In the weeks leading up to #IDOConsent on 30th November I’m sharing a few posts dealing with consent and non-consent at all levels: in wider culture, in our communities, in our relationships, and with ourselves. In this post I look at how gaslighting operates at all of these levels.
Many thanks to Justin Hancock for the podcast conversations which were the starting points for these posts. You can find those over on megjohnandjustin.com and on our Patreon. If you want to learn more about consent, there’s no better place to start than Justin’s new book Can We Talk About Consent? Available for pre-order now. He’s also written a great post on gaslighting in relationships.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is when somebody manipulates another person so that they doubt their own reality or sanity. The word comes from the play and movies called ‘Gaslight’ where one character tries to make another crazy by constantly questioning her experience. One thing he does is to dim the gaslights in her home. He then tells her that they haven’t got dimmer and that she’s imagining things.
In her forthcoming book, Lori Beth Bisbey says that gaslighting does two damaging things simultaneously. It convinces you both that:
- Your perception is distorted, and that
- Another person – or group’s – perception is reality
Lori Beth points out that, as well as being a sign of a non-consensual relationship, gaslighting makes us more at risk of non-consensual situations. For example, gaslighting about our experiences when we’re younger makes us more likely to mistrust our own feelings, and to overly trust other people’s sense of how things are. In later life this may mean that we override our sense of danger that something isn’t right about a situation or relationship. It may mean that we believe a partner or friends’ sense of what is normal or acceptable in a relationship even when it doesn’t feel good to us. It may mean that we doubt our sense that something non-consensual or abusive has happened to us when it has.
What’s involved in gaslighting?
Common features of gaslighting include:
- Minimisation (e.g. it wasn’t that bad, it didn’t have such a bad impact, no-one intended any harm, you’re making too much of this)
- Denial (e.g. it didn’t really happen, your memory is inaccurate, what you’re describing isn’t real, you’re acting crazy, everybody else agrees with me so you must be wrong)
- Victim blame (e.g. it was your fault, you brought it on yourself, surely you could just have done X and it wouldn’t have happened, bad things only happen to bad people)
- Defensiveness (e.g. it’s nothing to do with me, I’m blameless, you’ve hurt me by raising this), and
- Offering a superficial fix that doesn’t get at the extent of the problem (e.g. couldn’t you just try…? Let it go. You’re overthinking this/making a big deal. Look on the bright side).
Rather than being something that only a small minority of abusive/narcissistic people ‘over there’ do in deliberately manipulative ways, gaslighting is something we’re all socialised into within our non-consensual culture. It’s also on a spectrum, with most of us automatically going to a gaslighting response sometimes.
For example, we might gaslight unintentionally, and/or for understandable reasons when:
- We don’t want to acknowledge that a close person is struggling so much and that we might be powerless to help them,
- Their experience shows us just how unjust and painful the world can be,
- Their vulnerability frightens us because we’d hate to be that vulnerable ourselves,
- Their experience highlights a privilege/oppression dynamic that we benefit from ourselves, or
- We’re scared that our own behaviour might have been harmful in some way either to them directly or to other people in similar ways in the past.
Lori Beth writes that gaslighting can be deliberate, but it can also be unconscious on the gaslighter’s part, for example when it involves protecting them from a negative view of themselves, or when it involves them asserting their need to be ‘right’ in order to shore up their sense of themself.
Levels of gaslighting
Gaslighting happens at all levels. One of the reasons that we struggle to spot it, easily fall into it in our own relationships, and internalise it and gaslight ourselves is because it is so common in wider culture, and in the communities and organisations that we’re part of.
You might find it useful to identify forms of gaslighting that were familiar to you at the following levels growing up, or which you see in the world and relationships around you in the present.
Gaslighting has been evident in political responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as denial of the extent of the problem, its impact, or the fact it is impacting some – marginalised groups – far worse than others. #BlackLivesMatter has also highlighted how those common features of gaslighting are generally present in everyday responses to police brutality against black people, and in racism more broadly.
The common features also map onto the rape myths which surivors generally hear when they speak about their sexual assaults. These are present in jury decision making, and are often internalised by survivors themselves, making it hard for them to acknowledge what happened to them, or to speak out about it.
It’s important to be aware of how marginalised and oppressed people in particular tend to be gaslit in wider culture, for example in the portrayal of trans people as not really existing and as perpetrators of violence when they are statistically vastly over-represented as victims of violence.
We can be mindful of when our go-to response when hearing about a situation is minimising, denial, victim blame, defensiveness, and coming up with quick fixes, that we’re at risk of perpetuating cultural gaslighting in that area.
Gaslighting also happens in systems such as organisations, communities, and families. A common form of gaslighting involves individualising something which is really a systemic/structural issue. Examples of this include:
- ‘Explaining away’ why all the people high up in an organisation are white men, rather than acknowledging and addressing the role of structural sexism and racism,
- Scapegoating one individual in a community as abusive rather than recognising an underlying issue with normalising of non-consensual behaviour in that community,
- Blaming an individual for being over-sensitive rather than dealing with structural racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. in an organisation,
- Giving a brief training or workshop on some form of injustice rather than tackling it throughout the system.
Lori Beth Bisey highlights gaslighting as a common feature of many of our early family lives. Many children are taught to distrust their needs, feelings, and boundaries because they don’t have these heard, reflected back, and respected by caregivers. Gaslighting children risks them learning to mistrust their own experiences, becoming unable to tune into vital needs and boundaries, and being overly trusting of potentially unsafe others rather than checking them out of building trust over time.
Common examples of gaslighting in childhood include adults:
- Telling kids they shouldn’t – or don’t – feel the way they feel about something,
- Pretending that tough things aren’t going on in their family or community when they are,
- Making light of their struggles,
- Assuming they must have done something to cause any bullying or hurtful behaviour they experience,
- Suggesting their experiences or identities are ‘just a phase’ or not real,
- Blaming them for finding something hard when this may well be due to a form of disability, neurodiversity, or mental health struggle,
- Telling them they have to accept adult behaviours after they have expressed discomfort with them (e.g. forms of touch or invasions of privacy).
One reason why gaslighting in families or educational settings is so damaging is that it can set us up for emotionally and otherwise abusive later relationship dynamics. If we’ve been taught that our feelings are not valid, that we don’t have a right to privacy, and that our body is other people’s to touch even when we don’t want it, we can easily fail to recognise when people later on in life are undermining us, trying to control us, or even assaulting us.
Signs that you might be gaslit in relationship include: feeling foggy, lost, or murky rather than clear about what’s going on, and finding yourself protecting that person – and their view of themselves – in conversations with other people.
It’s useful to ask yourself whether your experiences and views are affirmed or undermined in the relationship, whether another person’s views are put across as always ‘right’, and/or whether any difficulties are blamed on you rather than being seen as relational issues and/or there probably being responsibility on all sides.
It can be the case, of course, that both or all people in a relationship engage in gaslighting behaviour. In conflictual and non-consensual dynamics people can often end up attempting to undermine each other’s versions of events in gaslighting ways. Important things to hang on to hear is that there are generally multiple stories through any situation, and that it’s important to affirm the truth of each person’s lived experience of it, without undermining anybody else’s. More on this in the break-up chapter of my book Rewriting the Rules.
There are links to more posts on consensual and non-consensual relationships at the end of this post.
Sadly, because of cultural, systemic, and relational gaslighting, it is easy to gaslight ourselves, which often contributes to our suffering.
For example, if we have mental health problems, common stigma around mental health can often lead to us questioning whether what happened to us was really ‘bad enough’ (minimising), wondering whether our mental health problem is even real (denial), blaming ourselves for it (victim blame), mentally defending the people/situations that traumatised us (defensiveness), and telling ourselves that we should be able to easily fix this as individuals, rather than recognising the extent of the trauma and/or the wider systems which are involved in our suffering (superficial fix).
Working with a trauma-informed therapist can help us learn how to reality-test, how to regulate our feelings and come to a more trusting relationship with them, and how to find and articulate our needs and boundaries.
Responding to gaslighting
At all these levels it can be helpful to respond to the common features of gaslighting in the following ways – when drawn to gaslighting behaviour ourselves, or when experiencing gaslighting from others.
- Minimising: Instead acknowledge the ongoing impact of what happened, and that it may always be there.
- Denial: Instead recognise that what happened was real and painful, and allow any feelings to be present, assuming that they are sensible.
- Victim blame: Locate the responsibility for what happened in the person/group who behaved in the harmful way and/or in wider systems and structures, not individualising it in the one who is suffering or was victimised.
- Defensiveness: Be accountable for your role in what happened if relevant, acknowledge the systems and structures involved.
- Superficial fixes: Ask the person concerned what helps, and practice these things. Do your homework to learn what is generally supportive in such situations. Seek consent before giving any advice. Try to empower the person in finding their way through rather than assuming you know what’s best for them.
Importantly please be kind and gentle with yourself around this. Because gaslighting is such a common go-to response at all levels, and because most of us grew up with it, it is really hard not to engage in this behaviour with ourselves and with others. We all need to do the work of learning how to treat ourselves kindly and honestly, knowing our trauma responses and stuck patterns, staying with our feelings, and articulating our needs and boundaries where it’s safe-enough to do so.
You can find more of my resources about consent on my consent work page.
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