Gaslighting: Definition, Examples, Recognizing the Abuse
Synopsis: Article on Gaslighting, a colloquialism used to describe psychological abuse in which a person or group manipulates another person or a group into questioning their reality or mental state. Unfortunately, gaslighting is particularly common when people are disabled. "You're being too sensitive," is a familiar lament disabled people hear, and it is also an example of a common phrase used to gaslight someone. Whether the gaslighting is being done intentionally or unintentionally, it can be a debilitating and dangerous form of abuse.
Gaslighting is a colloquialism used to describe a type of psychological abuse in which a person or group manipulates another person or a group into questioning their own reality or mental state.
Gaslighting is generally done over a long period of time. Insidiously the person or group doing the gaslighting makes comments that belittle the victim(s), ignores the validity of their emotions or arguments, and directly disputes things that happened by lying and saying "fake news" or "that never happened" or "you're stupid, crazy." Eventually, the victim or victims begin to question their own version of reality, their own memories, leading to a loss of self-esteem, confidence, and chronic confusion. This, in turn, leads to dependency on others, often the abuser.
Whether the gaslighting is being done intentionally or unintentionally, it can be a debilitating and dangerous form of abuse.
The term itself comes from a play (1938) by Patrick Hamilton with the title "Gas Light," wherein a husband manipulates, through various psychological tricks and techniques, his wife into believing she is mentally ill. One of his techniques is to dim the gas light in the house and trick his wife into believing she's imagining it. The play was later turned into a couple of critically acclaimed films - a British film in 1940 and an American one in 1944 - both under the name "Gaslight" which, like the play, portrayed an abusive relationship with uncomfortable realism.
Although the term "gaslighting" only became popular more recently, entering common nomenclature in the mid-2010s, the abusive technique is certainly not new.
It has been employed by leaders, parents, and spouses worldwide for centuries.
Gaslighting and Disability
Unfortunately, gaslighting is particularly common when people are disabled. "You're being too sensitive," is a familiar lament disabled people hear, and it is also an example of a common phrase used to gaslight someone. To make them feel their feelings are wrong or invalid; to question their perception of reality as they experience it. And because they have a disability while living in a world that is not built with them in mind, they are used to being told they are too much. Hence, people with disabilities are frequently pushed into a place of wondering whether they are overreacting or expecting too much.
People with cognitive disabilities experience this in a particularly confusing way. Because, to be fair, they are often in need of learning from someone who cares for them how to regulate their emotions, how their behavior can be shifted to better suit themselves and those around them. Hence, they can be prime targets for gaslighting by people meant to care for them. And with this type of abuse hurting them, their confidence, mental state, and self-esteem, they become more and more dependent. Often on their abuser.
It is not only people with cognitive disabilities who are more commonly targeted but people with disabilities in general. Because their experiences tend to challenge the experiences of people around them, it is true that they are ignored, laughed at, and belittled more often than others. On top of that, "That's not what happened," is said to them more often, even by well-meaning people, because the experience for each was quite different. Eventually, exhaustion from being quietly gaslighted over and over leads to a type of self-doubt that allows a person to accept more severe gaslighting. Being told, "You're crazy," becomes commonplace and is - at least partially - believed by the victim.
Medical Community Gaslighting
People with disabilities are, again, particularly susceptible to gaslighting from the very experts put in place to aid them. Though they're not the only ones being treated as though they are not the experts of themselves, they are likely targets. Common issues disabled people face from their medical teams: Presuming their disability is psychosomatic, telling them they are depressed, specifically ignoring their pains and complaints, being talked down to - sometimes to the point of being spoken to like a baby, being labeled and treated for disorders completely irrelevant to the symptoms they say they have in favor of symptoms the medical team decides they have.
Common Techniques of Gaslighting
Countering/Denying: Consistently denying the claims of how a person or group remembers something. A parent might tell their child, "No, it didn't happen that way; you remember it wrong." Or a spouse says, "You have a bad memory. That's not what I said. You keep making this stuff up."
Whether it is by spreading rumors about your mental state to others or by telling you that others are concerned about your mental state, this is a technique that works. Leaders use it to lump groups of people into categories like sheeple or evil. In more intimate relationships, it is more often a rumor of instability or insanity. Either way, it serves to encourage the victim to question whether or not their perception of their world is rooted in reality or if they are actually going crazy. Stereotyping can also be used as a form of discrediting. Using race, sexuality, disability, age, or gender against a victim to try and make them feel less than and unlikely to be taken seriously is common.
When called out on an issue, the gaslighter might try to turn it around onto the victim. "You're believing crap from the internet again," for example. Or they may choose to distract you by simply changing the subject, all while exuding an attitude of superiority. This is meant to make the victim question the importance of the matter, of themselves, and lose their train of thought.
Telling victims they are overreacting in response to a legitimate concern, or telling them they are too sensitive when they address concerns, are examples of trivializing. By minimalizing thoughts, ideas, and feelings, the abuser puts themselves in a place of power. The victim begins to rely on them for appropriate thoughts, ideas, and feelings. They begin to question if their thoughts are valid, if their feelings are ridiculous. Not only that but without an outlet or encouragement for exploring thoughts and feelings, they are left to rot and do not grow. Hence, the victim is not only ashamed but unable to mature. Again, leading to dependency
Everyone remembers things a little differently, but a person who gaslights consistently rewrites history. Often they change the story to better reflect their own action, but they also do it to challenge the victim's sanity and shake their confidence. A person who gaslights is so confident in their version of history that it is hard for the victim not to question their own memory. Particularly since memory is faulty, hence, this is a powerful tool used to gaslight. Remember, the goal is to make a victim feel uncertain of their own mind.
Whether they do it by rewriting history, diverting the blame to someone else, trivializing the harm caused, discrediting the victim, or denying the event ever happened, a person who gaslights rarely takes responsibility for their wrongdoing. Over time this causes the victim to feel confused and unseen. Without an admittance of wrongdoing, it is hard for the victim to be certain they were wronged and to move on and heal.
These are common techniques, but not the only ones. The end goal, though, remains the same: to have a person or group question the validity of their own reality and worry about their own mental state, ideally causing them to, ultimately, rely on the abuser.
Challenges in Recognizing the Abuse of Gaslighting
In a healthy relationship, particularly a parent-child one, there is an element of helping each other learn to see the world differently. Teaching empathy, for example, means guiding our children to see how their own experiences may differ from the experiences of others, how their feelings may not prove an honest or complete reflection of the situation, how they may be hurt even if the intention was not to hurt. The important difference is intention. In an abusive relationship, the intention is to gain power and to be in control. In a healthy relationship, the intention is to achieve mutually beneficial growth and freedom.
Ideas for Recognizing if You are Being Gaslighted
Afraid to speak up
If you notice yourself becoming less and less willing to say what you think, or how you feel, with a group, friend, partner, or family member, check-in. Is it because you are consistently ignored or belittled? This would be a possible sign.
Doubt your Feelings
If you find yourself questioning the validity of your feelings, trying to push them down because you think they are not appropriate to the situation, check-in. Is it because you are being told they are not appropriate? Or treated as such?
You feel confused
When spending time with this person or group you feel confused by their behavior. One moment you felt like they are wonderful; the next, like they are cruel. If you notice yourself walking on eggshells around them, check-in. When you are unsure of how they are going to treat you from one moment to the next, this might be a sign.
You feel alone
Even when you are with people, you might worry they think you are "crazy" or "a handful" and so you feel alone among them. If you find yourself feeling alone when you are with others, check-in. Is it because someone is telling you you're unstable and too emotional? This could be a sign.
You assume others are, or will be, disappointed in you
If you feel worried that you are going to disappoint everyone, that you are causing problems just by existing, check-in. Is this low self-esteem coming from someone belittling you? Saying you are a disappointment? This could be a sign.
An Idea for Recognizing if You are a Person Who Gaslights
Pay attention to your intention
As a parent, for example, are you trying to instill a fear or respect of you in your children so they will listen to you? Or are you trying to show your children ways to behave in order to guide them, while teaching them to respect you and others? As a partner, do you feel a need to be the better one in the relationship? Stronger, smarter, more attractive, more successful? Are you trying to keep your partner with you by making them afraid of leaving? Making them think they need you? Or are you asking them to be less sensitive because you love them and you want to be able to speak freely around them? If you are concerned that you are abusive, pay attention to how you view the people or person you worry you are abusing. Listen to the words you think when thinking about them and ensure they are not belittling, seeking power, or looking for ways to prove you are better than them. Also, did you grow up in an environment of gaslighting? It can be something you learned by watching others get what they wanted using these gaslighting techniques. If so, if you see yourself using these techniques, change. Admit it. Find new healthier ways. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Ideas for Responding to Gaslighting
Get some distance
Move away from the group or person and let yourself think freely. Trust your perspective without them there telling you not to and see what that shows you.
Whether you use a calendar on your phone to keep notes, or a secret journal, or in emails to a trusted friend, keep a record of the evidence. The history being rewritten, the specific phrases used to gaslight you. Keep track and notice how often and in what way you feel you are being gaslighted.
Talk to an outsider
Talk to someone you trust who isn't too close to your relationship with the person or group you feel is gaslighting you. Be honest. Allow your insecurities and share them. Let them share how it seems to them. Take that into consideration.
With a parent, friend, medical expert, boss, or partner, you always have a right to set boundaries. Be clear about what you are not willing to accept and why. Even though they will likely argue, stick with it. Notice how they accept (or do not) your boundaries.
Cut off the relationship
This is so important. Be willing to walk away. If you have been in this abusive relationship for any length of time, it is going to be hard. You feel uncertain of your abilities and worth; you aren't sure you are right, but be willing to walk away. Find support. With support, and without the abuse, you can find your way to a healthier mindset.
Recovery from a long time of being gaslighted is not easy. Much like with Religious Trauma Syndrome, healing requires freefalling from everything the victim was made to believe and rebuilding themselves with few tools and little confidence as they have been denied or stolen from them. Support can be hard to find, particularly since the victim likely feels unworthy of it. But for the sake of the victim and everyone in their lives, recognizing the abusive situation and insisting on changing it is necessary.
The Strawman Argument: Information and Examples
Tsara Shelton, author of Spinning in Circles and Learning From Myself, is a contributing editor to Disabled World. You can also keep up to date with Tsara's latest posts by following @TsaraShelton on X.com.
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Disabled World is an independent disability community founded in 2004 to provide disability news and information to people with disabilities, seniors, their family and/or carers. See our homepage for informative reviews, exclusive stories and how-tos. You can connect with us on social media such as X.com and our Facebook page.
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Cite This Page (APA): Tsara Shelton. (2022, October 31). Gaslighting: Definition, Examples, Recognizing the Abuse. Disabled World. Retrieved November 30, 2023 from www.disabled-world.com/disability/blogs/tsara/gaslighting.php
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