Gaslighting comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which Gregory (played by Charles Boyer) deliberately tries to make his partner, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), lose her mind by manipulating her, her surroundings, and her friends.
The term now refers to a devastating form of emotional and psychological abuse, as the gaslighter manipulates and chips away at their victim’s sense of self and reality.
It is also more common than you might think, When I shared my experience of gaslighting, women and men reached out. It seems I was not alone, and neither were they.
Gaslighting is insidious and difficult to prove. There are no physical scars or markings. Often the perpetrator is charismatic – the sort of person everyone knows and likes. Gaslighting tends to be associated with narcissistic personalities, but it’s important to note that while some traits are common, there’s no definitive corollary. Gaslighters lie. When caught by their lies – they’ll lie about lying, often deflecting blame onto their victim.
As a term, gaslighting has been overused. Psychologist Dr George Simon says, “there is a scale to gaslighting, from lying and exaggerating to controlling and domination”. It’s considered psychological abuse, and as such survivors can experience PTSD and depression.
If I challenged discrepancies in his stories he’d blame my memory or shoddy calculations
I’m unclear as to whether people always gaslight deliberately, but I do know it’s effective. Victims tend to internalise blame due to the complex nature of psychological and emotional trauma.
Since I was gaslit, I’ve undergone trauma counselling and battled countless anxiety attacks during which the very reality of the world around me faded. Months after realising I was gaslit, I’m still recovering. Still rediscovering trust. Still trying to rebuild my sense of self.
Gaslighting relies on lying, deceit, manipulation, which are couched in benevolent terms. When I began to question the narrative I was told, I’d be accused of not trusting him. Of course, I apologised. ‘I’m only worried about your mental health’, he’d reply, allowing him to keep lying, and deflect concerns as manifestations of my depression.
If I challenged discrepancies in his stories he’d blame my memory or shoddy calculations. I remembered wrong, it was the wrong month, he never said that, and so on. He made sure to keep me apart from the only people who could counter his lies with the truth. ‘She’s crazy, a liar, a bitch’, he’d say. So, my circle of trust became smaller, until only he fit.
Seeing gaslighters for who they are shatters their illusion; being accountable for their lies is one thing they cannot bear
Indeed, this might be what perpetrators count on – twisting victims’ sense of reality so they lose trust in their own sense of judgment. Soon, you feel you cannot trust yourself, your friends, or anyone, save for the person gaslighting you. Breaking away from this reality is conducive to trauma.
A trend emerged in my conversations with people who experienced gaslighting: similar methods of behaviour and of manipulation. It’s as if they read the same manual, ‘How To Control Your Loved One In 10 Easy Steps’. Gaslighters craft an illusion of who they are, and they hold so tightly to it, and you are interwoven into it. You become a prop for their ego, their vision of themselves in the world. Their image matters to them, so they want you to be smaller. The minute you begin to challenge their world, they become aggressive. Seeing gaslighters for who they are shatters their illusion; being accountable for their lies is one thing they cannot bear.
I feel no need to conceal trauma. Truth is on my side. Being public allows others know they aren’t alone. The need to have your experience validated prevails among gaslighting victims. Cultivating awareness of this sinister form of manipulation is the first step in letting victims know they are seen and believed. To all those who confided in me: I hear, see and believe you. Trust your reality. Stand in your truth. I’m standing right by you.
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.
See What You Made Me Do premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly, and every episode will be simulcast on NITV. (Episodes will be repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND from 9 May).