In Rosemary’s baby (1968), the cult classic horror movie, the titular character questions everything that she finds alarming (rape by a demonic figure, outright denial of her choice of physician for prenatal care, distressing abdominal symptoms) but her husband and the tenants in their new apartment building deny anything is amiss. A similar pattern of an individual’s perception about the reality being questioned by their partners and other people is seen in The Girl on the Train (2021), Get Out (2017), and other older movies. A common underlying theme of these examples is gaslighting.
Gaslighting has been defined as psychological abuse aimed at manipulating another person into “doubting their perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events” (from the American Psychological Association (APA)’s dictionary). This term came from a famous stage play, Gaslight (1938) that was adapted to a thriller movie in 1942 and 1944. The main premise of this play was that the husband manipulates to convince his wife that she is insane – when he dims the gas lights, he insists that she is imagining it. He lies to her repeatedly and she starts doubting her own experiences and sanity.
The term “gaslighting” that is used is not exactly the same as in this play as Kate Abramson (2014) points out that this emotional manipulation is not consciously trying to drive the targets crazy but the gaslighter tries consciously or unconsciously to induce in someone the sense that “her reactions, perceptions, memories and/or beliefs are not just mistaken, but utterly without grounds—paradigmatically, so unfounded as to qualify as crazy” (p.2). It involves multiple incidents (not just one or two) over a period of time.
There is extensive literature on the psychological and philosophical need of the gaslighter to behave as he does and that “is to destroy even the possibility of disagreement—to have his sense of the world not merely confirmed, but placed beyond dispute. These are not the guys who roll their eyes and walk away when a woman points out that something is sexist. These are the guys who turn to that woman, insist that she’s crazy, and insist that she assent in some way to the proposition that she’s crazy. They don’t just need the world to appear to themselves to be a certain way—they need you, the target, to see it that way” (p.10)
Gaslighting is common in domestic violence situations, and it has been known to prevent the victims from seeking help. Women are more likely to be targets and men more likely to engage in gaslighting. It may also involve multiple parties involved in gaslighting or co-operating with the gaslighter. An example of multiple gaslighters are cliques in a social setting or the general culture in the workplace which may terms the gaslightee (or targets of gaslighting) as “overly sensitive” or “misconstruing things” when they point out the manipulation.
Some sociologists believe that even though gaslighting has been primarily defined by psychological theories, it is a sociological phenomenon, especially as it is rooted in social inequalities in gender and other settings with power struggles (race, class). It has been theorized as a gendered concept by sociologist Paige Sweet with women being the victims primarily as “women typically do not have the cultural, economic, or political capital necessary to gaslight men” (p. 852).
Even though this term originated in the form of intimate relationships, it can happen across a variety of contexts, including child-parent relationship, political, racial, workplace, and even medical gaslighting. Racial gaslighting is also observed in the horror thriller movie, Get Out (2017), where the Black protagonist is gaslit by his White girlfriend who denies the odd and racist behaviour of her family and guests when they visit her family over the weekend. Racial gaslighting invalidates the racial minorities’ experiences when they speak about the discriminations they face by telling them that “they have either imagined the racial slights or overemphasizing something that really isn’t such a big deal.” Medical gaslighting has been observed with women, racial minorities, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, people of lower socio-economic status with their symptoms ignored, minimized, or dismissed. Medical gaslighting can have fatal consequences when cancer, heart disease, and other serious conditions are not diagnosed at an early stage. Medicine has a long history of trivializing women’s health concerns as “female hysteria” with any health symptom attributed to either her hormones or “all in her head”.
One of the main features of gaslighting is the insidious nature of it. It is not explicit and often not obvious to the victim.
Here are some common statements used by gaslighters for their targets:
That never happened. I never said that.
Don’t be so sensitive. Stop exaggerating.
Don’t be paranoid. Stop being so insecure.
I was just joking!
It doesn’t mean anything. You’re just misconstruing my intentions
You’re imagining things. You’re overreacting. You’re just overthinking it.
Don’t get so worked up. Please stop being so dramatic.
You’re remembering it wrong.
That’s all in you. The problem isn’t with me, it is with you.
I’m worried; I think you’re not well. I think you need help.*
Individual responses to gaslighting that can help
Different strategies are recommended by clinical practitioners and survivors. Some strategies include keeping a journal, recording voice memos, taking photographs for proofs, and emailing details of interactions to a trusted friend or relative. These are considered proofs for both the individual to accept their perceptions and also plan for possible legal action in future. Others include having support groups, trusting one’s own instincts, and resisting the urge to argue since the gaslighter is unlikely to be convinced.
Some of the suggested sentences to shut down gaslighting are:
We remember things differently.
I hear you and that isn’t my experience.
If you continue to speak to me like this, I’m not engaging.
I will speak to you about A and B. I’m not willing to speak to you about C.
It is a big deal to me.
Other examples of effective rejoinders include:
My feelings and reality are valid. I don’t appreciate you telling me that I am being too sensitive.
Don’t tell me how to feel; this is how I feel. I know what I saw.
I am allowed to explore these topics and conversations with you. Do not tell me I am being dramatic.
I will not continue this conversation if you continue to minimize what I am feeling.
Gaslighting in personal life and how workplaces can support the targets
Domestic violence impacts the workplace to a great extent in many ways, including loss of productivity and performance and negatively impacting the wellbeing of employees. The abusers who may be engaging in gaslighting are usually at home, but they can access the target’s workplace as well.
A research study from 2021 on domestic violence survivors found the myriad ways the abusers interfere with the survivor’s functioning at the workplace. This study found that informal support (more than formal support programs like employee assistance programs) and workplace flexibility policies help them deal with the abusive situations. The informal support strategies that were more likely to be sought out by the survivors, include active supervisor response, compassion from co-workers and supervisors, having someone to talk to, and partnering the survivors with another employee to lend a listening ear. These co-workers and managers can provide a buffer against the gaslighting experienced by the target. The gaslightee’s concerns about the appropriateness of their responses, their feelings, and memories during gaslighting situations can be validated by such informal conversations, where they gain greater confidence.
Gaslightees often report feeling in a “twilight zone” or a surreal situation where the gaslighting is happening in a different plane from the rest of their life. Their workplace can be a safe space where these feelings can be refuted, provided it is supportive and pro-active in addressing domestic violence, including the physical and emotional (gaslighting included) aspects of it. One of the main aims of gaslighting is isolation of the target, which intensifies its negative impact. Social support has been shown to allow people to counteract gaslighting by validating their negative experiences and externalizing it, rather than blaming themselves for it.