By MJ Denis, LPC, LMFT Associate, CST, CCPS
Gaslighting is a term used to describe a set of behaviors one person uses to create confusion in another person by altering the recipient’s reality. Gaslighting can be unintentional, semi-conscious, or intentional.
Anyone can be a gaslighter, and most gaslighting happens unintentionally.
For example, recently I gaslighted my son. I was in the kitchen preparing a salad for dinner when my teenager walked into the room, scowled in the direction of the vegetable-topped lettuce I was tossing, and said, “Ugh. I hate salad.” I retorted in a playful voice, “It’ll be okay, kiddo. This salad will be yummy. You love salad, remember?”
My son looked at me skeptically and walked out of the room. I realized then I had stated something that simply wasn’t true. My son doesn’t find vegetables tasty nor does he like salad. In my attempt to help my son have light-heartedness about the salad, and to convince him to eat the salad, my words actually disputed his reality. I stated an opposing version of reality as truth. I didn’t purposely intend to confuse or harm him, but I did create some confusion by gaslighting him.
Sometimes gaslighting is done with a degree of intentionality and awareness, but without a full understanding of the impact it has on the recipient. A person might recognize if they say certain things, another person may have an expected response.
For example, in my early adulthood, when I felt sad, rather than accepting comfort, I pushed people away so I could be alone with my pain. On occasion my husband would see me cry and ask, “What’s wrong?” I would answer, “Nothing. I’m fine.” I knew that if I told him I was okay, he would stop inquiring. Even though he could see my tears, my words conveyed an alternate reality as truth. My husband would look puzzled, yet he would typically leave the room, thus doing the very thing I hoped for. I didn’t realize I was gaslighting him. I only knew if I said I was fine, he would go away. My gaslighting created confusion in my partner and caused him to back up. This is a common reason people gaslight — to create distance between themselves and another.
Unfortunately, gaslighting may be intentional and malicious. This is the most detrimental and abusive of the three kinds of gaslighting.
In working with partners of sex addicts, I sometimes hear stories of purposeful and malevolent gaslighting. In one such example, an addict went on a business trip. He withdrew cash from the ATM, turned off his cell phone locater, and stopped answering his wife’s texts or calls for the afternoon. When he called his wife several hours later, she demanded he tell her why he withdrew cash and what he had been doing while unreachable.
He responded, “I needed cash to pay for taxi rides and to give as tips. I was unreachable because it’s hard to get cell service downtown. That’s probably why my cell phone locater didn’t work. You know cell phones don’t work perfectly 100% of the time. I’m surprised you are getting so worked up. You really have high anxiety. You should probably see someone to help you with that problem. And you are so paranoid. It really is a turn off. I can’t believe you would pick a fight while I’m on a business trip. I’m disgusted with you, and now I don’t want to talk to you for the rest of the day.” She barely heard him hang up the phone as she stammered, “I’m so sorry! I wasn’t trying to pick a fight!”
In this example, the gaslighter diverted his wife’s attention away from his behavior by giving excuses that were unlikely, yet not completely implausible. She doubted herself, and this created enough confusion in the wife that when he criticized her and told her she needed to seek treatment, she wondered if that were true as well. He then used contempt and rejection. In this confused state, the wife felt desperate as she not only didn’t want to be abandoned, but she wanted him to see her clearly and not push her away. She called him back to beg for him to talk with her, putting to the side the gnawing feeling he had betrayed her and instead focusing on her apologies to him.
Gaslighting, regardless of whether it is done unintentionally, semi-consciously, or intentionally, leaves the recipient feeling off-kilter, confused, and therefore, able to be more easily manipulated. Although gaslighting is done with varying degrees of intentionality and awareness by the gaslighter, its impact on the gaslightee is the same.
MJ Denis is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Sex Therapist based in Austin, Texas. MJ’s path has led her to specialize in areas involving unhealthy boundaries, domestic violence, sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, sexual addiction and infidelity. She uses her certification as a Certified Clinical Partner Specialist to help partners of sex addicts heal from the trauma of betrayal.
If you're thinking, "Ok, now I know I've been gaslighted what do I do?" next week MJ will finish off the gaslighting series with "What Do I Do Now That I Know I’ve Been Gaslighted?"