It’s not all in your head: are you being gaslit?

In love, we’re all open to falling foul of gaslighting. In her new book, professor of philosophy Kate Abramson tells us how to spot the signs
Rosemary's Baby, the ultimate gaslighting
Rosemary's Baby, the ultimate gaslighting
2 minutes ago

Gaslighting is one of those experiences that can be difficult to grasp. If you find that’s true, try this: think about one of your worst experiences, an experience that either itself or in its effects dragged on for months. Now imagine that while you were going through that, the voices around you either flatly denied that anything worth being upset about was going on, radically minimised it or reconceptualised the experience so that it would not be so uncomfortable (for them) to live with.

You protested. The protestations were greeted with, ‘That’s crazy’, ‘It’s not a big deal’, ‘You’re overreacting.’ Somehow you endured. But the very fact of your survival then became woven into the rewriting of history, to confirm the minimising and denials and later repression. (‘Well, you survived, didn’t you?’, ‘It all worked out in the end’ or ‘That was just a blip.’) So, at no point during it did someone (or perhaps someone did, but not enough, or perhaps just not the people most dear to you) look at you and confirm the reality of the horror with which you were dealing. To the contrary, they said you’re crazy for being upset and over-sensitive, and any difficulty you might have was ‘all in you’. That’s what gaslighting is like.

Suffering on account of gaslighting is not a sign of fragility, weakness or an exceptionally damaged psyche, it’s a sign of being human. We all need interpersonal confirmation, especially in difficult situations. And when that confirmation is refused or deliberately thwarted in order to undermine radically someone’s ability to make claims and decisions and to protest bad conduct, it’s gaslighting.

It’s not a coincidence that the play (Gas Light, 1938) and movies (Gaslight, 1940 and 1944) that gave rise to this term involve interactions between spouses. In close adult relationships one is especially vulnerable to emotional manipulation. And there are reasons to think that those who engage in gaslighting may be more likely to do so in intimate contexts, not only because they can more readily do so but because it is more emotionally threatening for them to be challenged by an intimate partner. Most of us are more emotionally responsive to disagreements with loved ones than to disagreements with strangers. We react by feeling especially curious or sad, or perhaps anxious about negotiating potential practical conflicts or conflicts in values. The gaslighter reacts by trying to make the challenge go away by configuring its source as crazy.

It is important to consider the variety of ways these targets are characterised by their gaslighters — for example, too sensitive, paranoid, crazy or prude. Gaslighters often use love as a tool in gaslighting. Being in a loving relationship with someone plausibly gives us reason to give their views about what is in our interest a little extra credence. We needn’t go very far in this direction to see how this can become a gaslighting tool. Then, when a partner says, ‘You’re paranoid’, there is that moment to pause and second-guess oneself.

Loving someone also involves wanting to be with the beloved, and wanting the beloved to want to be with you. In this way, it’s built in to the structure of loving someone that their expressing a desire not to be around you is felt (absent further explanation) as a fracture, however small, in love. And that, too, gives the gaslighter a tool. Consider the way in which the phrase, ‘I’ll just give you some space,’ can function simultaneously as a dismissal (‘You’re so nuts I don’t want to hear you’) and a threat (‘continue this way and I will disappear’).

Loving someone involves wanting them to fare well. The evident distress on a gaslighter’s face as they say, for instance, ‘Oh, have some sympathy for the guy’, isn’t just about ‘the guy’: to the extent the gaslighter is distressed, and one wants people whom one loves not to be distressed, one will want to relieve his distress. We want our beloveds to think well of us. To say to someone who loves you, ‘You’re crazy’, is not only to condemn but also to thereby threaten one of the basic desires involved in loving.

In the aftermath of gaslighting, it’s common for targets to speak of having ‘lost the ability to trust’. That’s a quick way of encapsulating what we’ve seen is a much more complicated truth about this facet of the damage of gaslighting. Trusting well isn’t so much a power as it is a skill — a skill of affective regulation, interpersonal insight, and negotiation, of setting apt normative expectations and revising them where called for, of perception, of moral reflection. In this light, one way of capturing what gaslighting does to trust is to say that it annihilates the skill but leaves the power.

There is no way around the long road back to the skill of trusting. But there is a road back. It might not be the worst idea to take a little philosophy on the road with you too.

‘On Gaslighting’ by Kate Abramson, £20 (Princeton University Press) is out now