March 27, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

A technique often used by manipulators is gaslighting, which I’ve previously discussed on other occasions. This week, I’d like to take a deeper dive and describe what goes on in the mind of the one who gaslights. You and I will be spelunking into the gaslighter’s mental caverns, so grab your gear and strap on your head lamp.

In case you missed it, the term derives from the 1944 movie Gaslight in which a man systematically tells his wife she’s being betrayed by her own physical senses. Each night, he leaves through the front door and clandestinely climbs into the attic to search for jewels left by his wife’s deceased aunt. To see what he’s doing, he turns on the attic’s gas lamps which then reduces the gas flow to the other lamps in the house.

When he comes home each night, his wife tells him that, once again, she’s heard footsteps in the attic and the gas lamps have grown dimmer. He then calmly reassures her that no one’s in the attic and those lamps aren’t actually dimming. He takes her by the hand and tells her she needs a doctor’s help—in other words, she’s crazy. Someone somewhere lifted the term from that movie and gaslighting is now descriptive of a technique used by manipulators to convince their targets that the reality they see is not the one that exists.

To explain what goes on in the gaslighter’s mind, I’m going give you a tour of my mental cavern from a first-person perspective as if I’m the one using the technique. I’ll play the role of Jack and my target’s name is Jill. (Note: It’ll enhance the dramatic effect if you’ll conjure up Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and imagine my voice with a slight echo and water dripping in the background. Just a suggestion.)

***

I can’t stand being wrong. If I’m wrong about anything then I must be wrong about everything, so I’ll never admit it if I’m wrong. Ever.

Jill and I are having an argument right now and she’s reminding me of something I said last week that’s different from what I said just now. Admitting that will mean I’m wrong which I’ve already decided is something I’ll never do.

So, I’ll just tell Jill I never said it and what she thinks she’s remembering never happened. I’ll tell her that the problem is not with my words but with her memory.

She’s now insisting that I did indeed say it, she remembers right where she was standing when the words came out of my mouth, and we discussed it at the time. I’ll have to up my game a bit.

I’ll say this: “Sweetie, I know you think that. But there are many times when you remember things that simply never happened. But you’re convinced they did. I could give you many examples, and this is one of those times.”

Good, that seemed to throw her off a bit. I can tell from her expression that she’s thinking about it. Drats, she just said, “No, Jack, I distinctly remember you saying it. I’m not making this up.”

Well, I’ve got to up my game a bit more. I’ll say, “Jill, honey, I know you don’t want to hear this, but your grandmother had dementia for several years before she died, and we all know that runs in families. I’ve wondered before if you may have some sort of early onset of that condition. But, it’s okay, I’ll love you even if you do. We’ll get through this together.”

Well, that sure made her mad. She just said, “Jack, my mother was standing in the room when you said it and she’ll confirm it.”

I’m sure her mom will confirm it but I’m so deep into this I can’t back out now. So, let me try this.

“Jill, no matter what I say, you’ll never admit to being wrong. And I’ve noticed that’s a pattern of yours—you won’t ever admit to being wrong about anything. I’ve read about something called gaslighting where someone tries to get the other person to believe something that’s not true. I just feel like I’m being gaslighted right now.”

She seems to be at a loss for words so maybe it’s working. For good measure, I’ll throw this in:

“And as far as your mother is concerned, I’ve never said anything about this, but I’ve noticed that the two of you are able to convince yourselves of things that never happened and it’s usually something bad about me. I’ve worried about how enmeshed you are with your mother and have thought many times that you should probably talk to a therapist.”

Okay, that worked. Jill just left in a huff and I can’t imagine she’ll ever bring this up again. Whew, I feel better now.

***

Notice several characteristics of Jack, the Gaslighter:

  • He’s relentless and never gives up until he wears Jill down. He exploits her human nature tendency to go along to get along. She finally concludes that resistance is futile.
  • He creates an alternate reality and then accuses Jill of creating an alternate reality.
  • He exudes a calm confidence that he’s right and that Jill is sadly misguided.
  • He coopts the language of mental health (i.e. “gaslighting” and “enmeshment”), uses it before Jill has a chance to, and portrays himself as the one occupying the high moral and psychological ground.
  • If avoiding the admission of wrongness involves character assassination or calling into question the mental stability of someone to whom he’s close, he’ll do so in a heartbeat. So great is his need for rightness that destroying another is of little consequence to him.

What are the effects on the one being gaslighted? It drives you crazy, makes you sick, and wears you out. It sucks the life out of you.

If you’d like a videographic depiction of this life-sucking force, I’ve included a clip from another Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Askaban, in which Harry is being attacked by a dementor. Start at the two-minute mark of this 4 minute, 10 second clip and see if this doesn’t depict how you feel when being gaslighted.

Till next week.

6 replies
  1. Jennifer Fournier
    Jennifer Fournier says:

    Wow. That was so spot on. It is so hard to describe to people how what you’re living seems worse than a physical hit (because you KNOW you’ve been hit; you KNOW they hit you).
    What I want to know is, is it possible that some of these people aren’t consciously aware of what they’re doing? That they sincerely BELIEVE what they are telling you?

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Good question, Jennifer, and I’ve wondered a lot about that. This is what I’ve come to. Some of these people know precisely what they’re doing–it’s purposeful and calculated. But they see themselves as noble, not bad. There are others who have done this so long and so routinely that they’ve lost any awareness of the fact that they’re doing it. It’s become their “normal” way of operating. It’s probably impossible to know which it is in any given individual because… if they know they’re doing it, they would deny it. And if they don’t they’re doing it, they would deny it.

      I appreciate your question.

      Reply
  2. Patti
    Patti says:

    Really excellent demonstration of what it’s like to live with a narcissist. Years ago when my kids and I read this book, I realized that’s what my mother was, a Dementor. Black Force, always lurking, inescapable, life-sucking, and soul-killing. It’s the best analogy ever.

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      I agree! It’s such a great visual depiction of someone sucking the life out of you!

      Thanks for your reply.

      Reply
  3. marshall wilkins
    marshall wilkins says:

    As I was reading your posting on “gaslighting”, I reflected on my career in medical social work and in particular, experience in working with families at the time of emergence end of life and catastrophic medical events. A dynamic that I have repeatedly run into has been (1) what has occurred has not actually occurred, (2) that because the family member is in the hospital, survival will occur and finally, (3) efforts and pressure by the family for me to align myself with unrealistic expectations and hoped for outcomes by the family that approach an insistence on “an alternate reality”, the family is “right”, and more can be done medically that is not being done which frequently occurs after the family has consulted “Dr. Google”.

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s really interesting, Marshall. I appreciate your sharing that. Dr. Google can often be made to support any desired opinion.

      Reply

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