Gaslighting – The Gaslight Effect

Katie is a friendly, upbeat person who walks down the street with a smile for everyone. Her job as a sales rep means that she’s often talking to new people, which she loves. An attractive woman in her late twenties, she went through a long period of dating before she finally settled on her current boyfriend, Brian.

Brian can be sweet, protective, and considerate, but he’s also an anxious, fearful guy who treats every new person with suspicion. When the two of them go on a walk together, Katie is outgoing and talkative, easily falling into conversation with the man who stops to ask directions or the woman whose dog cuts across their path. Brian, though, is full of criticism. Can’t she see how people are laughing at her? She thinks they like these casual conversations, but they’re actually rolling their eyes and wondering why she’s so chatty. And that man who asked them for directions? He was only trying to seduce her – she should have seen how he leered at her the moment her back was turned. Besides, behaving in such a manner is highly disrespectful to him, her boyfriend. How does she think it makes him feel to see her making eyes at every guy she passes?

At first, Katie laughs off her boyfriend’s complaints. She’s been like this all her life, she tells him, and she enjoys being friendly. But after weeks of relentless criticism, she starts to doubt herself. Maybe people are laughing and leering at her. Maybe she is being flirtatious and rubbing her boyfriend’s nose in it – what a terrible way to treat the man who loves her!

Eventually, when Katie walks down the street, she can’t decide how to behave. She doesn’t want to give up her warm and friendly approach to the world – but now, whenever she smiles at a stranger, she can’t help imagining what Brian would think.

LIZ is a top-level executive in a major advertising firm. A stylish woman in her late forties with a solid, twenty-year marriage and no children, she’s worked hard to get where she is, pouring all her extra energy into her career. Now she seems to be on the verge of reaching her goal, in line to take over the company’s New York office.

Then, at the last minute, someone else is brought in to take the job. Liz swallows her pride and offers to give him all the help she can. At first, the new boss seems charming and appreciative. But soon Liz starts to notice that she’s being left out of important decisions and not invited to major meetings. She hears rumors that clients are being told she doesn’t want to work with them anymore and has recommended that they speak to her new boss instead. When she complains to her colleagues, they look at her in bewilderment. “But he always praises you to the skies,” they insist. “Why would he say such nice things if he was out to get you?”

Finally, Liz confronts her boss, who has a plausible explanation for every incident. “Look,” he says kindly at the end of the meeting. “I think you’re being way too sensitive about all this – maybe even a little paranoid. Would you like a few days off to destress?”

Liz feels completely disabled. She knows she’s being sabotaged – but why is she the only one who thinks so?

MITCHELL is a grad student in his mid-twenties who’s studying to become an electrical engineer. Tall, gangly, and somewhat shy, he’s taken a long time to find the right woman, but he’s just begun dating someone he really likes. One day, his girlfriend mildly points out that Mitchell still dresses like a little boy. Mitchell is mortified, but he sees what she means. Off he goes to a local department store, where he asks the personal shopper to help him choose an entire wardrobe. The clothes make him feel like a new man – sophisticated, attractive – and he enjoys the appreciative glances women give him on the bus ride home.

But when he wears the new clothes to Sunday dinner at his parents’ home, his mother bursts out laughing. “Oh, Mitchell, that outfit is all wrong for you – you look ridiculous,” she says. “Please, dear, the next time you go shopping, let me help you.” When Mitchell feels hurt and asks his mother to apologize, she shakes her head sadly. “I was only trying to help,” she says. “And I’d like an apology from you for that tone of voice.”

Mitchell is confused. He liked his new clothes – but maybe he does look ridiculous. And has he really been rude to his mother?

Katie, Liz, and Mitchell have one thing in common: they’re all suffering from the Gaslight Effect. The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people: a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power in the world; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality because she idealizes him and seeks his approval. Gaslighters and gaslightees can be of either gender, and gaslighting can happen in any type of relationship. But I’m going to call gaslighters “he” and gaslightees “she,” since that’s the pairing I most often see in my practice. I’ll explore a variety of relationships – with friends, family, bosses, and colleagues – but the male-female romantic pairing will be my major focus.

For example, Katie’s gaslighting boyfriend insists that the world is a dangerous place and that Katie’s behavior is inappropriate and insensitive. When he feels stressed or threatened, he has to be right about these issues, and he has to get Katie to agree that he is. Katie values the relationship and doesn’t want to lose Brian, so she starts to see things from his point of view. Maybe the people they meet are laughing at her. Maybe she is being flirtatious. Gaslighting has begun.

Likewise, Liz’s boss insists that he really cares about her and that any concerns she has are because she’s paranoid. Liz wants her boss to think well of her – after all, her career is at stake – so she starts to doubt her own perceptions and tries to adopt his. But her boss’s view of things really doesn’t make sense to Liz. If he’s not trying to sabotage her, why is she missing all those meetings? Why are her clients failing to return her calls? Why is she feeling so worried and confused? Liz is so trusting that she just can’t believe anyone could be as blatantly manipulative as her boss seems to be; she has to be doing something that warrants his terrible treatment. Wishing desperately for her boss to be right, but knowing deep down that he isn’t, makes Liz feels completely disoriented, no longer sure of what she sees or what she knows. Her gaslighting is in full swing.

Mitchell’s mother insists that she’s entitled to say anything she wants to her son and that he is being rude if he objects. Mitchell would like to see his mother as a good, loving person, not as someone who says mean things to him. So when she hurts his feelings, he blames himself, not her. Both Mitchell and his mother agree: the mother is right, and Mitchell is wrong. Together, they are creating the Gaslight Effect.

Of course, Katie, Liz, and Mitchell all have other choices. Katie might ignore her boyfriend’s negative remarks, ask him to stop making them, or as a last resort, break up with him. Liz could say to herself, “Wow, this new boss is a piece of work. Well; maybe that smarmy charm has fooled everyone else in this company – but not me!” Mitchell might reply calmly, “Sorry, Mom, but you’re the one who owes me an apology.” All of them could decide that, on some basic level, they are willing to live with their gaslighters’ disapproval. They know they are good, capable, lovable people, and that’s all that matters.

If our three gaslightees were able to take this attitude, there would be no gaslighting. Maybe their gaslighters would still behave badly, but their behavior would no longer have such a pernicious effect. Gaslighting works only when you believe what the gaslighter says and need him to think well of you.

The problem is, gaslighting is insidious. It plays on our worst fears, our most anxious thoughts, our deepest wishes to be understood, appreciated, and loved. When someone we trust, respect, or love speaks with great certainty – especially if there’s a grain of truth in his words, or if he’s hit on one of our pet anxieties – it can be very difficult not to believe him. And when we idealize the gaslighter – when we want to see him as the love of our life, an admirable boss, or a wonderful parent – then we have even more difficulty sticking to our own sense of reality. Our gaslighter needs to be right, we need to win his approval, and so the gaslighting goes on.

Of course, neither of you may be aware of what’s really happening. The gaslighter may genuinely believe every word he tells you or sincerely feel that he’s only saving you from yourself. Remember: He’s being driven by his own needs. Your gaslighter might seem like a strong, powerful man, or he may appear to be an insecure, tantrum-throwing little boy; either way, he feels weak and powerless. To feel powerful and safe, he has to prove that he is right, and he has to get you to agree with him.

Meanwhile, you have idealized your gaslighter and are desperate for his approval, although you may not consciously realize this. But if there’s even a little piece of you that thinks you’re not good enough by yourself – if even a small part of you feels you need your gaslighter’s love or approval to be whole – then you are susceptible to gaslighting. And a gaslighter will take advantage of that vulnerability to make you doubt yourself, over and over again.


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