Chances are if you have spent any time in psychological, self-help or spiritual circles, you have heard the term gaslighting. In today’s episode, I’m going to up-pack and break down the concept of gaslighting for you so that you understand it.
In the 1930s there was a play that was later adapted into a film. Both the play and the film were named Gaslight. The play and film were about a woman whose husband abusively manipulates her into believing that she is insane. For example, he manipulates small elements in their home and insists to her and others that she is mistaken, delusional or not remembering things correctly when she points out these changes. One of which is that he dims the gaslights in their home, insisting that nothing has changed.
It is because of the title of this play and film that we now call this form of psychological manipulation and/or experience that I’m about to describe ‘gaslighting’. To gaslight someone is to sow seeds of doubt in their mind that makes them question their own sense of personal truth and reality (things like memory, judgement, perception, feelings etc). It is to try to convince someone that what they see, they didn’t see, what they hear they didn’t hear and what they feel they have no reason to feel.
To give you an example, imagine that I hit you in the leg with a 2x4 and your leg broke. Then when you were rolling around on the floor in pain, I kneeled down and said… “Wow…. Sweetheart… something must be really wrong with you because you have no reason to be in so much pain. Nothing happened and you just fell down like that. In fact, because I love you so much, I’m going to spend my own money to get you a doctor to figure out what is wrong with you because it’s not normal for people to just fall over like that and be in this much pain”. And if you tried to re-establish the reality that the reason you are in pain is because I hit you with a 2x4, I’d then say. “Oh my god… after everything I do for you every day and after how much I love you, I can’t believe that is what you think happened. Maybe we should see a psychologist.” At some point in that process, especially if I was someone you loved and trusted, you would begin to doubt your perception of what happened and that would make you feel insane.
People who gaslight use things like denial, contradiction, misinformation, misdirection and even true information and facts to destabilize, disorient and delegitimize a person’s sense of reality. When someone is gaslit, they end up in a state of extreme cognitive dissonance. Doubting one’s own sense of sanity leads to a severe decrease in self-esteem. They learn to distrust their own mind and thus defer to the perceptions and control of the person gaslighting them. But the distress caused by gaslighting is not a minor thing. It is so detrimental that it causes a mental and emotional breakdown that can lead people to the psych ward and even to commit suicide.
Something interesting to understand about gaslighting is that it so often involves the projection and transfer of things that belong to the gas-lighter onto the person being gaslit. For example, imagine that a gas-lighter is self-centered (what a psychologist would call a narcissist even). The gaslighting will involve the gas-lighter convincing the person being gas lit that he or she is so narcissistic and self-centered. To understand more about this, watch my video titled: Projection (Understanding the Psychology of Projecting).
Gaslighting can be consciously done and deliberate as a means of interpersonal control. We could consider this conscious gaslighting. Conscious in the sense that a person is aware they are doing it and choosing to do it, not that they are an awakened being and are doing it. But by far, the most common type of gaslighting is unconscious. Meaning that a person is not aware of what they are doing and therefore are not doing it deliberately but are doing it none the less. This happens because most people are not completely conscious and most people are not self-aware. But this is not a reason to make it ok or less bad. This unconscious gaslighting is the kind of gaslighting that usually takes place in families.
For example, a mother might say a direct insult to a child. But this insult is not something she can consciously own up to because she is smart enough to know that only a bad mother would say that. It is critical that she avoid shame and see herself as a good mother and so she will suppress the memory of having said the insult and later when she is confronted about it say “I never said that, in fact I am not the kind of person who ever would say that, you must be inventing things or you must have heard me wrong.”
For another example, maybe there is zero tolerance for emotions in a family. When a child tries to express his or her pain, that child is shamed for it. This child knows and feels and sees that there is only a surface relationship taking place between themselves and their parents and even siblings because no one acknowledges anyone else’s emotional truth. But if he or she says that, the response may be “No… we are the best family. We love each other and we are all super close with each other, unlike so many other families in the world”. The parents are actually convinced this is the case, they learned to suppress emotions and deny them so long ago, they have no idea that acknowledging and directly coaching emotions is critical to relationships. This child is actually being gaslit. But it is gaslighting taking place because this child and the parents are in two different realities.
Where two people have two different perceptions of reality, there is always the risk of gaslighting, which is why in a relationship, usually both people feel they are the victim of gaslighting. When someone’s sense of reality completely contradicts our own, we tend to doubt our own sanity, especially if we have been heavily gaslit as a child and already doubt our ability to sense reality. To understand this dynamic in-depth, watch my video titled: The Most Dangerous Parallel Reality.
If we were heavily gaslit in our childhood, we will develop an internal fragment or part of our own consciousness whose job it is to gaslight us from the inside… An internal gas-lighter so to speak. It is constantly sowing seeds of doubt in our own sense of reality and sanity. It is constantly trying to convince us that maybe we aren’t remembering things right. Maybe what we see, we didn’t actually see, maybe what we heard we didn’t hear and what we feel, we have no reason to feel. This internal part is the one creating a lot of the condition experienced by what mainstream psychology calls “the borderline personality”. This part is usually committed to making us safe by doing two seemingly contradictory things. The first is making us doubt ourselves and live in uncertainty so we can create closeness or alignment with whoever was gaslighting us or held a different perception of reality than we did. The second is making us nothing like them. We were so hurt by their rigid certainty and saw at some level that they were committed to a reality that was false. So, this part wants to keep you in uncertainty and self-doubt so as to not be anything like that person who was gaslighting you. The result is, you are living in the feeling of confusion and insecurity about your own perceptions and sense of reality. It is critical to integrate this part of you so as to un-gaslight yourself in order to be able to heal from gaslighting and not fall prey to it if someone else is gaslighting you. To understand how to do this watch my video titled: Parts Work (What is Parts Work and How To Do It).
There is an obvious issue when it comes to un-doing gaslighting. If you have been gaslit in your life and have committed to healing it instead of simply succumbing to it and perpetuating it, you will become a truth seeker. You will develop an obsession with truth and reality. This obsession will lead you to the understanding that when it comes to awareness, awakening and self-development, questioning your own perceptions is critical. After all, you don’t want to end up like the people who hurt you because they never questioned their reality, which part of you could see was totally false.
To understand why questioning your own perceptions is critical all you need to do is to talk to any scientist. They will tell you that perception can be very false. For example, you don’t see any radio waves and yet, you’re in a virtual soup of them all day every day. If you hold a warm cup of liquid in your hands, you will describe your relationship as closer and better than you will if you hold a cup of cold liquid. Talk to any psychologist who will tell you that you perceive the world through the lens of your social conditioning, which is often not reflective of what is true or healthy. Talk to a spiritual teacher who will tell you that your physical senses are limited and you are perceiving through the ego, not the non-physical self and are therefore not seeing the truth of the universe at large. You can watch my videos titled: Meaning, The Self-Destruct Button or How to Call Bull$#it on Denial or Deflection The Coping Mechanism From Hell. We all get that it is absolutely possible to not perceive truth and reality accurately and that the only way to really heal and awaken is to change the way we are perceiving things. But this awareness then serves as an excuse to doubt our own reality further. The fact that it is possible to not perceive truth and reality accurately does not get to serve as an excuse to gaslight yourself or make gaslighting ok.
Gaslighting is non accommodative by nature. It is designed to completely invalidate one person’s perspective because it serves the other person somehow to be right. And when we are gaslit, it is our own perspective we are allowing to be completely invalidated. We suffer from self-distrust. If you have been gaslit, you need to learn to trust yourself again. Only then can you engage in a look at the concept of truth or perception in a healthy way.
If you have worked on self-trust, I want you to remember that the objective truth or ‘reality’ is an amalgamation of all subjective perspectives. This means it must account for why someone’s subjective truth is what it is. I can promise you that the truth is not “it is what it is… because the person is insane (and therefore invalid).”
The way to get out of a gaslight is to first practice profound compassion and radical acceptance for your own inner experiences and then to work on seeing the objective truth. You can also heal immensely by experiencing other people having profound compassion and radical acceptance for your inner experience. When you are ready to work on seeing objective truth, you have to see the angle you have and the angle they have as a part of the bigger picture. You have to see the why of why they see it the way that they do and the why of why you see it the way that you do. But you must realize that if you presented the objective truth to someone, it would require them to stretch their perspective and they would therefore feel their limited perceptual reality change. This means that if a being presented the objective truth to a person who is holding onto their limited subjective perspective, this person would perceive it as a complete invalidation.
Questioning your perception is about questioning whether and where your perception is limited, not invalid. Humanity must expand past either-or mentality. We must develop AND consciousness. For more information about this, watch my video titled: And Consciousness (The Modern Day Replacement for The Middle Way). This is very different than agree to disagree. Agree to disagree is a commitment to the rightness of one’s own perspective. It is to commit to staying fragmented and also limited.
A powerful question you can use is: How does it serve them to be right? How does it serve them to completely undermine my reality? Ask yourself what their motive is and maybe in certain situations you can even directly ask them what their motive is. Don’t automatically assume the motive is bad. Motive is a big part of gaslighting. There must be a motive for gaslighting, both conscious or subconscious. This is why true gaslighting is used as a manipulative control tactic. Of course you must consider that you could be wrong about the motive. But it is nonetheless important to see what the motive could be. For example, in the movie Gaslight, the husband wanted to get rid of his wife in a way that put the fault on her instead of him, which would be accomplished by her being diagnosed as insane and being put in a psych ward. A parent could want your reality to be different because if it isn’t, they will not get the appreciation and care in their later life that they want from you. A partner could want your reality to be different because they get to be seen as the victim and therefore the good guy in the relationship. A therapist could want your reality to be different because they see that your perspective is ruining your relationships. A friend could want your reality to be different because they are feeling like you do not see the truth of them. Why is someone wanting your reality to be different than it is? How does it serve them? Why are you wanting someone’s reality to be different than it is? How does it serve you? Asking this question may just unearth some powerful needs that you can meet much more directly.
Gas lighting undermines self-trust. It especially undermines your trust in your own mind and senses. Self-trust is a very different thing than being fixed and rigid in your truth and rightness no matter what, which is what you’re afraid of because it is what hurt you so badly. That fear of being exactly like what hurt you may make you commit to self-doubt and uncertainty when what hurt you is gaslighting. It will make it so that you do not have that solid core of personal truth and of self-trust. This is an acutely painful state. There is an alternative. The alternative is to be solid but open. Open to awareness that may make you decide to change. The best analogy I have for this is to remember the sky. The sky is solid. It is always there and yet it is vast and open and it is open to change. It is possible to question your own perceptions and question reality without losing that ‘core’ just like it is possible for the sky to change and yet, to remain the sky.