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a couple quibbling

At a fashionable party, suave Gregory shows his young bride, Paula, his empty watch chain, noting that his timepiece has vanished. When he finds it in her purse, claiming it’s evidence of her kleptomania, she breaks down in tears. She doesn’t remember stealing it, but her husband is so convincing that she doubts her own perceptions and sanity.

This is a scene from a movie — the 1944 classic Gaslight — and it captures a harmful interpersonal dynamic to such a degree that the term “gaslight” has become a colloquialism.

When Paula thinks she’s alone in the house, she sees gaslights flicker — because Gregory has lit the lamps in the attic, where he’s searching for Paula’s late aunt’s jewels. In an effort to get what he wants, Gregory cuts Paula’s ties to reality: He keeps her in the dark.

Gaslighting is a mode of control that involves trying to convince someone that their memory and motivations are faulty. It differs from ordinary manipulation and lying in that the goal is to persuade the other party to doubt their own reality.

Gaslighting is a mode of control that involves trying to convince someone that their memory and motivations are faulty. It differs from ordinary manipulation and lying in that the goal is to persuade the other party to doubt their own reality.

This dynamic often plays out in the political arena, when a candidate denies having said things that were taped or witnessed by others, or when an elected official invents a statistic and insists that it’s true.

But it also happens in interpersonal relationships. Your spouse might accuse you of being flirty when you feel you’re merely acting friendly. Your boss might insist you’re a valued employee even while consistently criticizing you in front of your colleagues. Your friend might say you’re overreacting when she’s always a half-hour late.

“Often there is a deep-down feeling, for the person being gaslighted, of knowing this is nuts, this is not OK,” says Robin Stern, PhD, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.

“But somehow you get engaged in what I call the gaslight tango, and you forget where you started. Over time you begin to think the other person may be right.”

Stern describes gaslighting as a ­dynamic in which both parties are active participants. The gaslighter, broadly speaking, is driven by a need to be right that crosses over into dictating reality.

The person being gaslighted, though, often idealizes the other person and craves their approval — and so they’re likely to eventually engage in that altered reality in order to maintain the relationship. Instead of dismissing the gaslighter’s version of events, they participate in no-win arguments that often lead to an erosion of self-confidence in a harmful and intractable pattern.

“Reevaluating the way you think about something is OK, but you’re in trouble when you start to believe that there’s something wrong with you,” Stern explains. “What will destroy your self-esteem is when you’re constantly second-guessing yourself to the point that you can’t think straight. You can really lose your grip.”

It’s possible to gaslight uninten­tionally — out of habit or because of patterns adopted early in life — but its most harmful form is deliberate. Gaslighters typically use this tactic as a way to maintain control and to protect their own emotional stability at the expense of others.

There’s no standard profile of a gaslighting victim, and often people who are otherwise self-confident and accomplished can be susceptible. Still, there are ways to regain one’s footing and self-confidence.

Understand the Dynamic

By definition, no one stumbles into a gaslighting relationship because of a lack of emotional investment. Frequently, the dynamic originates with the victim caring so much about what the other person thinks that they’re rendered vulnerable to doubt and coercion.

Intentional gaslighting “requires a considerable amount of psychological insight.”

Intentional gaslighting “requires a considerable amount of psychological insight,” explains University of New England philosophy professor David Livingstone Smith, PhD, author of Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization. “The gaslighter has to understand what exactly is going to undermine the credence that the other person gives to their own perceptions.”

For all the harm that gaslighting does, its foundation rests on a sort of intimacy, as well as a mutual need that turns into an exploitative power dynamic. “You start to doubt yourself,” Smith adds. “And you’re placed at a disadvantage because we all know we’re fallible — particularly when there’s something at stake for us.”

Recognize Manipulation

Escaping from a gaslighting dynamic can be challenging. Sometimes, it’s because a person is stuck trying to convince the gaslighter they’re wrong; other times, one’s self-esteem becomes so damaged that they think they have no options, or they lose confidence in their own judgment.

“People may stay in gaslighting situations because of sunk cost, a feeling that they have too much invested to leave,” says Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD, a therapist and author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free. “You might have built a life with this person, or they’re a parent or a sibling, or it’s a pretty good job with a horrible boss.”

“Just as you’ve stepped into it, you can step out. You do have the power to opt out.”

The first step in changing the situation is recognizing what’s happening. People being manipulated in gaslighting relationships often feel numb and joyless, Stern notes.

They also may suffer from disturbing dreams, physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, and feelings of tension and exhaustion.

Recognition of such signs, along with self-reflection, is crucial — as is avoiding the habit of blaming yourself when things go wrong.

“It’s about reminding yourself that even if it was inadvertent, or because of your love of love, or because you valued the relationship, you’ve stepped into a dynamic,” Stern explains. “And just as you’ve stepped into it, you can step out. You do have the power to opt out. It’s important to have compassion for yourself along the way, as it may take time and feel quite challenging.”

Trust Your Perceptions

Finding solid ground in such a situation can take time and require tenuous steps. Keeping a journal is often eye-opening, particularly if you describe actual interactions and read them when you’re in a less reactive emotional state. It’s also helpful to talk to a trusted friend who will be honest about what they’ve witnessed.

An emphasis on general wellness that includes sleep and mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, can bolster the kind of balance you need to trust your own perceptions.

Countering the act of gaslighting in the ­moment is extremely difficult, especially if you’re enmeshed in a dynamic based on undermining or denying your good faith and positive intentions.

Even worse, gaslighters can easily veer into verbal abuse and heightened emotion as means of intimidation.

Stern recommends using phrases such as:

“I’m not going to continue this conversation right now” (and then walking away), “This is too heated for me right now,” and “There’s that thing you do” to identify and counter gaslighting.

You could also say, “I see things differently” or “That is your perception, but mine is different.”

Stop the Cycle

Sometimes, if both parties are aware of the dynamic and motivated to shift it, the relationship may change. “The important thing is that the gaslighter must take responsibility for their behavior and attend individual therapy on a regular basis,” Sarkis says, adding that if the situation is serious, a couple can pursue a trial separation or end the relationship. The same can apply for friendships and family relationships.

“Ending these relationships can be much more upsetting than terminating other relationships.”

Psychologists who work with gaslighting say the pattern often worsens with time or even becomes the core dynamic in a relationship. In these cases, or in situations with a power imbalance, such as a job, leaving may be the only solution.

“Ending these relationships can be much more upsetting than terminating other relationships,” Sarkis admits. “But in many toxic situations, the best option is to cut off contact.”

Find Self-Compassion

In every case, it’s important to approach your situation with self-compassion. Acknowledge your mistakes, believe you can correct them, and work toward rediscovering faith in your perspective.

It also might mean honoring what you’ve learned from the dynamic while being honest about what’s gone wrong. “As humans, we’re not out to hurt ourselves. We’re in these relationships because we’re getting something we think we need,” Stern says. “Maybe it’s our beloved mother, or we think it’s the smartest, most wonderful person we’ve ever been with, or it’s a wonderful job with economic rewards.

“To set boundaries where we never have can be painful. You often have to make a sacrifice, but if you’re giving something up, what you are getting back is your integrity.”

This article originally appeared as “Turn Off the Gaslight” in the November 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Quinton Skinner

Quinton Skinner is a Minneapolis-based journalist and novelist.

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