By Caroline Fortin
Gaslighting is an insidious form of psychological manipulation; here’s some expert advice on how to spot it—and what to do about it
If the word “gaslighting” seems unrelated to psychological violence, that might be because it only makes sense when you know where it comes from: the 1944 film Gaslight. This thriller tells the story of a crook, played by Charles Boyer, who wants to retrieve some jewels stored in the attic of a house he’s moved into with his wife (Ingrid Bergman).
He embarks on a cruel scheme intended to make her question her sanity: he steals various items and then accuses her of taking them, even going as far as treating her like a kleptomaniac. When she says she’s noticed that the gas lights in the house have flickered on certain evenings, he tells her that her imagination is playing tricks on her; in fact, they’re flickering because he’s lighting them in the attic during his searches, making the lights on the ground floor dim—hence, gaslighting.
A Manipulator’s Weapon
“It’s a kind of psychological abuse in which information is manipulated to make the victim doubt their intellectual or cognitive abilities, such their memory or perception of reality,” Montreal psychologist Hubert Van Gijseghem says.
But he warns that it’s quite possible for two people to perceive things differently without gaslighting being involved. “Take a long-time couple who disagree on an event from their past. Because memory has meaning—that is, a memory is imprinted based on our knowledge of the world and who we are today—two people can remember things differently. So they may argue all night long about who lent them the money to buy their house. A case of gaslighting would involve exactly the same discussion, but one person’s goal is to manipulate the other, to make him or her feel useless, guilty, or incapable,” Van Gijseghem explains.
There must be an intention to manipulate for it to be gaslighting. “The person knows they are lying, deceiving the other,” explains Claudine Thibaudeau, a social worker and manager of clinical support and training at SOS Domestic Violence. “Gaslighters want to cast doubt on their victims’ perception of a situation, to make them lose confidence in themselves, to influence them, to gain power over them. And the abusers often feel justified in doing this. They don’t like being accused of something, for example, so they deny what’s really happening.”
As in any case of manipulation, the abuser starts gently. They must first appear likeable in order to seduce the victim. Then, gradually, they spin the web. The gaslighter denies things that actually happened: “I never said or did that.” “It’s all in your head.” “It didn’t happen that way at all.” They borrow the other person’s actions or words: “You’re the one who promised me that!” “You made me do it.” They blame the other in an attempt to cause them to self-doubt: “You always exaggerate!” “People think you are….” “You’re too sensitive.”
“Often, gaslighting is not an abuser’s only strategy but one tool in their tool box,” Thibaudeau adds. And it falls under the heading of psychological violence.
Abuser and Victim
Although there’s no typical profile for an abuser, gaslighting is mainly done by men and most often within romantic relationships, although it can also happen at work, in families, or between friends.
“We see more violence of all types—psychological, sexual, physical, mental, economic—among people who have anti-social or narcissistic personality disorder,” Van Gijseghem notes. “Narcissists are the best manipulators in the world, and when we look at the disorder’s prevalence on a global scale, it’s much more common in men. However, many manipulators will never be physically violent. And many physically violent men are too stupid to be good manipulators, because it takes skill.”
And because gaslighting is based on distorting reality, it becomes difficult to gaslight more than one person. “The abuser risks being exposed if they try to manipulate several people at the same time, because one or the other can deny it or prove what really happened,” Van Gijseghem points out.
When it comes to whether some people are more at risk than others of being manipulated by this process, Thibaudeau is categorical: “The answer is no, and it’s important to emphasize that. There’s the impression that some people are easier to manipulate than others; they may have biases such as ‘She is gullible’ or ‘She’s not that bright,’ but anyone, even an expert in domestic violence, can be manipulated.” Van Gijseghem adds a nuance here: “Someone who is dependent is more at risk.”
Because it is, by definition, insidious, gaslighting isn’t easy to spot. “I don’t like talking about red flags, because that’s like saying that the victim should be able to see them,” Thibaudeau says. “The more subtle the violence is, the more complicated it becomes to take it out of its context and see it for what it is. Generally, it takes time to see that it’s an actual dynamic and not an isolated behaviour or simply someone who sees things differently.”
However, signs include “a feeling of being constantly challenged, of being wrong a little too often in discussions, of being told often that you’re mistaken,” she says. “When we get calls at SOS Domestic Violence from people who are being manipulated, they tell us ‘I know I tend to exaggerate; I’m not sure of anything anymore.’”
People can spend their whole lives with a psychological abuser, Van Gijseghem warns. “Their victims don’t see the serious wrong being done to them, and instead of challenging the other person’s word, they prefer to question themselves. And it’s very serious to doubt your own mental health. It’s like a psychological death. The people who see the signs are the ones who will be able to get away from it.”
If you see signs of gaslighting, you can always start by documenting them, Thibaudeau suggests. “Having noted several instances can allow you to take a step back, to make up your own mind and see more clearly, because the abuser benefits from keeping you in a fog as much as possible. Be very careful where you keep your notes—don’t keep them at home if you live with the abuser or in an electronic device that they may have direct or remote access to.”
Next, you can get help to make a plan to leave the manipulator. Organizations like SOS Domestic Violence can assist you and direct you to the appropriate resources. “Getting out is the only good solution when it comes to manipulators,” Van Gijseghem says.
Although gaslighting is a relatively new term, this type of manipulation has always existed. “But it’s good to give it a name, to talk about it, because the more we shine a light on this tactic, the easier it will be for a victim to identify it,” Thibaudeau says.
When Someone Close to You Is a Victim
What should you do if you witness an episode of gaslighting or suspect that a friend may be a victim of it? “You must intervene, but very respectfully,” says social worker Claudine Thibaudeau. “Don’t try to convince the person; rather, offer your views without imposing them so they can draw their own conclusions. You must also offer your help and support and say you’re there for the person. You can also provide information on gaslighting. And manipulators try to isolate their victims, so it’s important to remain in the person’s life.”