a good job, and she’s a translator in an embassy. She thinks that people do (?) appreciate her. However, her life and soul are full of “maybe”, “probably” and “it seems” word. It seems that her mother knows it better. Why would she lie?

Maxim’s boss often tells him that he is an incompetent person. He does everything very badly, he feels sorry for him, and only for this reason, he keeps him. On special occasions, the boss praises him. It sounds like this: “Well, you can do it when you want! It’s not a deed, but it’s better than usual!” When the department opened a vacancy for a Deputy Chief, Maxim tried to find out if he could get this position, but he heard the same thing about himself. He was told that he was stupid and didn’t try hard enough. Maxim is aware of the fact that his boss only changes the font size, gaps and adds some commas in his documents. In the worst case, he can change several words with their synonyms. He also knows that people from other departments like to talk with him if they need a piece of advice. The problem is that his boss is not aware of the real conditions of work, and he can only create the “fog of importance.” It turns out that Maxim performs the lion’s share of tasks for the boss… and still thinks: “What am I doing wrong, why am I so worthless because I can’t even think about the promotion…”

Alyona has been in a relationship with Kirill for almost three years. Previously, Alyona was quite a confident and calm girl. However, it’s impossible to recognize her for the last couple of years. Kirill often makes it clear to Alyona that she is far from ideal and not worthy of a man like him. As a result, Alyona began to believe his words, even though there’s no real reason. He can afford to compare Alyona with beauty from “that movie” and tell her that he’s very sorry that she’s never going to be like her because there’s nothing exquisite and graceful in her life and body. Kirill likes to meet with other women, but even in the most “transparent” and obvious cases, he always tells Alyona the following: “I don’t cheat! You’re jealous because you have low self-esteem.” Kirill can speak about her intellectual abilities, appearance, lack of sexuality, but always says that Alyona has a wrong understanding of his words. He’s sure that he never even planned to hurt her. “You are completely crazy because of your jealousy!” Alyona was sure that she was overreacting to everything, that something was wrong with her, and not with Kirill.

These three stories show that the process of gaslighting is not only about partnerships. It can be found virtually anywhere: parents and children, bosses and subordinates, colleagues, and even spouses. This wormhole can be present in any relationship if one of the partners is manipulating.

The most common phrases of gaslighters can sound like the following:

  • “You’re overreacting!”
  • “I didn’t hurt you, I was just joking!”
  • “The problem is with you. I’m totally fine!”
  • “Don’t make it up! It can’t be that I ever said that!”
  • “You just have low self-esteem.”
  • “You got it all wrong.”
  • “You have something wrong with your nerves, maybe you need to see a doctor?”

The aggressor and manipulator can use a very quiet voice, thus insinuating, gently pressing the known painful points of his victim, purposefully cause her to burst of emotions and indignation. In many cases, it happens in public to witness the incident, and then accuse her of inadequacy. “Just look at her! I am so polite and quiet, and she is hysterical!”

Gaslighting is one of the most severe forms of manipulation because it’s a game with the mind of the victim. The manipulator is forcing her to doubt her adequacy, reasonableness, and rightness. 

The main features of gaslighting:

  • substitution of circumstances and falsification of facts that make the victim doubt their memory (It didn’t happen, you know! Maybe you saw it in a dream?)
  • questioning the emotional stability and adequacy of a person (“I’m sorry for her. Vika is not quite all right now. She can become crazy out of the blue like thisโ€ฆ But never mind, we can handle it, I’ve already arranged a visit to a psychologist”)
  • presenting the victim as a stupid and intellectually disabled person (“Honey, you’re a blonde, and you know that you are nothing in the world of mathโ€ฆ Come on, I’ll deal with the budget myself, take a break”)
  • emphasizing imaginary age, gender, and physiological incompetence (“It’s okay, everything is hidden in your tantrums”, “You are too small to talk about something”, “Oh, what can I take from a man, it’s an animal”, “You created everything in your mind”)
  • denial of feelings and facts that are important to a person (“It was just a joke, and you, as always, are overly sensitive”, “I just danced with her, and my hands were on her ass because this is normal in dancing, do not exaggerate!”)
  • they put emphasis on mistakes and failures (“You always forget everything!”, “Can you ever do something in the right way?”)

The gaslighting is an imperceptible, but powerful moral violence. The thing is it hits the most vulnerable places of a person, i.e. their sense of self, self-esteem, self-belief. That is why it is so difficult to leave such a relationship… after all, a person who has been gaslighted for a long time doesn’t believe that they are right, that their feelings are correct, and have the right to exist. They can’t believe that they have a right to make this important step.