Getting Past Gaslighting

Psychologist Robin Stern is committed to empowering us to break free from the spell of manipulative relationships—whether in the public sphere or in personal lives. Her advice is something we all need to listen to.

On March 15, Stern spoke to an audience of over 200 shelter professionals taking part in one of JWI’s monthly webinars, educating them about the signs of gaslighting and how they can help clients recover from its effects.

By Sue Tomchin

 Photo credit: HORACIO MARQUINEZ

Photo credit: HORACIO MARQUINEZ

“I’ve lived for such a long time in the House of Gaslight, clinging to my experiences as they unfolded in my 20s and railing against the untruths that painted me as an unstable stalker and Servicer in chief,” Monica Lewinsky writes in an article in the March issue of Vanity Fair. Her affecting piece explores her feelings at the 20th anniversary of the investigation that turned her “24-year-old life into a living hell.”

Lewinsky’s use of the term, gaslight, to describe how she bore the brunt of the vilification and the accompanying trauma for her affair with President Bill Clinton, probably wouldn’t surprise Dr. Robin Stern. For the past 30 years in work as a psychoanalyst, she has encountered gaslighting in a variety of forms, although usually not played out in stories on the nightly news or the pages of tabloids.

Stern is the author of the 2007 book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, one of the first books that explored the phenomenon for a general audience. “As a therapist I thought it was important to point out this pattern of psychological bullying that I was noticing in my practice and among some of my friends, and the world in general of relationships,” Stern told me when we spoke, soon after a new edition of her book was released by Harmony Books, a division of Penguin Random House.

“The women I saw being gaslighted—whether patients or friends—were competent and powerful, accomplished and attractive,” Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, writes in in the introduction she penned for the book’s reissue. “Yet somehow they had become enmeshed in relationships—at home, at work, and in their families—that they could not seem to leave, even as their sense of self became ever more eroded.”

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Gaslighting is elusive and hard to identify. It works subtly, progressively destabilizing those who are experiencing it, Stern explains. “You feel yourself slipping into confusion and self-doubt—but why? What has made you suddenly question yourself? How has a person who supposedly cares for you left you feeling so awful?”

In the book, Stern draws on compelling examples from everyday life to write about the three stages of gaslighting--disbelief, defense and depression—and provides examples of scenarios that many of us may recognize from our own experiences:

  • Does your mother constantly belittle your clothing, appearance and choices but instead of sticking up for yourself, you often defend her to your friends?
  • Does your partner openly flirt with someone at a party, but when you confront him or her, says “you are imagining things as you always do”?
  • Are you finding that it’s difficult to make small choices in your life such as food, clothing or travel, because someone in your life is telling you what you should be choosing?
  • Are you finding less joy in your life than you did previously?

A gaslighter is a respected or trusted person—someone whose power the gaslightee has bought into. He or she can be a romantic partner, family member, friend, boss—or even a president—who tries to “convince you that you are misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused,” Stern writes. Playing on your worst fears and deepest desires, the gaslighter can leave you believing that you are wrong and he or she is right.

Stern told me when we spoke that it was the use of the term during the 2016 Presidential campaign that prompted the call from her publisher about reissuing the book.

“People began to use the term gaslighting to describe what was going on in the country, to question whether Donald Trump was gaslighting us by manipulating reality,” she said. His charges of fake news and alternate news were “setting people up for a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about what they were seeing.”

One specific incident that she referenced from the campaign involved HBO host John Oliver. “Oliver said he had not invited Trump to be a guest on his show and Trump said that he had been invited four times, yet had refused,” Stern told me. The future president was so insistent that Oliver began to doubt his own memory and went to his producers to confirm that no invitation had gone out.

“When you don’t take responsibility for your actions, or deflect the responsibility, or try to undermine the credibility of the person asking you about your actions, that’s gaslighting,” Stern told a reporter from the Huffington Post who asked her about that incident.

The term gaslighting was inspired by the classic movie, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman in her Academy-Award-winning role as the wife of Charles Boyer. Boyer is dashing, well-spoken, and seemingly solicitous of his lovely, but increasingly fragile wife. But, as the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that things are not what they seem. Through manipulation, Boyer attempts to undermine his wife’s confidence in her own perceptions, and ultimately to drive her to madness. Fortunately, Bergman finds the strength (with the aid of a savvy Scotland Yard detective, Joseph Cotten) to break free of Boyer’s spell.

[To delve deeper into the origin of the term, check out this article from the LA Review of Books. It traces the term back to the 1930s; that was when the play that inspired this movie was written and also when Adolph Hitler was manipulating world opinion during his rise to power.]

While this dynamic is certainly at work in public life—and Stern advices us to “find sources of news that we trust, the analyses we can rely on, the facts that hold up to scrutiny”—it’s her understanding of this phenomenon in the personal sphere that makes her book essential reading for women.

While gaslighters can be of either gender, empathy, one of many women’s greatest interpersonal assets, can make them especially vulnerable to its snare, Stern explained to me. “Empathy is really an essential ingredient in any intimate relationship, enabling you to be attuned to what someone is feeling, letting them know you understand by your body language, facial expression and tone of voice.” Empathy can become a trap, however, if “we’re so busy trying to figure out what someone else is thinking and feeling,” we get out of touch with our own thoughts and feelings—our own reality.

Stern shared the scenario of a woman who makes plans for a date, but then is stood up. Instead of thinking, “I need to find out what’s going on,” and recognizing that she doesn’t like being treated this way, she focuses so hard on understanding the other person’s side that she ends up excusing bad behavior.

And when that person tells you that you’re “too sensitive” and asks you why you are so uptight about him or her not showing up, “You can end up not knowing what reality is anymore,” Stern said. By the end of the encounter, you may ask yourself, “Did I get mistreated or am I just very sensitive?”

While gaslighting is “its own kind of stealth abuse,” and is not necessarily accompanied by other kinds of abuse, it often comes into play in domestic violence, Stern noted in our conversation. When she was researching her book and spoke to professionals who treat women at shelters for abused women, she learned that gaslighting and other psychological manipulation that “spins reality” can be worse than physical abuse. “If you don’t know what reality is, how do you even know if you are being mistreated and whether you want to stay or leave,” she said, adding, “It’s very scary.”

Like domestic abuse, gaslighting is about power. A gaslighter needs “to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power in the world,” Stern writes.

When I asked Stern whether a woman has to jettison her desire for romance in order to avoid being gaslighted, she emphasized that the goal is not to give up on romance, but “to pay attention to the whole person.” Because you need that love so badly, are you afraid to lose the relationship? Are you so attached to the fantasy that he can change or that you can work it out that you keep hanging in, failing to pay attention to what’s really going on and the way you feel? “It’s not just when someone spins your reality that you feel bad,” Stern said, “it’s that you are losing contact with how you actually feel because somebody else is telling you how you feel. Over time, you don’t even know anymore.”

Stern advises those who think they are being gaslighted to keep track, in writing, of the way they feel. In her book, she includes 20 telltale signs that may indicate that you are experiencing gaslighting.

“Write down: What did I say? What did he say?” Stern advised. “If your head is spinning after a conversation, write it down. If you are often second guessing yourself and think you may be crazy, write it down. If you find yourself apologizing a lot or find yourself having trouble making simple decisions, write it down. If you find yourself leaving out big chunks of information when you talk to your friends about the guy in your life, write it down. If you find yourself not feeling well in your relationship, it may be gaslighting and it may not be, but at least you are looking to see if that’s what’s going on.”

Striving to approach relationships from a sense of wholeness, rather than deprivation, helps us avoid falling getting caught in the gaslighting dynamic. “I believe that many of us come to relationships—in love, friendship, work and family—with an underlay of that ‘extra wish’ for not just the present connection but also a way to repair the past,” she writes. “It’s as though we’re starving for a certain type of care, understanding, appreciation, and the gaslighter somehow promises to feed us.”

Her book’s message is ultimately one of growth and empowerment. “Part of remaining gaslight-free is being vigilant about how, in general, you’re living your life,” she writes. “Are you constantly preoccupied by the last fight you had with your boyfriend, your mother, your boss, or are you focusing on the life you want to lead, a life of integrity, fulfillment and joy?”

When you, “rework or leave unsatisfying relationships and choose new relationships that feed your sense of self,” Stern writes in her book’s concluding paragraph, “you have the chance to become a stronger, more solid person who charts her own course and lives by her own values.”

These are goals all of us can aspire to.