The Gaslight Effect: The History of Gaslighting and Its Destructive Power

Photo by Henri Pham on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Robin Stern, Ph.D., is the associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and an associate research scientist at the Child Study Center at Yale.  She is a licensed psychoanalyst with 30 years of experience treating individuals, couples, and families. Robin is the co-developer of Ruler. Robin is also on the faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University and the author of two books: The Gaslight Effect and Project Rebirth.

Your significant other crosses the line in his flirtations with another woman at a dinner party. When you confront him, he asks you to stop being insecure and controlling. After a long argument, you apologize for giving him a hard time.

Your boss backed you on a project when you met privately in his office, and you went full steam ahead. But at a large gathering of staff – including yours – he suddenly changes his tune and publicly criticizes your poor judgment. When you tell him your concerns for how this will affect your authority, he tells you that the project was ill-conceived and you’ll have to be more careful in the future. You begin to question your competence.

Your mother belittles your clothes, your job, your friends, and your boyfriend. But instead of fighting back as your friends encourage you to do, you tell them that your mother is often right and that a mature person should be able to take a little criticism.

Does this sound familiar? Of course it does, and it happens all the time: in relationships, in business and more frequently now in politics!

The “Gaslight Effect” is a term I coined to describe what happens when you begin to second-guess yourself because you’ve allowed another person to define your reality and erode your judgment. It is a phenomenon called gaslighting, and it is soul destroying.

When women show up with black eyes and bruises, or report that their partners curse and scream, we rally around and point fingers at the monsters in their lives smartly recognizing the obvious abuse.

What happens though when we face a more hidden and ephemeral problem of tattered self-esteem, cloudy vision, and forgotten dreams? The end result unfortunately is that we usually end up pointing the finger at ourselves. Even trusted friends who we confide in can sometimes support us blaming ourselves – if they rightly point out that we are in an abusive relationship with a partner, loved one or boss, we often still blame ourselves or admit that something is wrong, but we can’t give it a name or put our fingers on it.

People suffering the effects of gaslighting come from all walks of life, ages, genders, cultural backgrounds and social constructs. In my work as a therapist in the late 90s and early 2000s, I noticed that the incidence of relationships that involved gaslighting were occurring at a rapid rate and at that point, there was no book available to detail this deeply destructive dynamic.

So I decided to give it a name, and then write my book with the hope of shining a light on gaslighting to help those suffering and feeling too powerless to do anything to help themselves.

In my book, The Gaslight Effect, I describe this specific kind of psychological manipulation where the gaslighter insists on his own assertions of reality as the truth, spinning facts in such a way that the gaslightee doubts her perception and sense of reality.

The Gaslight Effect names the abuse and offers readers helpful strategies for understanding the dynamic and getting out from under this toxic form of a relationship. When something is named and understood, it can be recognized and healed.

But where does the term “gaslighting” originate? In 1938 a British playwright Patrick Hamilton wrote a mystery thriller “Gas Light”.  The story and the term became more popular with the 1944 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer – playing a husband and wife, engaged in what I refer to as the ‘gaslight tango’ – where the husband manipulates his adoring, trusting wife into believing that she can no longer trust her own perceptions of reality.

When Gregory gives Paula the precious gift of his mother’s brooch and tells her to be sure to remember where she is putting it – because she is ‘forgetful’ – Paula dismisses that accusation as silly and yet, later in the day, when she can’t find the brooch (the audience knows that Gregory has stolen it) she begins to doubt her own self-perception. True to the name of the movie, Gregory manipulates the actual “gaslights” in the house – they begin to flicker in the room and yet when Paula asks if anyone sees the gaslights flickering, he leads her to believe that only she sees it and it’s not really happening.

Hence the term, “Gaslighting” was derived. The phrase “to gaslight” refers to the act of deliberately trying to drive someone crazy by psychologically manipulating their environment, or the facts, and tricking that person into doubting their own reality.

This dynamic occurs in all different types of relationships – home, office, friendships, parent and child, sibling. And make no mistake, this is abuse. The Gaslighter – the more “powerful person” (and often idealized person) engages in an ongoing, systematic knocking down of the confidence in the Gaslightee —  the person in the relationship who needs approval from the more‘powerful’ person  — and the “gaslightee” by letting the former continually knock her down, experiences a growing shakiness of self. The Gaslighter gets the gaslightee to question what they thought they knew and over time the effect is that the gaslightee little by little gives up a piece of her own accepted reality.

To aid in recognizing a Gaslighter or if you feel you are being affected by the “Gaslight Effect” here are SOME WARNING SIGNS:

  • You constantly second-guess yourself.
  • You wonder, “Am I being too sensitive?” more than five times a day.
  • You wonder if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/wife/employee/friend/daughter/husband/partner/son.
  • You have trouble making simple decisions.
  • You think twice before bringing up innocent topics of conversation.
  • You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
  • If you are not the main breadwinner and even if you are, before your partner comes home from work, you run through a checklist to anticipate anything you might have done wrong that won’t meet with his/her approval.
  • You buy clothes, furnishings, or other personal purchases thinking about what your partner would approve of or like instead of what would make you happy.
  • You start to “enjoy” the constant criticism, thinking things such as, “What doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.”
  • You start speaking to your partner through his assistant at work so you don’t have to tell him/her things you’re afraid might upset them.
  • You start lying to avoid the constant put-downs and twisting reality.
  • You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
  • You frequently wonder if you’re good enough for love, romance and intimacy.
  • Your kids start to protect you from being humiliated by your partner.
  • You feel hopeless and joyless.

If you think things like this can’t happen to you, think again. Gaslighting describes the dynamic between two people,  when someone insists that there is some reality – about who you are, what you know, what you did, that is something other than the way you see it – usually an indictment of you in some way. He/she is so certain and insistent of his/ her point of view, and you are so entrenched in the dynamic, and so need his approval, that you begin to believe it. It can happen to anyone regardless of education, economic status, gender, or race and is more common than you think.

Here are some examples of Gaslighting:

Girl #1 (to Girl #2) Hey there – I wonder if you are upset with me? You didn’t save me a seat at lunch this whole week and I haven’t even seen you!

Girl #2 – OMG – you are SOO sensitive – just look for me tomorrow.

Next day, same thing only the conversation escalates as the days go by with Girl 1 finally believing that she is too sensitive instead of being ignored.

Gaslighting? Yes – a gaslighting communication – but, Girl #2 can only succeed if Girl #1 walks away and says to herself “she is right – I AM so sensitive – I am sure someone else wouldn’t be making such a big deal about it.”

But, IF Girl #1 says instead – “Hey – that’s certainly true – I am sensitive. But, you didn’t save me a seat 5 days in a row and we usually sit together – so I am not imagining that something is wrong !”

While there may be no resolution with Girl 1, Girl 2 is NOT backing down from her perception of the situation.

Robert, a 40 year old successful head of international sales for a major company, tells his wife he expects to be traveling extensively. He asks her to join him on his three week trip to Europe. Sad to decline the offer to travel with her beloved husband, Sally tells him she just cannot take the time off from her own job. Robert expresses his disappointment  – and, says “I am really sorry you will not be there with me – but, of course you understand that I will need to have sex with other women while I am gone – three weeks would be too long to go without sex.” Shocked and devastated at the thought, Sally says “ I do not understand and it is so not ok with me.  We are in a committed relationship, you are kidding right?”  Robert says “I am of course not kidding. Sally, you know how old fashioned you are about these things! Most other women would understand.  I am a man.  I invited you and I love you and of course I want to have sex with only you.  But, if you are not there for THREE WEEKS BY YOUR OWN CHOICE, I will need to find it elsewhere.” After a few of these conversations, Sally conceded that Robert was right – she was old fashioned and ridiculous to think he should wait for 3 weeks for sex.

While gaslighting is becoming more and more commonly spoken about in relation to couples, families and friendships, it is also becoming more commonly spoken about as a manipulative tactic among high level and high profile individuals including politicians, media personalities and celebrities. Even the term, “fake news” has its roots in Gaslighting.

The good news, is that gaslighting is not always a deliberate, diabolic attempt to control your reality – sometimes it is a bad habit, a learned behavior and further is when you recognize the gaslighting dynamic, you can name it and begin to change it.

Changing a gaslighting relationship takes self awareness and courage – and, in that, the abiity to manage your own feelings. “The Gaslight Effect” will help you through the process of looking at yourself and your relationship and making the decision to stay or to leave.

For Sally and Robert it was a long process – a process that included a year of couples therapy.   Sally was able to tell Robert she felt manipulated by him and in a way that was called gaslighting.  They both read my book. Robert initially did not like the ‘accusation’  and yet really did want the relationship to move forward  and over time, realized that gaslighting was a learned and fairly successful way of getting his own way. Sally learned to tolerate her own anxiety when Robert slips back into his old pattern of maninpution and, say “Robert, that is gaslighting and, I am not giving up my way of seeing this.”   They are together and happily so, today.

Not every story has the fairy tale ending where the couple or friendship live happily ever after. But, when your relationships are gaslight free, you will have yourself and your reality and that is always a happy ending.