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Are you familiar with term "gaslighting"?
Probably, yes. In the past decade, It's become quite popular.
Following a 1740% increase in lookups, Merriam-Webster chose "gaslighting" as 2022's Word of the Year, with the definition;
gaslighting ( n )
- psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator
- the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one's own advantage
In their Word of the Year announcement, they made in interesting note.
While "gaslighting" once referred to specific forms of extended and severe psychological manipulation...
... in recent years, we have seen the meaning of gaslighting refer also to something simpler and broader: “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.”
In effect, "gaslighting" is becoming just a popular new word for manipulation.
I dislike that generalization.
I view gaslighting as unique. Here's why.
How Gaslighting is Different
This is my own personal take on gaslighting, and why it's so insidious.
Here's an analogy. If manipulation is poison, then gaslighting is a neurotoxin.
Gaslighting is a particular form of manipulation that uses you as a weapon against yourself.
Here's how it works.
Your identity, values & beliefs are used to control you
Gaslighting is most easily done by someone who know you well.
Your lover... your family... your closest friends. The better they know you, the better they know your identity, values, and beliefs... and there is no better way to manipulate you. You will hold onto those things like a monkey holds on to a banana.
Do you think of yourself...
- as a Good Person?
- as kind, generous, and forgiving?
- as someone has empathy, who cares about other people, and who never wants to see other people in unnecessary pain?
- as fair, and willing to admit when you're wrong?
- as someone who believes that there is a right way in every situation, and only one right way?
- as someone who deeply reflects, and continually questions your behaviors, motives and goals?
Someone who is skilled at gaslighting can use all of these things to manipulate you.
Even your very best attributes, deepest beliefs and strongest core values can be weaponized against you.
But only if you let them.
In the hands of a skilled gaslighter, these turn into;
- You being the bad guy, while they are the victim.
- Lots of confusion
- Lots of self-doubt
- Constant self-reflection and self-criticism on your own weaknesses and shortcomings
The strategy works. It immediately redirects your attention from the situation at-hand to yourself- how you might be misunderstanding the situation, or over-reacting, or being unfair, or generally be the one at fault.
Living in an environment where there is regular gaslighting can be very corrosive to your trust in yourself.
In extreme cases, I have seen very fucked up situations where a person trusts someone else in their inner circle more than they trust themselves. It's weird to observe. A form of fractured thinking... rather like observing a cult.
Don't ever let that be you.
Don't ever do that to anyone.
If you have met someone who trusts someone else more than they trust themselves, I smell some serious gaslighting- a long-term practice of eroding that person's trust in their own thoughts and beliefs, and a gradually developed dependence on the other person.
It's possible for someone to do that entirely to themselves, and I have seen that as well- but even in this case this gradual perspective shift is often... "encouraged" by the other party.
The victim might not be in an insane asylum... but they might as well be.
It leverages confusion, uncertainty, and doubt
Gaslighting directly attacks the validity of your;
- thoughts & feelings
- beliefs & values
The gaslighter often plays the victim, which means that challenging them makes you the Evil Bad Guy.
And all of this creates confusion.
You will continually find yourself feeling uncertain about what's happening, as your attention is constantly redirected ( deflected ) from the other person's behavior to your own perceptions & thoughts.
Because... "You are the problem," not them.
But there's a deeper psychological exploit at work here too.
What make gaslighting particularly insidious is that it merges both rational and emotional arguments into a single combined "attack".
To the person being gaslit, the first reaction is uncertainty and confusion, as they now have a mess of conflicting thoughts and emotions to deal with.
For most people, the process of clearly sorting out thoughts and emotions is already a challenging effort. It takes time and space to reflect, and to sort out the thoughts and emotions about a situation.
A skilled gaslighter will do everything in their power to prevent you from getting that crucial breath of air. Instead, they'll keep tossing you into the deep end of that turbulent ocean of self-doubt.
With no life preserver.
At the start of this article I compared gaslighting to a neurotoxin, and this is why. You feel paralyzed, unable to do anything except await your fate.
Eventually you'll tire out, and give up, because no matter whether you're right or wrong, you need to breathe, and your ego, id, and superego have survival strategies too.
Gaslighters count on this exhaustion, and that's how they win.
It's a battle strategy worth of Sun Tsu's Art of War. In fact, I was curious, so I asked ChatGPT to summarize Sun Tsu's key strategies, and you'll find them in the appendix.
Damn. It's just too similar.
The 8 Gaslighting Strategies
Gaslighting can take many forms, and it can happen in romantic relationships, friendships, family relationships, or even in the workplace.
Charisma on Command has an excellent video on this which identifies 8 strategies that gaslighters use;
- They attack your sanity, making the victim doubt their own mental health and judgment.
- They rewrite the past, twisting the truth, or denying something previously said or done which makes the victim doubt their own memory
- They minimize bad behavior, including the creative use of alternative words to soften meaning
- They normalize bad behavior
- They use empathy hijacking. I needed to do that [ bad thing ] so it was justified.
- They regularly deflect blame onto you, aka "blaming the victim"
- They project their negative qualities onto you
- They make your emotional reaction the problem, minimizing your feelings. You're overreacting, and your emotions are not valid
All of these strategies shift and deflect blame, and put you on the defensive.
Before you continue to the next section, I highly encourage you to watch the video to see these strategies played out.
It will help you evaluate situations in your own life where you may have been gaslit, before we discuss the next section - how to know when you're being gaslit.
How do I know if I'm being gaslit?
Honestly, you probably can never know for certain.
This is one reason gaslighting is so effective. It's based on someone's opinions, emotions, and perspectives that themselves are impossible to verify. This makes the questions and arguments that are raised impossible to in-validate directly.
Maybe this person is manipulating you.
... or maybe they feel unfairly victimized in this situation.
... or, perhaps they really care about you, and are raising legitimate concerns about your beliefs, behaviors, or even your mental health.
... or all of the above, at the same time.
Welcome to Schrodinger's reality.
From the inside of this situation, accurate perspective simply does not exist.
By yourself, you cannot really know, because by definition your perspective is your perspective, and you cannot see beyond it.
The arguments raised by someone who is gaslighting you can sound exactly like the arguments of someone who might have a legitimate concern that you need to consider seriously.
It's a powerful strategy for deception.
It's also why people get sucked into cults, and why it's so difficult to pull them back out.
But there are things you can do.
Demand the space and time you need to do your personal reflection and journaling away from their influence. This is absolutely non-negotiable.
If you're drowning, you deserve air. Make it happen.
Seek the perspective of trustworthy friends, family, and coaches- the more, the better.
Most importantly, try to seek the perspective of people who know both of you well, and who are relatively unbiased.
Identifying a gaslighting situation is challenging, even for a professional. It requires careful observation and analysis of both of the people involved, as well as the situation at hand.
If someone only hears your "side of the story," they really can not offer much useful perspective on the reality of the situation.
Just like Schrodinger's cat, they're in the box with you.
Look for the shadow
Gaslighting can be very subtle. It can be delivered with a soft voice, and a gentle smile. It tends to evade direct scrutiny... but it leaves a shadow in its wake.
Here's what to look for.
Gaslighting is a behavior. If you have an argument with someone and feel like your perceptions and beliefs are being challenged, that does not mean you're being gaslit.
But it this happens all the time, in every situation with a specific person...
Take note of that.
If you find yourself constantly asking questions like;
- Am I wrong here? Am I the bad guy?
- Is this my fault ...at least partly?
- Is my expectation of [ honesty, fairness, exclusivity, etc. ] unreasonable?
- Would I want compassion or forgiveness in this same situation, from someone else if the roles were reversed?
None of these questions are wrong. They're all good things to ask.
But if you find yourself pushed by the other person to ask these questions every time there is a disagreement...
Take note of that.
Most especially- take notice if you find yourself pushed to ask these questions when you feel that someone else has wronged you. Gaslighting is often used as a form of deflection, too.
It's just a swiss-army knife of attack strategies.
They're never wrong
They never- or almost never- accept personal responsibility for their choices and behaviors.
Any pain you feel is your own fault.
And last but not least... motive.
When someone gaslights you, it's typically for one of two reasons;
- They want to deflect blame for something they've done wrong. What? How dare you question their behavior. This is all your fault.
- They want a "free pass" to behave badly in the future. Bullying, abusive behavior, even infidelity.
If you can see the goal they are trying to achieve, you can more clearly see the path they're pursing to achieve it.
Here's the thing. We're all humans, and we are all driven by emotion.
We especially have a lot of emotions in relation to the other humans around us. Desire... like... dislike... respect... fear... security... these are powerful motivators.
That means that at a fundamental level, all humans are emotionally motivated to try to manipulate the people around us.
We see this every day.
- The clothes someone is wearing
- The way they smell
- The tone of their voice when they are speaking to you
- Their body language
The reality is, we're being manipulated all the time, and we're manipulating others too.
It's fundamental to social interaction.
Most of the time, it's not harmful.
But gaslighting is different.
It's different because;
- Gaslighting severely warps your sense of reality
- It gives someone else what they want from you, while giving you nothing in return
- Long-term, it is detrimental to your relationship with yourself
An worst of all, it's practiced most effectively by those closest to you, who know you the best, and who you trust the most.
"That didn't happen.
And if it did, it wasn't that bad.
And if it was, that's not a big deal.
And if it is, that's not my fault.
And if it was, I didn't mean it.
And if I did...
you deserved it."
- The Narcissist's Prayer, by Dayna Craig
This article is part of the series
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
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Where does the term "gaslighting" originate?
Yes, I can explain what "gaslighting" means. It is a form of emotional abuse in which a person makes someone question their own sanity or reality. The term comes from the 1938 play and 1944 film "Gas Light," in which a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she is going insane. In a gaslighting situation, the abuser will deny or manipulate the facts, making the victim doubt their own memory and perception of events. This can lead to the victim feeling confused, anxious, and isolated.
Hello! I highly recommend that you watch the masterpiece, Gaslight, the movie. Ingrid Bergman was so lovely and the way her cruel husband tried to drive her into insanity was so heartbreaking.
Gaslighting & Narcissism
The term gaslighting is quite commonly associated with Narcissism. In fact you can see deep similarities in keyword trending popularity here.
However they are not necessarily linked. Someone does not need to be a Narcissist in order to practice gaslighting.
Gaslighting - Sun Tsu would approve
Hey ChatGPT, what are the key strategies recommended in Sun Tsu's The Art of War?
Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" is a famous ancient Chinese military treatise that continues to be widely influential in various fields including business, politics, and military strategy. Here are a few of the key strategies recommended by Sun Tzu:
- Know Your Enemy and Know Yourself: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." Understanding one's own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, is fundamental to victory.
- The Importance of Deception: "All warfare is based on deception." Creating uncertainty and confusion can weaken an enemy and provide a tactical advantage.
- Avoid Strength, Attack Weakness: Sun Tzu advised against frontal assaults against an enemy at their strongest. Instead, he advocated for attacking where the enemy is unprepared or where they least expect it.
- Speed and Preparation: "Swift as the wind. Quiet as the forest. Conquer like the fire. Steady as the mountain." Rapid mobilization and readiness can bring success in warfare.
- Flexibility in Response: Being adaptable to changing circumstances can turn the tide of battle. Sun Tzu argued against rigid planning and for the ability to adapt as situations evolve.
- Win Without Fighting: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." The most effective strategy is one that allows one to achieve one's objectives without costly battles.
- Use of Spies and Intelligence: Having accurate and timely information about the enemy's plans, disposition, movements, and conditions is crucial for planning and decision-making.
Remember, while these principles were written in the context of military strategy, they've been applied to many other areas of life, from business to personal relationships. The key takeaway from Sun Tzu's strategies is the importance of preparation, understanding, and strategic thinking.
Know your toxins
I'm always amazed at the parallels my mind draws between the systems and interactions I see in one realm- such as psychology- and how neatly they line up with systems and interactions in an unrelated realm.
This has been incredibly useful- I design computer systems that often borrow from unrelated systems and designs, such as business methodologies, or natural phenomena.
But the extend of this "domain crossover" is weird. Logically, what's inside your mind and how nature works should be unrelated things. But... the similarities are so striking. Either reality has underlying patterns that echo across unrelated domains, or my mind makes up a lot of shit.
I was thinking more about the relationship between psychological manipulation strategies, and poisons, and I found this super interesting.
Poisons can be classified in various ways, including their source, their effects on the body, or their chemical structure.
Here are a few of the main categories:
- Source of the Poison: This classification is based on where the poison comes from. For instance, some poisons are natural (produced by plants, animals, or bacteria), while others are synthetic (created in laboratories).
- > Biological Poisons: These are toxins that are made by plants, animals, or microorganisms. For example, botulinum toxin produced by bacteria, venom from snakes or spiders, or poison from plants like poison ivy.
- > Chemical Poisons: These are man-made substances that can cause harm to the body. Examples include heavy metals like lead or mercury, pesticides, and certain types of medication when taken in large amounts.
- Route of Exposure: Poisons can also be categorized based on how they enter the body.
- > Ingested Poisons: These poisons are taken in through the mouth and digestive system, such as certain types of plants, chemicals, or contaminated food.
- > Inhaled Poisons: These poisons are breathed in, such as carbon monoxide or certain types of gas.
- > Contact Poisons: These poisons cause harm when they come into contact with the skin, such as certain types of plants or chemicals.
- > Injected Poisons: These poisons are introduced directly into the bloodstream, such as venom from a snake bite or certain drugs.
- Effects on the Body: Poisons can also be classified based on what systems or organs they affect in the body.
- > Neurotoxins: These poisons affect the nervous system, including the brain. Examples include snake venom or certain pesticides.
- > Hepatotoxins: These poisons affect the liver. An example is alcohol in large amounts.
- > Nephrotoxins: These poisons affect the kidneys. An example is antifreeze.
- > Hemotoxins: These poisons affect the blood and its clotting. Examples include certain types of snake venom.
- > Cardiotoxins: These poisons affect the heart. Examples include certain drugs like digoxin if taken in excess.