Manipulation and Control
“Gaslighting” is a term most-associated with the 1944 film-noir “Gaslight.” The film portrays the story of a husband who manipulates and controls his wife to the point where she doubts her own judgement. Before houses were electric, lights ran on gas. In the movie, the wife notices that a lot of strange things are happening at home—especially the gas lights which dim without being touched. Her husband tries to convince her that she is going mad; he is “gaslighting” her.
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By definition, gaslighting is a slow and subtle, but very effective way to gain control over someone, and it’s more common than you might guess. This type of manipulation doesn’t just happen to women by their male partners; women can manipulate men in this way, as can partners, family members and friends. Sometimes the gaslighter convinces the other that they are right as well, thus compounding the problem.
In a Psychology Today article, Robin Stern, Ph.D. explains the two things that make gaslighting such a powerful force:
- The gaslighter’s assertiveness in taking power.
- The victim’s eventual doubt of their own critical thinking that results in their willingness to give their power over to the gaslighter.
Gaslighting in Action
Mr. Smith becomes annoyed with Mrs. Smith. He continually tells her that she is not good at handing the family finances. At first, she ignores his comments. But then he continues to find fault with her money management, so she outwardly disagrees with him and shows him examples of her financial savvy. But he persists in his criticism, telling her she spends too much money and she misses payments. He tells her that her thinking process is wrong and abnormal. Mrs. Smith is browbeaten, exhausted and starts to believe that Mr. Smith is right. Now she can’t trust her own judgement around money—even though she was a successful bank manager before she met Mr. Smith. The transfer of giving over her power to him has begun and soon he will be in control of their finances. Mrs. Smith will have to ask him for money when she needs to pay for something.
How to Know When You’re Being Gaslighted
If Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s story sounds familiar, then there’s a good chance you are familiar with a relationship like theirs—it may even be your own. Here are just a few of the many signs that will help you determine if you or someone you know is being gaslighted:
- You feel like you’ve changed. Not so long ago, you were a happier person.
- You go places alone and make excuses for your partner who “couldn’t” make it. Sometimes you just shrug your shoulders because it’s easier, less painful and less tiresome than making excuses.
- You have a hard time being happy for your friends.
- You feel like you can’t do anything right anymore.
- You doubt yourself more often than not.
- You feel lackluster and uninspired and you don’t know why.
What You Can Do if You’re Being Gaslighted
If you suspect gaslighting, trust that suspicion. However, you should avoid confrontation and defensiveness, and refuse to engage in a debate until you’ve figured things out. If you’ve been gaslighted for a while, you may not trust your own judgement, so turn to a friend for their opinion and insight. Once you confirm that gaslighting is occurring, take the steps necessary to learn to recognize your own self-worth, start to take your power back and regain control of your life.