When I first came across the meaning of “gaslighting” I realized that this term for emotional abuse in a romantic relationship very clearly described the root of many of my past clients' issues.
Gaslighting gets its name from the 1944 movie Gaslight, which starred Ingrid Bergman as the wife of a man who is trying to make her think she’s crazy. In the movie, her manipulative husband goes to the attic from time to time and fiddles with the gas to the lights in the house, making them fade and brighten. When she reports seeing something happening with the lights, her husband insists there has been no change. He also plants objects in her clothes unbeknownst to her, which she later finds and wonders about.
That in a nutshell describes the tactic of the person doing the gaslighting. They want to make the victim or target think they are wrong or not in touch with the truth. When these actions are done repeatedly, the target starts to question whether they are indeed mistaken. When done over a long enough period of time and with some preexisting conditions in place, the target will feel like they are going insane.
How the gaslighter operates
It's common for the aggressor to begin the campaign of gaslighting when they are about to be caught in a lie, or when the target perceives something about the aggressor that the aggressor doesn’t want to admit to. This is usually something about themselves. The gaslighter can be very convincing. Little by little, they will plant doubt in the mind of the accuser until they begin to question their own perception of reality.
A client who I was helping on this subject found an inappropriate text message on her husband’s phone from an old girlfriend. When she confronted her husband about it, he denied it ever happened and said that she must be seeing things. My client had been under a lot of stress at the time, and he used that against her, saying, “Really dear, you’ve been trying to juggle so many things lately. Is it any wonder that you thought you saw something?” Another client recalled how every time she reminded her partner of something he had said in the past, he told her she had a bad memory and that he had never said it.
Another way in which a gaslighter operates is that they carefully craft their arguments. Many of these individuals are highly intelligent, so you may feel like you can’t win an argument with them; and because they always need to be right, you won’t ever win. As if this behavior wasn’t bad enough, gaslighters will convince others outside of the relationship that they are nice, considerate, and loving, and would never be capable of what you are accusing them of. They can take years to carefully and methodically build an image that is beyond reproach. There is a well-known and much-loved comedian who is currently being accused of such acts. Some of the accusers report him saying things like “Who would believe you?”
A typical case study
My client, Joanna, was still reeling from the breakup of her last relationship. She had sworn off all men in her life. She knew that this decision, which she had made seven years before she saw me, was interfering in her ability to grow her new coaching business. “There’s just the feeling that I gave up on my dream of being in relationship, and I’ll give up on my dream of my practice when I go through a struggle in my business.”
We worked on several gaslighting scenarios involving her ex, George. A few involved George saying, “You are much too sensitive. Who would ever put up with you?” We used EFT to collapse the remaining feelings about him, and then we moved on to the underlying preexisting condition, which I often find with the targets of gaslighting: low self-esteem and low self-worth.
Joanna had grown up in a household where she was the lost middle child. Her parents ignored her while praising her older sister’s every accomplishment and showering her younger brother with attention for being the “little Prince”. Joanna knew that part of the problem with George had been her willingness to accept his manipulations because she was afraid at the core she really wasn’t loveable.
With our sessions and her tapping in between, Joanna was able to gain a real love for herself. Not only did her newfound self-confidence translate into her doubling her client list shortly after our work. A few years later, she wrote me to tell me that she was engaged.
Alina Frank is an Accredited Certified EFT Master Trainer of Trainers.