Photo: John Irving, "Ingrid Bergman"
Photo: John Irving, “Ingrid Bergman”

When you look up the definition of emotional child abuse, it includes different kinds of emotional child abuse. In our Types of Emotional Child Abuse series, the first post discussed the silent treatment. In this post, we’ll explore gaslighting.

The Dark Art of Driving Someone Who Trusts You Crazy

In the 1944 film “Gaslight,” pianist Gregory Anton launches a secret campaign to drive his wife, Paula, insane—and to have people in her life also believe she is crazy. He dismantles her sanity through subtle manipulations of their home environment and little changes in the details of their conversations.

Because Gregory portrays himself as calm and reasonable when Paula grows upset at those discrepancies in her life, she assumes he is the clear-headed one of the pair. Paula then begins doubting her perception of reality and her own sanity.

Gregory’s gaslighting of Paula is slow, steady—and very subtle. No one in their household, especially the maid with whom Gregory flirts, would suspect he is slowly driving his wife insane. No one in their social sphere would ever accuse the golden-voiced, sophisticated Gregory of being insane. And because he spins stories in public about poor nutty, fragile Paula (while he keeps her isolated at home), their social circle favors him.

At home, Gregory continually hammers away at her sanity. He makes her believe she is mentally unstable and a kleptomaniac. He makes her doubt her memories, her behavior, herself. He is the worst sort of villain. He is a soul killer.

Definitions of Gaslighting

The psychological term gaslight comes from this movie. When Paula is left alone in the evenings, she sees the gaslights in her room dim for no reason, but Gregory, when told of them, tells her she is imagining such things. Throughout the movie, Gregory continually presents himself as a loving, nurturing, attractive and talented husband; Paula starts out seeming beautiful, talented, and sane, but her husband’s mind games wear away at her, so she begins to break down, even in public.

The mind games that Gregory plays are familiar to psychologists, who use the term gaslighting to explain them.

“Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity.” (Theodore L. Dorpat, “Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis“)

Emotional abusive parents use gaslighting to break down their children’s perception of reality.

“Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse. It makes victims question the very instincts that they have counted on their whole lives, making them unsure of anything. Gaslighting makes it very likely that the victims will believe whatever their abusers tell them regardless as to their own experience of the situation.” (Natasha Tracy, “Gaslighting Definition, Techniques, and Being Gaslighted“)

The cruelest part of gaslighting is how it slowly erodes at the mind of the abused child.

The abusive parent makes a child question himself:

  • Did this really happen?
  • What did my parents really do?
  • What did my parents really say?
  • Did I hear them incorrectly?
  • Did I not remember that right?
  • Did I misunderstand something?
  • Was I not paying attention?
  • Why am I always getting everything all mixed-up?

To make a child rely on the memories and the telling of events from the abusive parent instead of himself is the ultimate triumph for the abusive parent.

“Gaslighting occurs when a person you trust to tell you the truth about reality, is, in fact, bending reality with lies. When this happens consistently over a period of time it causes you to question your sanity.” (Anna Valerious, Narcissists Suck)

Moreover, because the gaslighting is a slow erosion, an abusive parent often gets away with it. If an adult survivor of emotional child abuse calls the parent on such an occurrence, the abusive parent can say such things as:

  • “I don’t remember saying that.”
  • “You remembered that wrong.”
  • “You aren’t getting your facts straight.”
  • “No, I never said that.”
  • “No, I never did that.”

Because people don’t go around habitually recording their conversations, the adult survivor cannot prove that the gaslighting happens. And because the adult survivor has been conditioned by years of abuse from their parents, he or she is apt to believe the gaslighting parent rather than his or her own recollection of the event.

Examples of Gaslighting

In my conversations with adult survivors of emotional child abuse, I’ve heard myriad accounts of gaslighting. The following are a few examples.

  • A gaslighting parent makes a dinner appointment with an adult survivor at 6 p.m. at the child’s house, but then the parent does not go over until 8 p.m. When the adult survivor mentions it, the abuser says that the child said, “8 p.m.” The adult survivor says, “No, it was 6 p.m.” The abusive parent denies it and even adds the comment that the adult survivor’s memory must be going.
  • A gaslighting parent makes a cruel comment to her child. The child later mentions the comment in the hopes that the abusive parent will apologize for the comment. The gaslighting parent denies the comment was ever said, and he gets furious when the child says that it really did happen. The gaslighting parent denies it over and over again.
  • A gaslighting parent asks a child if he wants to go to the movies during the weekend. The child says she would love that. That weekend, the child mentions going to the movies. The gaslighting parent tells the child that he had said he didn’t want to go to the movies. The child says, “No, no, I said I’d like it.” The gaslighting parent says, “No, I remember you saying you didn’t.” The child cannot prove what he said.

What comes through in the recollections of the adult survivor is how the abusive parents changed details just slightly, enough to almost be right. (For example, in the third story, the parent did keep the element of asking the child about the movie and the plans for the weekend, but changed the child’s “yes” into “no.”) Also, the abusive parents will always deny the occurrence, even if told the conversation verbatim.

The adult survivor starts to feel that he is losing his mind, his ability to trust his own memory.

Are You a Victim of Gaslighting?

If you suspect you are a victim, check out the signs of gaslighting. Among the signs that psychoanalyst Robin Stern mentions are…

  • You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” repeatedly throughout the day.
  • You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
  • You’re always apologizing to people in your life.
  • You know something is horribly wrong, but you can never express exactly what’s wrong, not even to yourself. 

If you come to the realization that you are a victim of gaslighting, first be grateful for the awakening. Though the realization is difficult, at least you now know. Then, as always, we recommend seeking a therapist or mental health professional to help you identify other signs of it and get the resources you need to start rebuilding your mental health.

In finding the right therapist, take the time to research the therapist, get to know what his or her areas of expertise are, and take time to do an initial interview to see if you two are a right fit. If not, keep searching for one; don’t give up.

Onward and upward.

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