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50 Shades of Gaslighting

“I’m listening to it now, darling. Sleep well xx”

More than 50, even. It’s time to talk about gaslighting.

To begin – it’s subtle, corrosive. insidious and it’s dark. On every level – political, social, commercial, personal and public, domestic and international. You may be being gaslighted or you may be doing it yourself. Unknowingly, you may be a proxy.

The term originates from the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and based on the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton. The story is about a husband manipulating his wife to the point where she thinks she is going insane. Bergman plays Paula, who meets a man called Gregory Anton and after a whirlwind romance they marry. He then begins to take control, firstly isolating her from her friends and moving her to London.

Gregory methodically begins to abuse Paula by removing and hiding property from the house. implying that she is responsible for the missing items because she is experiencing some sort of psychosis. Doubting her own sanity is the end result. Gregory is utterly convincing. Anyway, if you can – watch the film. I don’t want to spoil it for you. It is an impressive representation of psychological manipulation.

So, back to the quote at the top:

“I’m listening to it now, darling. Sleep well xx”

A real text shown to me by a survivor. The message was to his partner (some literary license applied). The survivor reported the following exchanges:

Survivor: “Who’s that from?”

Abuser: “A client”

Survivor: “Your clients call you ‘darling’ and send kisses?”

Abuser: “How dare you look at my messages!”

Survivor: “I didn’t. It scrolled across the top from WhatsApp when you left your phone on the table. And why not a text?”

Abuser: “You are funny, sweetheart! It’s just the way he talks. He’s a musician listening to a new track – It’s easier on WhatsApp”

Plausible. But gaslighting.

Survivor to friend: “I saw a weird text and I think she’s messing around”

Friend: ” No way – she’s devoted to you and the children!”

Survivor: ” I hope so – you’re probably right”

Well meaning. But gaslighting.

Survivor to mother: “I saw a strange text and I think something’s not right”

Mother: “How did she explain it?”

Survivor: “Just a work situation”

Mother: “I’m sure that’s all it is. She’s always been so good to you “

In denial. But gaslighting

As a result the initial black and white of the situation becomes somewhat grey, in the survivor’s mind. In the end, that’s where they live. In the grey zone created by the abuser who needs to sow doubt and foster paranoia and erode the survivor’s sense of reality.The abuser relies on everyone in the survivor’s life being malleable. They will have been working on family and friends for years. No wonder they respond as they do. The abuser has a remarkable ability to play a long and short term game simultaneously.

Children may be lured into teasing a parent and when the parent gets upset or angry are told – “Your Mum’s too sensitive – she can’t take a joke”. Employees may find themselves gaslighted when they try to raise concerns about a colleague only to be told by the listener that she/he/they (the person giving cause for concern) has an impeccable track record insisting that the employee consider the implications of what they are reporting. Are they aware how much trouble this accusation could cause? The employee is then left feeling invalidated, intimidated and worried. This is institutional gaslighting which often results in individuals feeling that they have to adapt in order to survive the situation. How often do we hear about whistleblowers being victimised as a result of raising their concerns?

A child may report being hurt by someone only for a parent to dismiss it – “they wouldn’t do anything like that – don’t lie”; “What did you do wrong?” So the child is hurt twice at least. Profoundly. Irreperably. If we minimize or invalidate someone else’s experience, we are gaslighting. Abusers often look to others to discredit the survivor. Even the parents. of the survivor. Abusers are cowards who subtly, cunningly, manipulate and shape their army to do the dirty work.

Sometimes therapists get it wrong. In the quoted survivor’s case, being privvy to the mental health history of the survivor led her to question his doubts over his partner’s fidelity implying that he was projecting. By his own admission he wasn’t the easiest person to live with and, after all, where was the evidence? He reports that soon after that session he got his evidence and discovered that the “client” was a secret life in another part of town spanning several years during which time his partner had emptied her savings account and provided for another family. Traumatised, he ended the relationship. And found a new therapist.

This “secret life” type of gaslighting is the most intriguing because it is at odds with the view the rest of the world has of the abuser. In these cases the survivor may never be believed (hence my focus on bearing witness). Often the betrayal is so flagrant and bold that listeners believe the survivor’s story to be outlandish and therefore dismissed out of hand. Their story is the stuff of fantasy.

In a cruel twist listeners often distance themselves from the survivor. Remember, if the secret life has been going on for some time, the abuser will have been grooming all those around in anticipation of a spectacular final act. Some in his or her inner circle may have even been unknowingly complict in the secret (this is especially true for colleagues when work is used as a cover up). Rarely do the groomed reach out to enquire how the survivor is. It is unlikely that they fully understand how they have been played. The abuser has horribly violated their trust, too.

Abusers often frame themselves as the victim and ensure that their attentive public is aware of how hard life was with the survivor, how mentally ill she/he was; how careless with money; how unfaithful he/she was; how negligent they were as a parent, partner, offspring and sibling. And, of course, they (the abuser) have to give the story just about the right amount of plausibility in order to provoke empathy and sympathy in others. They pronounce their failings with florish and appear as if they have insight and awareness of their shortcomings. It’s a red herring. An act. Don’t be fooled. They will give you just enough information, a few crumbs, to take the edge of your appetite to know more. To stop the questioning. To shut you up.

My colleague, Dr George Simon, writes beautifully:

Gaslighting victims question their judgement. They can even come to question their sanity. Crafty, covert-aggressors know how to make you doubt. In your gut you feel they’re trying to play you. But they can have you feeling like you’re a fool for thinking so. They can even have you questioning what’s real and what isn’t.”*

I think you get the idea so I’ll finish up, now. One final point – gaslighting does not only happen on an individual level – it can happen on a political, racial, institutional, national and international level. It’s about power and control. It is a tool of manipulation that facilitates discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, mental and physical difference, ethnicity, faith, economic status and access to opportunity. I do not intend this website to overstep its remit but I feel it’s important to highlight how prevalent and corrosive gaslighting is. We live in the Age of Misinformation and Big Data. It should come as no surprise, then, that we find it hard to identify what is real and what is not.

Any abuse of power, any falsehoods or propaganda that is intended to invalidate personal experience of abuse and confuse or disorient an individual, community, people, nation or state, an electorate or consumer base – has to be called out. It’s time.

It’s gaslighting. It’s abhorrent. It’s abuse. Nothing grey about it.



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