Due to overuse, the term “gaslighting” has unfortunately become misconstrued. Often used to denote that someone is lying or insensitively expressing an opinion, the word loses its power.
Gaslighting is far more nefarious. As a form of narcissistic abuse, true gaslighting involves manipulation, which is intended to grossly mislead with the goal to exploit and control. The abuser uses deceitful acts, coercive language, and possibly even violence to distort their victim’s sense of reality in order to purposely create self-doubt in the mind of the victim. As a result of the manipulation, the victim is trauma-bonded with the perpetrator, and their fear of trusting their own judgment keeps them trapped in the relationship.
The term “gaslighting” was made famous by the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play of the same title. In that tale, the protagonist Gregory drives his wife Paula to madness by creating situations that cause her to doubt herself.
In an early scene, Gregory gives Paula a broach before he leaves for the day. Stating that the clasp is weak and that she can wear it after it is repaired, he immediately places it inside her purse for “safe keeping.” Later in the day, Gregory inquires about the broach, and Paula ashamedly admits that it is missing, giving him the opportunity to emphasize that she often loses things and has a poor memory. What Paula doesn’t know is that earlier in the day, Gregory retrieved the broach from her bag and hid it.
Paula’s sense of self erodes, and she begins to lose trust in her senses. Later in the film, Gregory removes a picture from the wall and then insists that Paula must have taken it down and not remembered. He tells her to look for the picture, and when she finds it, he accuses her of deceitfulness, stating that she knew where it was all along. Panicked, she swears that she has no memory of placing the picture in the stairway; Gregory then reinforces the idea that her memory cannot be trusted. Through a continuous string of similar manipulative tactics, Paula’s sense of self erodes, and she begins to lose trust in her senses.
The notable phrase “gaslighting” was coined because each time Gregory says he is going to the office, he is actually secretly going into the attic and purposely dimming the gaslights in their home. Paula notices, is concerned, and asks her maid and cook if they are turning on the gas in other parts of the house, causing the lights to dim; each denies doing so.
Paula’s fragility is undeniable as she sobs when she sees the dimming gaslights. Gregory ultimately isolates her “for her own good,” insisting she is “not well.” The isolation deepens Paula’s psychosis and solidifies her dependence. Her paranoia is palpable and reinforces to the maid and cook what Gregory has told them: “Paula is not well.”
Weaving in moments of endearment and positive reinforcement, such as telling Paula how beautiful she is and saying: “You know I love you, darling,” Gregory locks Paula in emotional confusion. Her self-doubt leaves her dependent on his assessment of reality, ultimately trapping her in the relationship. All of these tactics are used to dominate and control her as he establishes himself as the “arbiter of truth.”
Much like the proverbial frog slowly boiling to death in the gradually warming pot of water, a victim of narcissistic abuse experiences the betrayal gradually and without realization. Most of the time, just like our protagonist Gregory, the narcissist starts out charming, well-spoken, and extremely generous. They “love bomb” their victim with premature, overt expressions of intense devotion and admiration.
Declaring their victim to be their “soulmate,” they idealize them and even propose marriage or cohabitation inappropriately early in the relationship. These behaviors are deliberate and purposeful, as they are used to solidify themselves in the relationship and create a schema in the mind of the victim that will serve as a buffer for future abuse.
Once idealization is set, the narcissist shifts into devaluation by withholding affection, having fits of anger, berating their “beloved” for small mistakes, or controlling their appearance. The narcissist keeps their victim destabilized by vacillating between cycles of idealization and devaluation.
The victim’s view of their beloved teeters between the loving and compassionate superhero they thought their beloved was and the monster that they show themselves to be. Part of them wants to escape, and part feels forever trapped and incapable. Narcissistic abuse comes in many forms and is utilized to disempower the victim. If Paula’s story sounds all too familiar, you may want to start looking into what you can do to protect yourself, even if it's from the person you love.
For further study on Gaslighting and narcissistic abuse, Wendy Behary’s book Disarming the Narcissist provides a clear “how to” guide for dealing with the narcissist in your life.