Are you Being Lied to, or Systematically Undermined?
With the election of Donald Trump the psychological term “gaslighting” is experiencing a resurgence in popularity and brings people into my office asking, “Am I being gaslighted?” As with other charged words, I think it’s helpful to take some time and understand the terms origins and meaning.
The word comes from a 1938 play (Gas Light), that was made into a famous movie staring Ingrid Bergman in 1944. The story follows a husband who attempts to convince his wife, and others, that she’s insane. Throughout their relationship he slowly manipulates the environment in small ways (including causing the gas lights in the house to dim) and when she questions the changes, he tells her that she’s imagining things. In the 1960s the term entered everyday speech, to describe an attempt to manipulate someone’s experience of reality. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the fields of psychology and psychiatry began to study gaslighting in a clinical sense. (Although it can be argued that Melanie Klein’s 1946 concept “projective identification” has some similarities.) Drawing on Freud’s writings, the term began to gain understanding as “project” and “introject.” In the film Gregory (husband), is attempting to project his belief (that his wife, Paula, is insane) into Paula’s belief system. Paula at first resists, but then “introjects” or swallows his belief system as her own. Finally, if Gregory is successful, Paula completely embraces her new reality and identifies as an insane person. This phenomenon was studied in sociopaths, clinical narcissists, patients of mental hospitals, and later with domestic violence perpetrators and child abusers.
For me, it’s important to draw some patterns from the roots of this term. Gaslighting occurs over an extended period of time. The perpetrator is intentionally, consistently and systematically creating deliberate situations to convince the victim of a new reality that benefits the perpetrator. It is very rare to experience gaslighting without the perpetrator having a clinical diagnosis, usually at the level of a personality disorder.
If you are reading this list and it fits your experiences, please immediately go to a safe place and consult with the proper authorities. However for most of the world, true gaslighting is far removed from everyday life. It may be frustrating when your teenager lies to you consistently about his whereabouts, your wife continues to cook meatloaf even though she knows you hate it, or you’re wondering if your boss is trying to undermine your latest project, but the odds are small that you’re being gaslighted.