Footsteps in the attic. Pictures disappearing from the walls, or things changing places around the house. The dimming of an old light when another turns on somewhere in the house.
Are you crazy, or are these perceptions real?
The Origin of Gaslighting
In 1938, English playwright Patrick Hamilton wrote a stage drama about a psychopathic male manipulating a woman into believing she’s going insane. The play, Gas Light, was later adapted to radio, television, and two silver screen versions: one by British director Thorold Dickinson in 1940, and a second film four years later by American director George Cukor.
Cukor’s 1944 version, styled ‘Gaslight’, packed star power with Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton alongside future veterans like Angela Lansbury. The victim, played by Bergman, knows her husband is sneaking around, and all these telltale signs around the house support it—most noticeably the dimming gaslight—but he’s always coming back around to convince her that she was seeing things, hearing things, imagining things, crazy, hysterical. As the stakes get higher, his manipulation intensifies. She slowly cracks under the psychological pressure.
The menacing thriller took home the top prize at Cannes. It won two Oscars and was nominated for five more. Over time, though, it gathered dust on video store shelves, perhaps overshadowed by the legacy of Hitchcock, and only peripheral to film noir genre revivals.
But now the film has fresh significance in the public conversation, as the term ‘gaslight’ has become a verb to describe the particular kind of mental abuse depicted in the film. Gaslighting has appeared in reality TV, and is characteristic of the president’s relationship to the American public. It’s a malignant and aggressive form of abuse usually employed by narcissists and sociopaths.
If you’re in any kind of relationship that consistently prompts you to question your perceptions, your memories, or reality itself, you might be the victim of gaslighting. It’s critical to be aware of how gaslighting works to keep yourself sane and grounded and to maintain clarity of thought and good mental hygiene. Look out for these telltale signs.
1. They Change the Story and Control the Narrative
Gaslighters live in a shifting reality, where truth and observable facts are flexible according to the goals of the gaslighter. They’re adept in situations where your word is against theirs, and can spin any narrative to their purposes. They’ll say something, then later deny it, doubling down when confronted to change what they say they said, then fliping things so it seems like you’re to blame. They’re gaslighting you. In these situations, take careful account of observable facts and specific word usage. It won’t help you win an argument with a gaslighter, (that’s probably impossible, and ‘winning’ arguments is their goal, not yours), but it will ground you in reality. Anything verifiable by a third party is valuable evidence against their attempts at shifting the narrative.
2. You’re Never Sure of Yourself
Gaslighting wears away at your confidence and creates psychological dependence. You start to look to the other person for cues about how to interpret reality. You check in with them before you know how you think or feel about something. This can easily take the guise of just admiring someone, looking up to them, or going to them for advice. But it’s underscored by an insecurity that erodes more dramatically over time.
Gaslighters use little tricks to make you feel small. They do this during unimportant conversations, calling you crazy or silly and passing it off as a joke, only to weaponize it during more important disagreements. When they have you primed to believe you’re crazy or silly, they can suddenly pull the rug out from under you and prompt you to second guess your grip on reality. You can combat this by using these techniques to keep your memory sharp, and using positive affirmations about yourself to counter their negative narratives about you.
3. They’re Aggressive When Confronted or Criticized
Gaslighters are the opposite of good listeners. They’re highly defensive, and in a way rightly so, because the facts won’t line up in their stories. When confronted with a discrepancy in their version of reality, they ramp up in aggressive language to try to control the conversation. Their goal is never resolution or understanding—it’s the wholesale validation of their own narrative, whatever the cost. They shout down the opposition, and resort to tricks.
They’ll tell blatant lies, attack your character, and when all else fails, derail the conversation with a lot of confusing information to try to run circles around you. During disagreements, they’ll usually only ask questions insincerely, as traps. Engaging in disputes with gaslighters is usually a waste of time at best, and can be psychologically dangerous.
4. Everyone’s Crazy or Lying But Them
Gaslighters will do anything to obscure their motives, sometimes to the point of believing their own lies. They promote their version of reality by discrediting everyone else, or at least everyone who doesn’t explicitly support their assertions.
Those who do support them are groomed with flattery. You may find yourself working to earn their flattery by playing along with their stories. They may require you to discount your own friends and loved ones as crazy liars, especially if your friends and loved ones don’t trust the abuser.
5. You Feel Trapped and Alone
As with any abuser, the gaslighter’s goal is your powerlessness. The more they can isolate you, the more control they have. The more ground they gain in controlling your reality, the more powerless you feel. Even if you’ve lost the allegiance of close friends or loved ones, though, you can still access help by texting the word ‘connect’ to 741741 from anywhere in the US. You can also search domesticshelters.org for shelters in your area, or for additional resources on emotional and physical safety.
Gaslighting in its mild and extreme forms has been going on since the dawn of man and his narcissism, as evidenced by Hamilton’s 1938 play. But it’s only in the last few years we’ve started confronting it as a widespread cultural problem. Most of us have at least some toxic people in our lives, and often they’re bosses or family members that aren’t easy to get away from. But we can still practice good boundaries and exercise diligent self-care to be sure malignant manipulators aren’t getting their hooks into our psychic space. Whatever they say, however they spin it, your perceptions and experiences carry the weight of validity. If they can’t crack your firmness in that, they can’t break you.