On Gaslighting

This guest column was written by Peter J. Vinton, Jr., aka The Prince.

It’s Just A Trifle

Lily innocuously asks a favor of you one day.  Say, a quick phone call asking you to pick up her friend Orlando in front of the hardware store, and then to drop him off at the grocery store, where he works.  Both stops are on the way to your work, so it won’t be any extra time or mileage out of your way.  She gives you a pickup time of 6:30.  This is perhaps ten minutes earlier than you normally pass by the hardware store, but you figure it’s no real problem and you agree.

The next day you swing by the hardware store at 6:30.  Orlando is there, along with his friend Shnerf who also works at the grocery store, and he asks if this individual can also ride along.  You don’t want to leave this person stranded and make him late for work, so you agree.  The ride is uneventful; both of these strangers are polite and cordial.  You drop off both Orlando and Shnerf at the grocery store, they express their thanks, and you’re on your way.

That evening you get a text (not a call) from Lily, asking if you wouldn’t mind showing up at the hardware store at 6:15 tomorrow.  You’re a little puzzled; you didn’t explicitly agree to more than one day, but Lily insists that you did.  Since you don’t have anything in writing (a text or an email), you’re not able to effectively argue the point.  The next morning you swing by the hardware store at 6:15 and sure enough, Orlando is waiting, but Shnerf is running a few minutes late.  After some delay, the three of you are on your way by 6:30 and you drop them off at the grocery store at the same time as yesterday.  Again, since you yourself aren’t being made to arrive late to work, it’s not really an issue.  Your day passes normally.  Nobody calls or texts you that evening and you figure this 2-day run of weirdness is over.

The next morning, you proceed to work at your normal time.  As you pass the hardware store at 6:40, Orlando and Shnerf are standing out in front, wildly waving and trying to get your attention.  They’re both upset and flustered because “you’re more than 25 minutes late.”  On the way Shnerf apologizes for being a bother, but that he needs to swing past the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for his mother.  This takes you a few streets (and about 10 minutes) out of your way.  You don’t want to make your passengers later for work than they already are, and you also don’t want to penalize Shnerf’s poor uninvolved mother, so you agree.  You drop off Orlando and Shnerf at the grocery store 15 minutes late for their shift.  As Orlando steps out of the car he asks if you can swing by the hardware store 15 minutes earlier tomorrow “to make up for the shortfall.”  Adding to the confusion is the fact that you now don’t know if he means 15 minutes earlier than yesterday, or 15 minutes earlier than the first day, when all this began.

See what’s started happening here?  Graphing things out from this point, it’s easy to envision that over time you’re somehow leaving your house earlier and earlier every morning, and yet at the same time arriving to work later and later.  An element of chaos has been injected into your life, and you wonder how it got this way.  Even more disconcerting, when you try to do a mental recap, you discover to your great discomfort that you can’t even pinpoint exactly when it started becoming this big of a hassle.  Worst of all, in the absence of any hard facts or clearly-communicated agreements or intentions, you start questioning your own memory, a worry which piles itself on top of all the other difficulties.

Everyone must accept some share of the blame here: 1) Lily for not decisively explaining the exact need; 2) Orlando for failing to give you a heads-up about a second rider; 3) Shnerf for just assuming you’ll accommodate him; and of course 4) the person pictured on your driver’s license for not putting your foot down at… well, at some point.  You’re not sure when.

Some Working Definitions

Gaslighting is an expression that refers to a deliberate act of psychological manipulation; while it doesn’t necessarily imply malevolent intent, it certainly lends itself to malevolence.  The term comes from the Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light, in which the character Jack uses a variety of tricks, including incrementally turning the gas lamps lower and lower over time, to convince his wife Bella that she is consistently misremembering facts and is therefore crazy.[1]  One example of gaslighting in literature is in Roald Dahl’s humorous story The Twits, in which every night the husband surreptitiously glues a penny-sized sliver of wood to his wife’s walking stick, making it appear to grow ever longer over time, to the effect of ultimately convincing his wife that she is in fact shrinking.   Another telling example of gaslighting in literature appears in Frank Tashlin’s The Bear That Wasn’t, in which an unsuspecting bear is consistently told by ever higher and higher-ranking individuals that he is not really a bear but
“a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat;” to the point where the bear himself begins insisting –to other bears– that he is in fact just “a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.”  The 2005 film Flightplan revolves around a systematic attempt to convince Jodie Foster’s character that that she is entirely mistaken about her daughter’s disappearance, and the conflict between what she remembers versus what she is being told, drives her very nearly insane.  It might even be argued that the 2010 science-fiction film Inception represents a complex, drawn-out act of deliberate gaslighting; a team of professional swindlers manipulates the “mark” below three layers of subconscious, making him believe that a deliberately planted falsehood is in fact an idea he came up with entirely on his own.

Convincing a person that their memory is not in accord with the facts ultimately leads to a distorted view of reality and an inability to trust one’s own judgment.  The desired end result is usually to foster a sense of extreme dependence (often on the part of a spouse or significant other); that the victim desperately needs the gaslighter to help him/her remember facts correctly.  The abuser may, for example, move objects from their original locations and then insist that the victim in fact misplaced them.  The abuser may consistently deny ever having said a thing (that was in fact said), or may repeatedly insist that their victim did in fact a say a thing (that was in fact never said).  The victim eventually comes to believe the gaslighter’s definitions of “what really happened” and accept this false projection as truth.

Creeping concessions is an expression coined by The Polyamorous Misanthrope[2] and it refers to any situation in which a friend, romantic partner, or an employer (or even a government), incrementally expects more and more out of a person –a little extra time, a little more money, a little extra help, a teensy indulgence, a few more “other duties as assigned.” Since the requests for “something extra” never amount to much on their own merits (after all, what’s one more dollar or just five more minutes?), it might seem selfish or unreasonable to refuse.  Next thing you know, you’ve lost large amounts of money and/or huge chunks of time to something you’re pretty sure you didn’t explicitly agree.

Again it would appear that childrens’ literature may provide one of the best illustrative examples: the entire plot of Laura Numeroff’s If You Give A Mouse A Cookie may be safely said to be an ever-escalating string of creeping concessions.

Taken together, creeping concessions and gaslighting can be a formidable obstacle.  Both are very slippery to pin down, very hard to detect.  At a surface level, the gaslighters almost always come across as affable (even charming) and entirely reasonable.  By the same token, the creeping concession almost always begins as an entirely reasonable request; a trifle, certainly nothing worth worrying about.

Even the example given at the beginning of this essay is hard to decisively attribute to a deliberate act of gaslighting or a deliberate act of creeping concessions; indeed there may be no malevolent intent at all (not on Orlando or Shnerf’s part, and perhaps not even consciously on Lily’s part), yet events have still snowballed into something unmanageable.

Okay, I Get It, It’s Hard to Define.  So: How Do I Guard Against It?

Gaslighting and creeping concessions, particularly when taken together, can be especially brutal on relationships.  These twin forms of psychological abuse can destroy self-esteem, alienate, and lead to depression (potentially even suicide).  Both acts ultimately lead to a loss of control over one’s own perceptions and priorities.  Psychologically defined as forms of ambient abuse, they can be employed to trick the victim into staying in an abusive relationship (or employment situation), induce an ever-present sense of disorientation, or to erode the victim’s own confidence in themselves, to the point of even seeing themselves as the antagonist and their abuser as the one who must endure the suffering.

Perceptions aren’t easy to refute –after all, the truism “You see the world from where you sit” applies to everyone regardless of their station in life.  This includes people who are being systematically and deliberately lied to.  Whether you are a bear or just a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat, it is perception that drives everything else about you.

So how do we reconcile actual truth with what we are being told?

First and perhaps foremost, gut instincts often go a long way toward unraveling the gaslighter’s plans.  If your boss or your friend or your significant other seems to repeat phrases like “no, we talked about this already, don’t you remember?” a little too often, this might well be a warning sign –particularly if the “don’t you remember?” applies to your own preferences (i.e., what you like versus what you dislike) more so than actual events –when your memory is openly challenged, doubted, or outright refuted, it is time to pay attention.

While nobody’s gut instinct is infallible, there’s a lot to be said for following a hunch.  Your intuition is there for a reason –make a habit of listening to it.[3]  Admittedly sometimes it may be in error, just as surely as your other five senses might occasionally misidentify a smell or a taste or a sound, but the simple fact is: they’re not usually wrong.  Neither is your intuition.

Second, write that stuff down.

No, seriously. Write that stuff down

Lily may or may not have been the instigator in the opening scenario, but she certainly didn’t help matters by asking the original favor over the phone and not via text or by e-mail.  Whether it’s just jotting a quick reminder in a calendar or archiving every email ever sent or received, a little documentation goes a long way towards establishing where perceptions diverged from reality.[4]  Pay particular attention if the individual is actively discouraging you from making any kind of written record (i.e., “Oh, you can remember that.  You don’t need to write that down.”)  Again, the direct challenge to your memory could be a sign of something deeper.  Ignore the slight and write it down anyway.

Finally, how’s your personal account balance?  Not just your bank account, but your own personal time bank?  Does it seem to be diminishing, and not just for the usual reasons (you’re a parent, you devote a lot of time to a particular hobby or enthusiasm, you work a lot of hours)?  Does it ever seem as though, far from being able to plan things out in any kind of long-term, that you’re instead hopping from one emergency to the next, and that there’s never quite enough time to satisfactorily resolve Problem No. 81 before Problem No. 82 crash-lands on you? Does it feel as though there’s a consistent pattern of never-quite-resolved turmoil, and that brief moments of relative calm are just that: brief?  A state of constant crisis is not healthy, be it a friendship, a romantic relationship, a term of employment, or a government in relation to its own citizens.  Conduct periodic audits of your time bank (and be just as ruthless about it as an IRS agent).  There could well be some creeping concessions lurking just out of view; somewhere back in the fogginess of your own memory, the mouse may have demanded more than just a cookie. Repeated patterns of sleep deprivation and never-ending financial shortfalls could conceivably also serve as a heads-up. [5]  Again, see what your gut instinct has to say about it.

Your memory is one of the very few possessions that you get to keep with you for your entire lifetime, and anything that threatens its integrity is by definition paralyzingly fearful.  People far wiser than I have generated a great deal of informative literature on the dual subjects of gaslighting and creeping concessions, and I would recommend them heartily, starting with the various footnotes in this essay.  They are excellent building blocks and I sincerely hope the knowledge contained in them might offer some hope to anyone who might find themselves at the wrong end of this kind of ambient abuse.


[1]Taverniers, Karen. “Gaslighting in Controlling Relationships.”

[2] http://www.polyamorousmisanthrope.com/2007/07/15/being-used/  (ed note:  I used the expresion, but doubt I coined it)

[4]Stern, Robin.  “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.”

[5]A Message From Men To Women: You Are Not “Crazy.” www.thehiddenconscience.com

On Gasslighting
© 2011, Peter J. Vinton, Jr.
Used by permission

Peter Vinton Jr. lives in northern New England where he not only finally got around to graduating college at the age of 35 but also figured out how to put his creepy-ass deep voice to work as a computer instructor, mostly by scaring his students (even the 65 year-old ones with multiple doctorates) into making it to class on time.  He still teaches, draws/paints scantily-clad superhero-babes as a sideline, and wears his hair long even when he doesn’t have to.  He has recently solved the Great Vermont Corn Maze.  Vinton remains a Cancer but wants to “keep his options open” and hasn’t ruled out being a Libra or perhaps even a Pisces someday.

 

21 thoughts on “On Gaslighting

  1. Ashbet

    EXCELLENT. Brilliantly written . . . and I *love* the reference to “The Twits,” which far too few people have read.

    Reply
  2. asdf

    Your article is fine and perhaps you feel like first “Creeping concessions is an expression coined by The Polyamorous Misanthrope”
    I want to point out that “creeping concessions” as a phrase been around forever in use meaning concession pushes that keep escalating, particularly in politics.
    (DC area native here)

    Reply
    1. Goddess of Java Post author

      Misanthrope here. It was a guest article, so the author said that, not me. Interestingly enough, I also grew up in the DC area and don’t recall the term, but I’ll buy that it was used and I’m not the first.

      Reply
  3. alice

    great post! i have been in this exact situation, unfortunately, the person used my own stubbornness and inability to see bad in other people against me and almost destroyed my life and my relationship. i think that’s the scary part, when someone uses the most vulnerable parts of you to get inside your head and mess with your mind. especially if they know you are vulnerable b/c of a situation. add in someone who is a master manipulator, and get ready to have your life implode. it’s funny b/c this person told me how good they are at manipulating people, and i was naive enough to think they wouldn’t do it to me. ahh life.

    Reply
  4. Thatwordgrrl

    Huh. That just summed up about 2.5 years of my life.

    And why Himself is no longer allowed to bring home strays.

    Reply
  5. Cindy

    I’m guessing you haven’t seen Amelie, although it’s really not a relationship example of gaslighting (the shoe size mindf**k and other tricks she plays on a mean grocer).

    It’s worth spelling out a bit more explicitly that gaslighting can also work in the opposite direction to the give-a-mouse-a-cookie type, lowering someone’s expectations/standards for good behavior by undermining their trust in their judgment and playing on insecurities. And I wonder if there’s a term for when gaslighting is not done entirely deliberately or consciously.

    Reply
  6. DDA

    The hyperlinks to the foot-notes don’t work; they point to a local file on the Misanthrope’s hard drive (specifically the Outlook directory).

    I do agree this is something to watch out for; being told over and over to not trust one’s own memory and judgement can lead to really bad things. Unfortunately, it is becoming more common with folks with varying types of dementia; their judgement and memory really *cannot* be trusted. :-(

    Reply
  7. Monique

    I wrote a post about this too once on one of my blogs

    http://unmasked-lessonsinloveandmadness.blogspot.com/2011/11/gas-light-effect.html

    One of the most insidious things is when a parent gas-lights a child. My mother did this for 24 years. Getting out on my own was hell because my mother had me convinced I could not survive without my family, even though they were emotionally and psychologically and physically abusive.

    My mother re-wrote history ALL the time. My sisters often did this too, telling me things like my mother was going to institutionalize me for being crazy – even though it was my oldest sister who chased me around the house with a large kitchen knife. It was really scary.

    A child has very little ability to counteract this conditioning.

    Oh yeah, and the chronic guilt of “wait till your grandparents here about this…it will kill them when they find out what you’ve done” any time I exerted my attempts at independence.

    Even though I did move out of the house and got a good job and a caring husband, it took about 6 years to ‘deprogram’ from the brainwashing.

    Thanks for the article.

    Monique

    Reply
    1. MitziStorm

      Sounds all too familiar. My mother did similar things, although it was often her attempting to white-wash her abusive, alcoholic behaviour in general. When I asserted myself as a child, and claimed that what I believed was contrary to what she kept screaming at me, I was placed into a child psychiatric institution, the psychiatrists of which, of course, believed her every word. I then had a team of five people telling me I was crazy.

      Gaslighting is one of the worst things in the world. People don’t like talking about it because emotional abuse has been whitewashed out of our society. According to many people, and especially those psychiatrists, if I didn’t have any bruises on my body or a long history of sexual assault, then I wasn’t being abused, and that was the end of the story. Bullying is treated in almost the exact same way these days. Emotional abuse thrives in an environment where the evidence can be erased, re-written, burried and forgotten.

      The system is much to blame for this epidemic of gaslighting. They enable people like this due to the way we’ve placed the opinions and memories of children lower than that of an adult. What makes the adult right? What makes the child’s memory inherently unreliable? Because we say so?

      Reply
  8. Leah

    Good article. This is one of the reasons I ended a recent relationship. There were so many “little favors” that were asked for, and when they started to become unbearable I was told they hadn’t been asked for – I was merely volunteering them, and why ever did I think he’d have asked for that?

    Reply
  9. Susana

    I also wonder how to overcome it when it’s done without deliberation.

    I was definitely from a family of origin who did it quite overtly – there was that old episode in Star Trek : Next Generation, where Picard is captured and tortured – “tell me there are five lights” (when there were only four).

    I thought I had deprogrammed, but it is now becoming undeniable that I have been married to/together with a man child who has done it by default and omission for twenty years, so I would stay his surrogate mommy.

    We have a beautiful child together, and being a parent is one thing he has done with heart. Otherwise, I feel like our years together has been passionless and can’t really be called a relationship, since it does take more than one person to relate.

    Reality check, now what?

    Reply
    1. Goddess of Java Post author

      Consistently verify and call the inaccuracies. This isn’t about good guy/bad guy, necessarily. But either you’ll train him out of it or you’ll find that the motives weren’t so nice, and then you can decide on what action to take.

      Reply
  10. Fiona

    Thank you for this article. I’m right there with those commenters who have experienced this, both from an ex-husband and from my family of origin. My father asked one day why I withdrew from the family. I gave him a detailed list of incidents of ugly, hateful words, unjust accusations, blaming me for others’ behavior, and finally, outright assault such as trying to choke me when I was 26. His answer, in a sad voice as if explaining to a foolish child: “None of that ever happened. You’re imagining it all. So why are you so mad?” This is a subject the world needs to hear more about. I’m so grateful I’m finally free of this.

    Reply
  11. Paul W

    I love the show “Monk,” and gaslighting was used against him in the episode “Mr. Monk Gets Drunk” to convince him that a person he’d met at his hotel the night before had never existed. I never knew there was a name for this technique.

    Reply
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