Gaslighting Revisited: A Closer Look at This Manipulation Tactic

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If you’re on the receiving end of covert aggression, you might sense in your gut some kind of victimization at play but be unable point to anything that clearly and objectively backs up your hunch. This “dirty fighting” may leave you feeling more than a little crazy.

A few years ago wrote about the emotional manipulation tactic referred to by many as “gaslighting” (“Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, And Why”). Public awareness about this tactic has certainly grown recently, but so has the sophistication of the disturbed and disordered characters who employ the technique as their preferred weapon of domination and control. So I think it’s worth taking a more in-depth look at the various subtle ways manipulative characters use gaslighting to maintain a position of advantage over others.

Most manipulation is accomplished through what I have always labeled “covert-aggression.” (More information on covert and the many other common forms of human aggression can be found in the introduction chapter of my book In Sheep’s Clothing.) “Dirty” fighters typically try to get the better of others by using tactics that effectively conceal obvious aggressive intent on their part while still successfully throwing their opponent on the defensive. The person on the receiving end of this kind of behavior senses in their gut that there’s some kind of victimization at play but can’t point to anything that clearly and objectively backs up their hunch. As a result, they end up feeling more than a little crazy. They might harbor feelings of anger toward the person they sense is an aggressor but also find themselves thrown into positions of anxious defensiveness, which makes them feel unjustified and unsure of themselves. If their manipulator also happens to be skilled in the art of “impression management” — displaying superficial charm and enjoying the capacity to make favorable impressions on others — those on the receiving end of their tactics are likely to feel even crazier. They might say to themselves: “I’ve always thought there was something wrong with them but perhaps there really is something wrong with me. After all, everyone else seems to like them.” So, in a sense, almost all manipulative behavior produces a gaslighting effect to some degree.

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Deliberately trying to make someone feel crazy, wrong, stupid, paranoid, etc. as a way of deceiving, degrading, taking advantage of, dominating, or controlling others is what gaslighting as a specific manipulation tactic is all about. It’s not an uncommon tactic. Character disturbed persons who cheat on their spouses but want to maintain control in their relationships are particularly fond of this tactic. They use it to invite their partners to view what might be some very justifiable mistrust on their part as pure “paranoia.” Hundreds of individuals have provided me examples of this, and I’ve also witnessed it first hand on many occasion. While getting the victim of gaslighting to feel paranoid is bad enough, many times the manipulator also has the moxie to couple the gaslighting with other tactics such as shaming, guilting, and feigning innocence/ignorance. (For more information on these tactics, see “Manipulation via Shaming and Guilt-Tripping: Using the Conscience of the Neurotic against Them” as well as my article series on manipulation tactics.) In the end, the person on the receiving end of this behavior winds up feeling not only like they might indeed be out of their mind but also like they’re the worst person on earth for daring to think the kinds of things they had been suspecting about their manipulator.

I mentioned in my 2011 article that sometimes just the apparent certainty and conviction a covert-aggressor displays when engaging in their deceitful behavior can produce the gaslighting effect and guarantee the success of their manipulation. When they’re confronted, they don’t just deny, deny, deny — they deny adamantly. Such a tactic can be even more effective if they couple it with other tactics like feigning righteous indignation — when the manipulator acts as though they are justifiably offended that their victim would even suspect them of some dastardly behavior or intention and thereby besmirch their character. The script is simple: when you get confronted on something you know will expose you for the unsavory character you are, act offended and hurt, appear resolute, and question the sanity of your accuser. The script is not only simple, it’s also generally effective.

Gaslighting doesn’t always work; there are some personalities who, because of certain aspects of their own character, seem relatively immune to the technique. But when a manipulator senses that the gaslighting technique is indeed having some effect, there are some additional things they can do to enhance the effect. They can go on a real charm offensive to make the gaslighted victim feel even more isolated and alone with respect to the feelings and attitudes they harbor toward their abuser. They can also engage in a reality and history restructuring campaign, subtly coaching relatives and friends to remember things as happening the way they want them to be remembered and then pointing out to the person being gaslighted that they are the only person who remembers things a different way. They’ll curry favor and form alliances to make the target of the gaslighting feel even more isolated. Some professionals have offered various terms for this kind of behavior, including a currently popular label: “street theater.” The effect of all these behaviors is always the same: make the other person believe they have no legitimate reason to think what they sense in their heart to be true or to feel the way they feel, and you have them firmly under your influence and control.

Perhaps the biggest reason I thought it necessary to re-visit the topic of gaslighting is because of how difficult it generally is for victims of this extreme form of manipulation, which is often perpetrated by the more seriously disordered characters, to recover fully from their ordeals. After questioning their perceptions, judgments, feelings, and even their sanity for so long in their relationship with their abusive manipulator, it’s often quite difficult for them to restore a balanced sense of self. Sadly, not only have many victims written me to share this very kind of experience but also many reported being stymied in their rehabilitation when seeking help from a professional not familiar enough with such severe forms of emotional abuse and the traumatic impact it can have on a person’s psyche.

Victims of prolonged or intense gaslighting often need specialized help. They don’t just want reassurance they were never as “crazy” or wrong-headed about things as their manipulator made them out to be. What they want more than anything is a more objective, reliable way to fairly judge both their own character and the character of those with whom they might again forge a relationship. (That’s a major reason I wrote Character Disturbance.) They also want to trust again, and to know when and how to trust. While trust is an important issue for all of us when it comes to our intimate relationships, for the victim of extreme forms of manipulation, especially gaslighting, simply recovering the ability to trust again is a pivotal event.

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