The term gaslighting is everywhere. At first I had no idea what people were talking about. Is this a new way of illuminating your house? Are people using gaslighting as a way of reducing their electricity bill? Finally I googled it and Wikipedia has told me that gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation which sows doubt in people’s minds and makes them question their own memory, perception and even sanity. Glaslighters use denial, misdirection, contradicting and lying to undermine their victim and their victim’s beliefs. Examples of gaslighting include denying something happened to even staging bizarre and fanciful events that lead the victim to question their grip on reality. The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, ‘Gaslight’. The play is about a cruel man who tries to drive his wife insane. He sometimes turns down the gaslights in his home and then persuades his wife that she is imagining the change. Two films based on the play were produced in the 1940s.
The term became fashionable again in 2016 when US journalists began accusing Donald Trump of gaslighting the American public. The term is also used in clinical and research literature.
Have you worked with or had to deal personally with someone who not only tried to undermine you, but also tried to make you question your perception of events – tried to contort your understanding of reality? This is classic gaslighting.
Psychopaths use gaslighting techniques. I’ve written about psychopaths before. Psychopaths have no empathy or affection for other people. They will destroy anyone who gets in their way. They are prepared to undermine co-workers to make themselves look good. Psychopaths are real. They do not just exist in movies. Around 1 per cent of the population are psychopaths. Experts say around 25 per cent of criminals in jails are psychopaths. They lack feelings for other people. They show no remorse or guilt. They are egotistical. Think of it as a form of emotional disability. Some people are born without sound or hearing. Psychopaths are born without the capacity for love. It is a genuine personality disorder.
But psychopaths are not the only people who use gaslighting. Self-centred, egotistical people are also capable of gaslighting. And sometimes so-called normal people who are forced into tight corners, gaslight. I am friends with a public servant who worked in a department that was to be restructured. There were to be job losses. My friend was subject to gaslighting by a colleague determined to make her look bad. This guy was convinced one of them was to be retrenched and he was determined to make sure it was my friend who sat behind him. In the end neither of the two lost their jobs, but it was a ghastly experience for my friend.
I am going to spend today’s blog and my next one focussing on gaslighting. Today I will focus on how to spot a gaslighter. In the next blog I will look at how to protect yourself form gaslighting.
What is a gaslighter?
1 .Liar, liar, pants on fire
People who gaslight use lies. They don’t just lie because they want you to be unaware of the truth. Some of their lies are so big and ridiculous that you instantly know they are blatant liars. They tell big lies because from there on you will never be sure if fact or fantasy is coming out of their mouth. You will always be confused and wrong-footed around them.
2. They deny they ever made this claim
Okay, you had just come to terms with the fact they are liars, but now the gaslighter is telling you they never said such a thing. Why would they make such an outlandish claim? Unfortunately no one was in the room when they made the original claim. You are inevitably going to ask yourself if you did hear them say this, or you’ve got it all wrong. It is unusual to encounter bare-faced liars so instead of facing the reality – they are lying, but you start looking for other explanations, ie did I dream that? Bingo, the gaslighter has succeeded in making you doubt reality – that’s their goal.
3. They use what is dearest to you against you
If the gaslighter knows you value your job, they will target that vulnerable spot. They will make out that you have failed to do crucial tasks properly. They may even sabotage your work behind your back and then accuse you of negligence. Again you will begin doubting reality, ie did I really forget to finish that report?
4. They persevere … with your destruction
Gaslighters persevere with your destruction, even over weeks, months and years. They might drop the odd toxic comment, subtly put you down in front of others, hide documents from you. Even intelligent, organised people can be conned by a talented gaslighter. Nobody expects another person to go to such efforts to undermine them but I’m afraid truly evil gaslighters do.
5. They suddenly can be nice to you
People, who gaslight, can often be supportive and pleasant. They are trying to elicit guilt in you, ie She’s not so bad, or I’ve read him all wrong or I’ll give her another go. Once you make the mistake of again trusting them, they will re-commence their mission to destroy you. Never trust the words of someone you suspect of gaslighting, instead, look at their long-term actions. That’s where they will reveal themselves.
6. They delight in your confusion
Psychopaths who gaslight know that normal people like a sense of stability and they expect others to be predictable consequently a gaslighter will delight in unsettling and unnerving their victims. Again, they want to undo the person because they perceive them as being a hindrance to their ultimate goal. Not all gaslighters are psychos. Some mean, unscrupulous people also use the method.
7. They turn others against you
Once a gaslighter has made headway getting you to doubt your own sanity, they will set about getting others to doubt you. Gaslighters are good at charming others and making friends. They will butter up a few colleagues at work, and once they have established a rapport they will drop the odd disparaging remark about you. Eventually they will claim you are a liar. At the same time they will tell you that these people are liars or say disparaging things about you. Their goal is to isolate you.
If you are aware someone is behaving like this towards you, you need to take action to protect yourself. I’ll go into details in my next blog.
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.