Gaslighting – out of the shadows and into the spotlight

The term ‘gaslighting’ refers to a form of psychological abuse in which a person, in order to gain more power and control, causes another to question their reality. Gaslighting is a gradual process and the victim often does not realise how much they are being brainwashed.

In 2018, Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘gaslighting’ as the UK’s second most popular word, the most popular being ‘toxic’. The term has been part of the language of psychologists for a number of years but it is now used widely and has taken its place firmly in the public domain. Gaslighting takes its name from the 1938 play, ‘Gaslight’, by Patrick Hamilton, followed by the 1944 Oscar-winning film of the same name, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, in which a man manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane. The title is a reference to the husband gaining entry into the attic so that he can tamper with the gaslights, causing them to become dim. When the wife mentions hearing footsteps coming from the attic and seeing the lights dimming for no apparent reason, the husband tells her it is all in her imagination, and that he has not seen any change in the brightness of the lights. This highlights the fact that psychological abuse is not a recent concept, but it is perhaps surprising and concerning that it has taken the best part of a century for it to become widely recognized.

It is probable that gaslighting’s re-emergence in our day-to-day vernacular is, in part, due to a wider societal focus on domestic abuse. As we move towards a broader understanding of what constitutes abuse, there is a growing recognition that psychological abuse such as gaslighting has serious and long lasting harmful effects.

The manipulative and covert nature of gaslighting raises the question of how a victim might be aware that this form of abuse is taking place. In her book, ‘Gaslighting: Recognise Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free’, Stephanie A Sarkis lists some of the usual signs. She says that gaslighters typically use techniques such as telling blatant lies which serve to unsteady the victim, or denying that they have said or done something, which causes the victim to question their own reality and judgement. Gaslighters use isolation as a tool so that the victim loses contact with family and friends and is consequently without help and support. Others are manipulated against the victim and the gaslighter will often assert that their victim is crazy or unwell, so that if they disclose the abuse, they are less likely to be believed. A gaslighter will accuse their victim of things of which they themselves are guilty, such as drug use or infidelity. The victim will then be forced to defend themselves, and are thereby distracted from the abuser’s behaviour.

Victims are gradually and subtly undermined and worn down so that they find it difficult to speak about the abuse. Emotional or psychological abuse does not carry with it physical evidence and therefore proving it can be problematic. Many victims stay silent because of this or because they simply do not have the strength to fight back due to the relentless erosion of their self-confidence and self-esteem.

The popularisation of the term ‘gaslighting’ is nevertheless encouraging, as the notion of psychological abuse grows in acknowledgement and understanding. However, some psychologists warn that overuse of the term might dilute its potency and downplay the serious harm which can result, with PTSD and depression being among the possible consequences for victims. It might be said that gaslighting has finally emerged from the shadows, but we must guard against allowing the spotlight to mask its sinister and harmful nature.

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