Gaslighting... What Every Woman Needs to Know

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How gaslighting manifests and plays out, why women are vulnerable to this insidious form of coercive control, and how to break free

The term gaslighting originates from the name of a 1930 stage play, Gaslight, a nuanced cautionary tale, wherein a husband deliberately undermines, manipulates, destabilizes, and confuses his wife in an effort to drive her mad and gain control of her family fortune. In turn, she begins to question her sense of reality, and doubt her perceptions and feelings.

Plain and simple, gaslighting is coercive control, the targeted and prolonged manipulation and abuse of one individual by another. Perpetrators of this form of abuse are invariably people we know, trust, and often love. They are often in a position of perceived or real power over their target, an intimate partner, a close friend or family member, or someone in a close professional working relationship.

Gaslighting and power imbalance

While anyone can become the victim of coercive control, most victims of gaslighting are women. In The Sociology of Gaslighting, author Paige L. Sweet examines gaslighting through a sociological lens, explaining that gaslighting involves “an imbalance of power between the abuser and the person they’re gaslighting. Abusers often exploit stereotypes or vulnerabilities related to gender, sexuality, race, nationality and/or class.” Further, Sweet contends that “gaslighting draws from and exacerbates the gender-based power imbalances present in intimate relationships and in the larger social context.”

As women, we often prioritize the well-being of others and place ourselves last on our list. We self-scrutinize and internalize feelings of shame, guilt, and unworthiness when we stand up for ourselves. We are accused of being hypersensitive if we speak out in a work situation where we are feeling exploited, taken advantage of or our contributions are unacknowledged or unappreciated. Our reactions to feelings of being manipulated or undermined are often dismissed and categorized as over-emotional or hysterical.

Recognizing the perpetrator and the signs

Emotionally abusive individuals — whether deliberately or through learned habits or patterns — often seek ways to undermine and control someone with qualities they admire, someone they fear losing, with no regard for the impact their manipulations will have on their target.

Recognizing the perpetrator — the intimate partner, a friend, or a family member — can be difficult, as coercive control plays out over a prolonged period of time. The abuser, quite often an individual with low self-esteem, mounts a campaign of destabilization, including unfulfilled promises, repeated no-shows, denials, and minimized hurt feelings, interspersed with praise and, in cases of intimate partner abuse, declarations of love. Such manipulations leave their target fearful, insecure and riddled with self-doubt about their own perceptions and sense of reality.

A close work colleague may seek to control and exploit someone they perceive as a valuable or talented co-worker or an individual under their supervision. The gaslighter in a professional setting might take ownership and credit for their target’s ideas or work. They might exclude their target from team meetings, or withhold important deadlines or other relevant information. In private, they might undermine their target’s judgment, criticize and cast doubt on their work, abilities, or potential for advancement, while praising them to the rest of the organization.

Forewarned is forearmed

Gaslighting is more than a current buzzword and a trendy topic. It is a highly dangerous form of abuse and abuse of power that is demoralizing, distressing, long-lasting, and very difficult to escape.

When it comes to protecting one’s self from coercive control, forewarned is forearmed. Understanding and identifying how gaslighting can creep in and play out in women’s personal and professional lives is key to protecting ourselves and those we love from this dangerous form of emotional abuse.

Predictable patterns, feelings, and outcomes

Gaslighting plays out in prolonged predictable patterns, behaviors, and outcomes. Gaslighters lie and deceive to confuse and manipulate their victim. They challenge their perceptions and sense of reality, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They often categorize their victim as crazy, belittle their capabilities, and call into question the accuracy of their memory of events and facts. They change subjects and shift focus when confronted with their own behaviors, and shower their target with praise and affection in an effort to maintain control. Particularly in situations of intimate-partner coercive control, the abuser isolates their partner from friends, family, and support systems, further diminishing their sense of autonomy and reality.

Victims of gaslighting find themselves time after time caught up in situations that do not align with their sense of what is real, accurate, or true. They lose touch with friends and family members who could provide them with the help they need to stand up for themselves. They find themselves making excuses for the behavior of their abuser, often going to great lengths to defend and protect them. Over time, isolated, and plagued by self-doubt, they lose their sense of autonomy, reality, self-reliance, and self-esteem.

Escape is difficult but not impossible

When a victim of gaslighting shows signs of regaining their footing, backing off, or moving on, they are often manipulated into staying put with praise and false promises. They will need to mount a tremendous effort to regain their freedom and autonomy.

As with any situation involving abuse, escaping from a gaslighting relationship is difficult, but not impossible. The first step involves the victim deciding to leave, and taking steps to protect themselves as they remove themselves from the relationship. Secondly, the victim needs to surround themselves with personal and professional support as the abuser attempts to exert or re-establish control. In therapy, victims will learn insights, strategies, and life skills to prevent future incidences of gaslighting. Thirdly, the victim will need to terminate all communication with their abuser and permanently cut the abuser out of their life.


3 Steps to Ending Coercive Control

If you or someone you know is a target of gaslighting, escape is possible. It is critical for victims of gaslighters to disengage from their abuser and seek the support of friends, family members, and professionals. Here are three steps to breaking free from a gaslighter:

DECIDE to leave. The decision to leave a situation where you are controlled is the first step in breaking free.

SURROUND yourself with supportive friends and family members. Seek the help of a therapist to learn skills and strategies to help you avoid falling prey to manipulative people in the future.

CUT OFF all contact and communication with your abuser. Disengaging, and blocking communication with a gaslighter is the most effective and efficient means of ending the manipulation.

Source: The Sociology of Gaslighting, by Paige L. Sweet, American Sociological Review 2019, Vol. 84(5) 851–875 © American Sociological Association 2019 DOI: 10.1177/0003122419874843 journals.sagepub.com/home/asr