Last month, the Dixie Chicks released their first single in 10 years, “Gaslighter.” Listening, I am particularly drawn to their repeated chorus line “gaslighter, denier/doing anything to get your ass farther.” Wikipedia defines gaslighting as a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual. A gaslighter denies the other person’s point of view and attempts to convince them it is not true. Often, this is done for personal gain, although it may also simply be a way of having control over another person. The term originated from a 1938 British play, Gas light, and has been used in psychological literature for covert control in psychoanalysis (Doorpat, 1996). In a 1980 book on child sexual abuse, Florence Rush summarized gaslighting as “an attempt to destroy another person’s reality” (Rush, 1992).
So now that we get the gist of gaslighting, how does this apply to everyday life? This behavior can occur in many situations, but it is commonly found in close relationships like family, significant others, friends, married couples, priest/mentors, etc. Basically, gaslighting often happens with those closest to you; the more trust, the more the abuser can manipulate your point of view. It is important to note that anyone can be an abuser and a gaslighter; although the Dixie Chicks’ song specifically targets a male perpetrator, any person regardless of gender or sexual identity can gaslight another person.
I’ve unfortunately been gaslighted by some of the closest people in my life, ranging from my first girlfriend in high school to even my own mother. Gaslighting can be extremely difficult to identify when it is happening to you, especially if the abuser is a romantic partner. In my experience, there are a few red flags to watch for. By sharing what happened to me I hope that it will help others. I won’t go into graphic detail, but I will illustrate a scenario where I’ve been gaslighted and hopefully these red flags can help some people.
I was sharing a very dark secret to my then-girlfriend and rather than supporting me for sharing something important, she got very upset with me. She claimed that I was “making her feel bad” and that I “was being incredibly selfish.” I was very confused as to why she was angry because I was seeking support from her. I was telling her something that made me feel very vulnerable. She went on to tell me I’m a “piece of s!@#” and that I should never tell anything that dark to her ever again. I was baffled and I believed her. I felt like I was a bad person and that I didn’t deserve her. I went on and thought that she was too good for me. I felt like I couldn’t live up to anyone’s standard and that I wasn’t good enough.
That relationship has left me scarred for quite a long time and I felt like I wasn’t good enough to date anyone. After much therapy and praying, I learned to forgive my ex in my heart. Not simply because I had caved in to her gaslighting (which now I know is not the truth) but because she was a victim too. I learned over time that she might have been sexually abused as a child and that hit home because I was as well. She was trivializing her experience and probably didn’t want to hear that I too went through the same thing she went through. I hope she is doing well and that she has sought professional help to process such a harsh experience. No one deserves to be abused or should have to put up with it.
There are people that go through the same thing and are also seeking comfort and help. Talk to a therapist, a mentor, or a trusted friend or adult. Let them know you need help, do not suffer in silence (which I unfortunately did). Day One offers counseling, support groups, and legal support for survivors of abuse (including emotional abuse and gaslighting) aged 24 and under. Even if you are not in our age range, you can call our hotline and we will do our best to connect you with another organization. You are not alone.
*Name changed to protect the author’s privacy.
Dorpat, Theodore L. (1996). Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Rush, Florence (1992). The Best-kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children. Human Services Institute. p. 81.