Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that involves convincing someone their intuition is wrong when it is actually completely accurate. The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight in which a husband tries to manipulate his wife into believing that she is going crazy. As portrayed in that old film, gaslighting unfolds when one partner (the gaslighter) tries to overwrite the other partner’s reality by denying things that happened, often by presenting information to make that partner doubt memories, perceptions, or realities. One situation in which this often occurs is when the gaslighter is having an affair and wants to cover it up. As part of the cover-up, the gaslighter tries to convince his partner that she is the one with the problem. He is likely to use threats and manipulation as a way to avoid being caught.* He may try to turn himself into the victim, saying things like “Why are you so paranoid and jealous? I’m just going out with my friends.”
Gaslighting often happens in situations where people feel a need to lie in order to protect themselves. There is a cognitive dissonance in which how we’re behaving doesn’t line up with who we want to be. On the one hand, the husband vowed to be monogamous and thinks of himself as moral; but, on the other hand, he is also sexually involved with someone who isn’t his wife. One way he can resolve this dissonance is by gaslighting, by attempting to make his wife think that she is insecure, paranoid, or anxious. Then, he is no longer under the microscope himself and avoids needing to take responsibility for his actions. Gaslighting will damage his wife’s sense of trust in herself and in her reality.
Victims of gaslighting are often “people pleasers,” or naturally empathetic. They are seeking approval. Much of their work in therapy and in their own growth is to learn to turn that empathy and loving kindness onto themselves instead of only onto others. If you’ve been a victim of gaslighting, you can learn to recognize it, label it, and figure out what your choices are in terms of reacting. Rather than fearing your truth, or avoiding the reality of your situation, you can come to trust the truth of your own feelings. You might be afraid of changes in your life that would happen if you followed your intuition, but you can see your pain as informative. And in doing so, you can recognize your intuition has transformational power and then take action according to your values. Action may require bold changes, and this requires strength that can only come from within. You can learn to validate your feelings even though, or even as, someone else is invalidating them. Developing self-love and self-respect are essential elements of this process of learning to validate yourself. Unfortunately, most people know their truth but don’t pay attention to it. It is much easier to avoid, distract, or even blame yourself. But you can learn to tune into yourself and stay grounded.
Gaslighters are often very high-strung and intensely anxious as they are denying the reality of their lives. Nonetheless, they can also change their behaviors and grow. Usually, cognitive dissonance prevents the gaslighter from taking responsibility, as he will typically come up with justifications for his behavior as the truth is too disturbing for them to acknowledge. The gaslighter usually will be in denial about the pain he is causing through his actions.
A gaslighter’s growth path involves allowing himself to be with his pain and to identify that he may not be living with integrity within himself. He can realize that his behaviors are symptoms of larger problems, in the relationship or in his life, and then he can address what’s at the source of his distress, like feeling unloveable, unworthy, or insecure. Most people who lie or blame others do this in all areas of their lives as defenses. They can know they aren’t inherently “bad” or “corrupt,” but their actions are hurtful and destructive, and they can still define their values and their character. For a gaslighter, the way forward involves owning his behaviors and double life rather than blaming his partner for it.
Gaslighting is portrayed in the media frequently, in characters like Don Draper from Mad Men or Walter White in Breaking Bad, as people are often fascinated by what can happen when selfish instincts take over and by how far people will go to protect their lies. But many people don’t recognize when they are being gaslighted themselves, as they invalidate their own experiences. You can seek therapy to help you get in touch with your inner strength and courage that allow you to be with the truth of your intuition. If you are struggling with living a double life, you can strive for understanding yourself and your behaviors to discover your truths as well. You can learn to accept that you may be at fault, have awareness of your cognitive dissonance, and allow this to impact your decision-making and actions.
*Note: gaslighting is not gender-specific; I’m using “he” and “she” interchangeably. And it can also happen in same-sex relationships.