Sat | Nov 17, 2018

Michael Abrahams | Don't get burnt by gaslighting

Published:Monday | December 11, 2017 | 12:23 AM

Several years ago, I was told of an incident involving a man whose wife caught him with another woman. According to the story, the man took the other woman out on a date to the cinema. His wife got wind of what was happening, turned up at the venue, and sat beside her husband, who was already cosily seated beside his sweetheart.

The man allegedly asked both women if they wanted anything from the concession stand, then got up, saying that he would soon return. But, instead of buying food, he left the premises and went home. When his wife arrived at their house, he angrily confronted her regarding her whereabouts, and accused her of having an affair, absolutely denying that he was the person that she saw at the movies.

I have not been able to verify the story, but what I now know is that there is a name for this type of dishonest and manipulative behaviour. It is known as gaslighting, one of the cruellest forms of mental manipulation. In executing this technique, the manipulator sows seeds of doubt in the intended target, or targets, by lying and using other dishonest tactics, causing them to question their reality and their sanity.

The term originated in the 1938 play 'Gas Light', by British dramatist Patrick Hamilton, and its subsequent film adaptations. In the story, a man cunningly attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by psychologically manipulating her. The title refers to the dimming of the gas lights in the house that occurs when he uses the gas lights in the attic to search for hidden treasure. His wife notices the dimming lights and comments on it, but he insists that she is just imagining a change in the brightness of the lighting, causing the woman to think that she is losing her mind.

It sounds crazy, but gaslighting is a very commonly used, and effective tool to control and manipulate. Sociopaths and narcissists are versed in its use, not just to bridle their spouses, as in the abovementioned play, but also to exercise control in parent-child and other relationships. Some religious and political leaders use it as well to brainwash their followers.

Gaslighters live and move freely among us. In order to avoid being a victim, one needs to be astute and aware of their characteristics and tactics.

One of the most common, and easily identifiable traits, is that these people tell blatant lies, often denying saying what they said, even when there is proof of their dishonesty. A splendid example is America’s gaslighter-in-chief, Donald Trump.

Trump repeatedly lies, even when there is audio or video (or Twitter) evidence that he is being dishonest. For example, in November 2012 he tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by, and for, the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” He later denied tweeting it, even though the evidence exists in cyberspace.

Also, three days after a widely circulated video clearly showed one of his supporters sucker-punching a protester who was being led out of a rally, Trump confidently stated that his supporters only fight back in self-defense.

Some gaslighters will even invest time in setting up scenarios to mess with the heads of their intended victims, like a man I know who sent a gift to his wife on her birthday, labelled it “From your secret admirer”, and vociferously accused her of infidelity when it was delivered to their home. Another tactic is to deliberately provoke you to wrath and, when you express anger, calmly tell you that you are out of control and in need of help.

Another tactic used by gaslighters is projection. They will accuse you of the unsavoury behaviour that they exhibit, sometimes convincingly. I know a woman who is very intelligent and kind, and had been faithful to her boyfriend of several years. Her spouse, on the other hand, was selfish, not as intelligent as she was, and had several sexual encounters with other women during their relationship. However, he would constantly denigrate his girlfriend, telling her that she was stupid, selfish and crazy, and accuse her of being a “whore”.

Not only would he do this, but while concealing his own nefarious deeds, he would tell members of her family how terrible she was, in order to garner support.

To add to the confusion, gaslighters will may occasionally say something nice about you, to make you second-guess your evaluation of them, and think that they may not be as bad as you thought. This emotional roller coaster wears victims down over time. The manipulation is carried out gradually and insidiously, so that the victim becomes like the proverbial boiling frog: if a frog is placed suddenly into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out, but if the water is initially tepid, and is then slowly brought to a boil, the animal will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

The best way to deal with gaslighters is to avoid them if you can. Keep them out of your space. Even when confronted with evidence, they will not admit to being dishonest and will show no remorse for their hurtful actions.

And if you are in an intimate relationship with one, it is best to leave, for your own sanity. But your departure must be carefully planned, and executed neatly and swiftly, as they will not entertain rational and peaceful conversation, and may become violent.

Don’t get burnt.

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