It Starts With A Lie
Have you ever felt like someone was trying to cover up a lie by making you think you were crazy? It could be a friend, a spouse, a coworker, or anyone you deal with on a regular basis. Did it make you question yourself? Deliberately trying to make someone think the truth isn’t true is a manipulation. And it can be extremely harmful.
There’s a name for this. It’s called “gaslighting.” The word comes from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie “Gaslight” in which a husband tries to make his wife think she’s insane, in part by tampering with the gas lights in an old house.
One of the worst things about gaslighting is that it often works. By questioning a person’s memory or sanity over and over, it can actually start to make a person question themselves and everything they know and understand. After awhile the victim of gaslighting may stop trusting their own instincts, perceptions and thoughts.
Why does it happen? When one person is behaving badly, it’s sadly common that they will try to make their partner question their own judgment rather than admitting the truth. This is one way to dodge responsibility or consequences. It works this way: Let’s say someone is abusing drugs but doesn’t want their spouse to know it. When their partner confronts them about their suspicions, they respond by suggesting the partner is paranoid, confused, or just a bad person for even suspecting.
The reasons for doing this are pretty simple. Humans try to guard against pain, often as the first reflex. It’s not only addiction, but all kinds of behaviors and problems that lead people to manipulate others in this way. Gaslighting is a way to try to control others and protect the self. It’s no excuse, of course, but there are reasons for doing this. When you make someone else doubt themselves, you can continue getting away with bad behavior while avoiding the consequences. Gaslighting is a way to “throw people off the trail” so to speak, so that the problem behavior can continue. In some cases, the manipulator may not even consciously be aware they’re doing it, but the damage is real.
Being on the receiving end of gaslighting is another story. It’s one thing to be told you’re wrong, confused, paranoid, or bad. When the person saying it knows its not true, that’s a problem. But it’s an entirely different, and worse thing if you start to believe it about yourself. When someone you trust gets you to believe lies about yourself, things go from bad to worse. Many people who have been gaslighted for years find it hard to recover their self confidence. Their sense of certainty over their feelings, instincts, knowledge and wisdom has been undermined so well and for so long, they don’t know how to regain it.
You Can Overcome This
Your confidence and sense of self can be regained. Step by step, there are ways to overcome this type of abuse. You can re-learn what it means to trust yourself. Because trusting yourself is a good foundation for knowing when to trust others. When you can believe your own mind, you know when something seems wrong. If your own instincts alert you to a problem, you can investigate. When you are on your own side, you can more easily detect when others are being honest and fair with you.
Gaslighting is not that uncommon. Unfortunately, some people don’t even realize it’s happened. Or they “kind of” know, but don’t have a name for it. Sometimes it takes an outside person like a therapist to tell you what you already know. That’s because gaslighting makes you question yourself so much, it takes time to regain your confidence and to piece back together your sense of reality.
Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She provides couples and individual counseling in her office in Springfield, Illinois, and throughout the state by phone and web. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones.