Psychology: Twisted Reality

Have you ever been told to “stop overreacting” when you asked a reasonable question? Have you left a conversation feeling confused and doubting your own version of events? If so, you might have been gaslit. ANNA CAREY talks to an expert on gaslighting, and asks: “What should you do if you discover it’s happening to you?” 

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For 20 years, Susan Farrell thought her unhappy marriage was all her fault. Her husband was hard working, eager to offer advice, and often told her that he loved her. But she was miserable. “I couldn’t explain even to myself what was so wrong,” she says. “But every time we argued he seemed to go for the kill and say very harsh, hurtful things.” When Susan objected, “He’d say that I just couldn’t take criticism and implied that he was trying to be constructive. He told me often that if I was only better organised in my care of our children and home then things between us would improve.” Eventually Susan found herself doubting her own reality. “He’d twist my words. He’d say something and I’d reply, then he’d claim never to have said that thing.”

Susan didn’t realise it, but she was being gaslit. To most of us, “to gaslight” means to convince somebody that they’re going mad, after the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a criminal does just that to his wife. But gaslighting can be subtler. It can mean someone constantly telling you that your view of a situation is incorrect, that you’re overreacting. American psychologist Robin Stern has written extensively on the subject (her book The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life was published in 2007). She defines gaslighting as “when someone tries to tell you what reality is and you believe them”.

And it’s more common than you might think. “I think it’s rampant,” says Stern. “Even within relationships that are otherwise pretty great, there are times when it happens and goes under the radar because the bulk of relationship is good. It can happen when one person’s more certain about things. The classic gaslighting situation is a power imbalance, and certainty has a lot to do with it.” A gaslighter will strongly insist that something is the case – they called you on time, you didn’t do something you promised. “People are vulnerable if they don’t have that certainty,” says Stern. “If someone is that certain and you’re not, you end up saying ‘He’s so sure of that, maybe I didn’t do it.’”

Men can be gaslit too but, in Stern’s experience, women are more likely to be the victims. And her recent work on women and empathy has suggested why. “Women are socialised more often to please others and think about things from another’s point of view,” she says. “I’ve found that women are misusing empathy to make excuses for why they’re in bad relationships. Empathy is so important, and yet if you’re overly empathic you’re not thinking about yourself. You think ‘Oh, he’s just so certain about everything because his mother undermined him’ rather than ‘Hang on, I don’t like this.’”

Susan Farrell’s marriage was a classic, extreme case of gaslighting but this behaviour isn’t just confined to abusive partners. It can happen among friends, says Stern, particularly teenage girls. And it can also happen in the workplace. When working at an arts festival, researcher Marian Craig soon found herself undermined by her new boss, who read her emails and constantly criticised her for imperceptible mistakes. “She made me feel like I was unable to do the most basic tasks and it really knocked my confidence for later jobs.” A classic manipulator, Marian’s tormentor was rarely openly aggressive. “[This] had the effect of making me doubt I was interpreting her behaviour correctly,” she says. “It was always masked in helpful tones or, when overtly critical, hidden in ‘I’m just doing what’s best for the organisation’ language.”

 

A gaslighter will strongly insist that something is the case – they called you on time, you didn’t do something you promised. “People are vulnerable if they don’t have that certainty,” says Stern. “If someone is that certain and you’re not, you end up saying ‘He’s so sure of that, maybe I didn’t do it.’”

The contrast between the bully’s public and private behaviour added to Marian’s confusion. “The fact she could also be so unbelievably nice, usually in front of other people, threw me and made me question if she had the ability to undermine me as I suspected,” says Marian. “It was impossible to resist the self-doubt because what I was experiencing conflicted with her nicey-nice super-employee image.”

Eventually, Marian left her job and rebuilt her confidence, and Stern says that when it comes to workplace gaslighting, this is often the best solution. “You have to ask, ‘Do I have to stay in this job?’ If the answer is no, get out,” she says. “If yes, it’s a tough situation because you may have to tolerate this person, but you can be much more aware that it’s not your problem. If you think your employer might be open to a real conversation you can say, ‘I’m not sure you’re aware of it, but when you say X, Y or Z, it’s hard for me to feel confident’.”

But it’s harder to leave a relationship than a job, not least because the effects of gaslighting can be so serious. “You begin to be really confused about your own life,” says Stern. “You’re withholding information from friends because you don’t want them to ask what’s going on. You hesitate in your own relationship – you can’t say that you’re really upset about something if you always anticipate hearing ‘What are you complaining about? You’re so oversensitive.’ Because of your uncertainty, you have trouble making even the simplest decisions. It robs you of the ability to feel secure in the way you see the world.”

Which is why help often needs to come from outside. Stern says that many people only realise they’re being gaslit when a friend points out that their partner’s behaviour is unreasonable. But what should be done next? “The best first step is to step away – whether for a night, an hour, a weekend, a week,” says Stern. Removing yourself from the situation allows you to calm down and acknowledge how serious it is. Stern advises writing down the gist of the last conversation you had that left you feeling confused or upset.

“Script it out and look at it as if it were two other people,” she says. This allows you to view the conversation in a dispassionate way. “You might notice something like, ‘Wait, I asked him why he didn’t come home and he didn’t answer, he told me something about myself. I told him I didn’t feel good and he told me I was crazy. He didn’t address it.’”

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And a strong support network – friends, family, even strangers from an online group – are very important when it comes to rebuilding your sense of self. “One of the signs of being gaslit is that you start to ruminate – you go over and over the conversations in your mind, wondering ‘Am I really so sensitive? Did he really say that?’” says Stern. “What’s helpful about a support network is that you have people who will say ‘No, you’re okay, you are doing a good job.’”

Spending more time with friends can have another positive effect. “When you’re spending time in the pursuit of things you love and with people you love, the ruminating takes up less of your mind,” says Stern. “But if all you’re thinking about is [a recent] interaction or this person, it keeps you in that cycle, and it’s very seductive.”

So when you build up your confidence, should you walk away? Relationships can be saved if gaslighters accept responsibility for their behaviour and agree to tackle it – Stern says that involving a third party, such as a counsellor, can be crucial. “I believe [gaslighters] would benefit so much from emotional education, from being able to directly say ‘I’m unhappy, I need you, I feel threatened’ rather than trying to control their partners. ”

 

“What’s helpful about a support network is that you have people who will say ‘No, you’re okay, you are doing a good job.’”

There are many degrees of gaslighting, and Stern says some gaslighters are horrified when they realise what they’re doing. But for some the behaviour is clearly abusive. Susan Farrell eventually realised how serious her marital problems were when she read an online article about verbal abuse that rang all too true. “My husband never hit me and very rarely raised his voice, but he didn’t have to, he was able to control me perfectly well without those tools,” she says.

This realisation led her to contact Women’s Aid, and their support gave her the strength to leave her marriage – whereupon her husband publicly claimed that she was mentally ill. Luckily, this last attempt at gaslighting didn’t stop her, and she hasn’t looked back. “I feel no thread of connection to him,” she says. “He can’t affect me like he [used to]. I’m making plans and, for the first time in 20 years, living my life as I want to.” ^

Names have been changed. Visit www.robinstern.com for more information.

 

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