Michael Bader: Are you being gaslighted?
In director George Cukor’s 1944 psychological thriller, “Gaslight,” a pianist, Gregory (played by Charles Boyer), marries a singer, Paula, (played by Ingrid Bergman), in order to gain easy access to her attic where he believes Paula’s aunt has hidden certain extremely valuable jewels.
Gregory arranges a series of incidents intended to manipulate Paula into believing that she is going crazy.
He steals personal items of theirs and pretends that she lost them. He constantly challenges her memory. He rummages around in the attic at night looking for the jewels, an activity that Bergman clearly hears.
Further, because the attic lights he uses siphon off some of the gas to the house, her own gaslights dim every night in intensity.
Both of these perceptions are then denied by Gregory and an accomplice, their maid Nancy (Angela Lansbury), and attributed to Paula’s insanity.
It is only when Scotland Yard Inspector Brian Cameron (played by Joseph Cotton), independently observes, during a visit to Paula’s house, that the gaslights have indeed dimmed, that she realizes that she is not crazy and, instead, has been driven to believe so by her husband.
The fact that Cameron has witnessed and validated her experience becomes crucial to freeing her from her conviction that she is losing her mind.
Over time, the film’s title became a verb — to “gaslight” someone, as Gregory does to Paula in Cukor’s 1944 film — designating a form of psychological abuse in which the victim is gradually manipulated into doubting his or her own sanity.
Gaslighting is common, unfortunately, in families and couples, and often has dire psychological consequences.
We say that gaslighting occurs in a relationship when someone’s perceptions about reality are denied or contradicted by someone else with whom the victim has an attachment and upon whom he or she is dependent.
Patients of mine frequently describe this dynamic in their accounts of their growing up.
For example, they often talk about traumatic experiences they suffered as children, including overt violence or, more often, covert forms of profound emotional neglect, inconsistency, and rejection.
As bad as these traumas were, in and of themselves, the damage they do to children is magnified when those children were led to feel that “it wasn’t so bad,” or were even told that the situation that harmed them didn’t really happen at all.
When the child’s painful experience is doubted or denied by his or her family, the damage done is twofold: first, the actual emotional or physical abuse directly hurts the child’s self-esteem, and, second, the denial leads the child to believe that he or she is somehow “bad” or “overreacting” for feeling hurt.
The result is that the child grows up with a compromised ability to discern reality, feels undeserving of good treatment, and believes that his or her complaints about mistreatment are the real problem, not the perpetrator’s abuse.
Like the Joseph Cotton character in “Gaslight,” people need a witness to their suffering in order to fully resolve it and minimize the damage done. A third person — it could be a grandparent, aunt or uncle, teacher, neighbor, or therapist — who validates a victim’s experience helps the latter master the trauma and frees him or her from self-blame and doubt.
The victim no longer feels alone and confused about reality.
So important is the presence of a witness, that I believe that all psychotherapy works, in part, by offering such an experience to people struggling with their hurt and with their doubts as to their own innocence. By validating their perceptions of reality, a good therapist helps the victims of gaslighting to feel self-compassion and to trust themselves again.
One common pattern of gaslighting occurs in families in which one parent is obviously mentally ill, e.g. Dad regularly knocks over the Christmas tree while drunk, or Mom is often so depressed she can’t get out of bed in the morning to make breakfast for the kids.
The other parent minimizes and protects the ill partner by downplaying the condition — Mom pretends that Dad was “just a little tipsy,” or Dad explains that Mom is “just tired” from working so hard.
Rather than protecting the children by calling a spade a spade and validating the trauma that is there in plain sight, and offering reassurance to the children that the sick parent is not their fault or responsibility, the healthier parent covers it up and implies that the children are making too big a deal of the problem. The children, in other words, are gaslighted.
Gaslighting also frequently occurs in couples.
One partner’s misconduct, e.g. infidelity, substance abuse, temper outbursts, or depressive withdrawal, etc. may be defensively denied by that partner who then may not only rationalize these symptoms, but go on to imply that the victimized partner is somehow to blame for either causing the problem or exaggerating it.
Although it can work both ways, I have more often observed this tendency in men who subtly cast aspersions on their wives’ rationality. The husband, in these cases, comes off as the “reasonable” one and the woman gets relegated to the role of irrational complainer or is accused of being “overly sensitive.”
Husbands, in other words, not infrequently gaslight their wives.
Michael Bader is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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