Thanks in part to its use in the media, there are some fairly widespread misconceptions about the term gaslighting. Here’s how gaslighting really works to make people doubt the accuracy and rationality of their own perceptions.
Gaslighting is a subtle tactic that psychopaths, sociopaths, and other highly manipulative characters use to make people doubt their sanity so that they can abuse or exploit them in some way. I’ve written about this tactic before and how manipulative people use it to take advantage of others:
- “Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, And Why”
- “Gaslighting Revisited: A Closer Look at This Manipulation Tactic”
The term has become popular in recent years, no doubt in large measure because several bestselling books on sociopathy and psychopathy have referenced it. But while the term is widely used these days, there are some fairly widespread misconceptions about what gaslighting really is, possibly in part because the term has been bandied about quite loosely in common parlance, often inaccurately, and possibly also because it’s been fairly inaccurately portrayed in some movies and TV programs, including a recent episode of the HBO series Ballers.
In the Ballers episode titled “Gaslighting,” a female acquaintance of one of the show’s principal characters named Spencer asks him if he “gaslighted” a former girlfriend. When asked to explain what she meant by the question, she then asks if he made the woman feel special and then made her “feel crazy” by gradually emotionally distancing himself from her. Now as it stands, this is a fairly tangential description of what gaslighting actually is, although it’s quite possible for a person to engage behavior similar to what this woman described and have it be a form of gaslighting. The tactic of gaslighting is all about making someone feel like they’ve lost contact with reality. More specifically, it’s about making someone believe they have no rational reason to feel the way they feel or believe what they believe. It’s about making them doubt the accuracy and rationality of their perceptions as a way to manipulate them. There are lots of clever ways to do that, as skilled manipulators know all too well. One such way can be leading a person to believe that the relationship you want with them or actually have with them is of a particular character — such as an intimate, exclusive relationship with long term intentions — so that you can abuse or exploit them (e.g., get them to have sex with you) and then acting like the person had no rational reason to think they were anything but a casual encounter in the first place.
In the latest edition of In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], I explain that there are two principal ways victims get “gaslighted.” The first way is when a conniving character deliberately tries to make you feel crazy by distorting key facts, selectively choosing “evidence” to back up their position, conspiring with friends and acquaintances to corroborate their falsified versions of things, etc. as a way of making you doubt yourself and keeping a one up position on you. The second is what I sometimes call “inadvertent” or unintentional gaslighting. This can occur when the victim experiences the “gaslighting effect” even though the individual creating the effect is not specifically intending to gaslight for manipulative purposes. Most often this type of gaslighting occurs when the emotionally stronger and/or more highly convicted (whether or not there’s justification for the solidity of their conviction) person argues their point of view so ardently or convincingly that the other party begins to doubt the validity of their own perspective, if not their very sanity. The grandiose, character impaired narcissists are among the types who can produce this gaslighting effect without even half trying. These are the folks who (according to them) are never wrong even in the face of abundant contradictory facts and who never admit to being wrong even when they know they are. Their outright defiance of the reality of things can be so strong at times that they can have you doubting your own grip on reality. (For more on the grandiose vs. other types of narcissism see: “Two Types of Narcissism and How to Tell the Difference” and my book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].)
While the Ballers episode I mentioned may not have portrayed gaslighting as accurately as it could have, the series does accurately portray a wide variety of disturbed and disordered characters, ranging from heartless connivers, to sadists, to self centered hedonists, to malignant narcissists and psychopaths without conscience. While it may seem to glorify what has become not only the defining phenomenon of our time — i.e., the incredible proliferation of character disturbance — by showing how insanely rich and powerful some truly despicable people can become, its plots usually make it clear what a mess of things such folks usually make not only of the lives of those with whom they’re involved but also, eventually, of their own lives. So I’ll probably tune in from time to time just to see what these nefarious characters are up to. In the process I might pick up a few tips I hadn’t gleaned before on what makes these character impaired people tick or about how they go about the business of so cleverly doing in others. That could give me fodder for a new book, or at least another article!
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