Gas Lighting

‘Gas Light’ Image courtesy of Vox.com

Britannica definition of Gaslighting:

An elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings.

Although the term ‘Gaslighting’ is frequently used in modern parlance, it originates from a stage play named “Gas Light” produced in 1938 in the UK, followed by a British movie and then the more famous American movie in 1944, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, pictured above.  In essence, the husband is trying to persuade his wife that she is becoming insane by a series of deceptions including deliberately dimming and brightening the gas lights.  I won’t reveal anymore of the plot but it is an excellent movie with twists and turns.

In real life, gaslighting can exist in sexual and marital relationships, working relationships and friendships.  When writing this post, I wondered if I had been gas lit by boyfriends or my husband.  There were elements of manipulation in one or two relationships but I am not sure if it was truly deceptive or intended to undermine me.  My husband certainly manipulates me to get his own way and vice versa.  Before I learned to drive, he tried to persuade me that he was an excellent driver and that I was just an anxious passenger.  I am surprised his pants didn’t burst into flames…  Occasionally, I will use a sugary sweet voice to ask for something but that is just a normal part of married life.

Truthfully, I think I was only gaslit by a colleague in a work situation.  We started to work together after I had been very successful with a grant application.  It probably grated on her that I was being praised about that accomplishment.  I had some years working in the community sector and she did not.  Over a period of six months, she criticized every element of my working pattern until I doubted my own skills.  She instinctively knew that I was vulnerable to being bullied – it was like a cat with a mouse.  Part of me realized that she was making unfair criticisms of me, especially about my writing skills!  Despite that, it wore me down and I eventually resigned.

Sometime later the gaslighter did the same to a new colleague who became unwell because of the unfair treatment.  At that stage, I was asked to help with an intervention.  I hate confrontation but I was also very angry that I was not the only victim.  At the meeting, I snapped and yelled at her which is very unlike my work persona.  She burst into tears and curiously admitted the truth about our relationship.  She was insecure and jealous of my success and that was her excuse for gas lighting me.  I felt no validation just sadness and guilt that my earlier intervention may have helped.

On reflection, I think she had left her previous employment under a cloud but I am not certain.  It would have been even worse for my mental health to confront her in a timely manner – I needed some time to decompress and evaluate what had happened.  Sometimes gaslighters get away with their behavior because it can be subtle to detect but she was asked to resign.  Later, she and her husband divorced and I wondered if she did the same to him.

One would think that I learned a lesson about believing in myself, wouldn’t you?  Sadly not.  The very next new colleague did something similar.  This was even more complex as I thought we were friends.  I perceived that her jabs and criticisms were part of a jokey friendship.  She called me her minion, even though I had been offered her job (and turned it down) and was part of the interview panel.  This time it was infinitely more subtle and I was beginning to think I had a problem communicating with my colleagues.  The reasons for the gaslighting were EXACTLY the same!  What is wrong with my self-esteem – perhaps my psychiatrist could tell you?  I was so embarrassed and confused that I blamed myself.  This time I had the perfect excuse for resigning – Teddy had been offered an overseas posting and I escaped to Egypt.

For many years I kept in touch with this colleague who had become a ‘friend’.  There was a part of me that admired and liked her despite everything.  Finally, my common sense kicked in and I ghosted her (but that’s a topic I will leave alone).  What provokes this behavior?  In my situation (but not the Gas Light movie), the gaslighter’s insecurity made them try to undermine me.  Did my seemingly confident persona get on their nerves?  I can be very tactless and laugh too much at work.  My theory doesn’t follow through as the perpetrators continued their gaslighting behavior with a variety of other people with different personalities.  Does needlessly criticizing people give them pleasure or is it a form of sadism?

Goodtherapy.org states:

One of the most common reasons people gaslight is to gain power over others. This need for domination may stem from narcissism, antisocial personality, or other issues. Like most cases of abuse, gaslighting is about control. … Over time, the abuser may convince the target that they cause the abuser’s aggression.

I hope that none of my readers have been victims of a gaslighter but please share your experience if you have been.  During these experiences, one friend and colleague reached out to me asking me if anyone was treating me badly.  I regret not telling her the full facts but I am not sure that I was aware of what was happening.  In other words, the gas lighters were successful.  Now that I am older, I hope that this won’t happen to me again.  On two occasions I was offered jobs by people (in Egypt and America) that I thought might be possible gas lighters or bullies, so I demurred with an excuse about my mental health.  It helps that I am now more open about my vulnerabilities and mental health disability. 

Finally, I questioned if I could have gaslit any of my employees or colleague.  My flaws are many; dogmatic, disinclined to delegate, obsessive but not a gaslighter. Clearly, I can have poor judgement in interviews, given my last experience.  The only thing I am sure of is that I didn’t act with malice in the workplace.  Be kind to your colleagues.

40 thoughts on “Gas Lighting

  1. I remember going to see Gaslight at the Atheneum courtesy of Camille Skilling around 1975!
    I have met many in my work life who display this trait but spend my time with honest and ethical people who balance this out.

    In a world where you can be anything, be kind x

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Some of your experiences sound very painful, Kerry. It’s sad that colleagues try to manipulate one another, but I guess it’s a human trait we all have the potential for. Living by the golden rule would make everyone’s lives so much better.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I am sorry that you went through this, and not once but twice!
    Please don’t misjudge yourself – no one can ‘be prepared’ for this kind of behaviour. I think especially if you are not an abusive person yourself, you just can’t think the way they think and can’t see it coming.
    I don’t think from your description that I have ever experienced gaslighting myself, though I have been in different types of abusive relationships (starting with my parents) which were very difficult to get out of. But now I’m in a good place, with a good husband and my parents and I haven’t spoken in many years.
    But my eldest daughter has been the victim of gaslighting. She is an actress and had a director, who was previously her teacher. We thought something was wrong for a long time but couldn’t figure it out. I even took her for a long weekend at a spa as I felt like her confidence was so low and she seemed to have her lost her inner energy somehow. Finally we realized that the director had been really abusive in exactly the manner you describe, constantly undermining her and making her feel terrible about herself, as an actress and as a person. My daughter told me it got so bad that she had even started to have suicidal thoughts. It was really terrible.
    My son’s girlfriend said that it was gaslighting – I hadn’t really known the term, and it’s only really all clicked after reading your article.
    My daughter is doing well now – she’s just completed a course in Berlin which she said was very healing and she seems to me much stronger and happier again.
    Take care Kerry.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I am so sorry that my post resonated with you but hope that it might help someone in a similar position. So, so glad that your daughter has moved on and life has taken a positive turn. I think this happened twice to me because I was in the same workplace but some of it was bad luck. Curiously, my near misses in Egypt and America were with two Europeans – is it less common in the States?
      Employers often don’t notice gaslighting because it just seems like criticism of someone’s performance. Ironically, the victim often does make mistakes because they are so anxious all the time with the beratement.
      My mum had a mental illness and could be narcissistically critical, so part of me feels it is normal for someone to mistreat another verbally. Thank you so much for your comment and I hope your daughter goes from strength to strength. I found that cognitive behavioral therapy helped me and talking gaslighting through with an objective professional would be helpful.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think it’s really great that you wrote the post. In itself it might be part of the healing process for you. But I think it often helps others too, to write such posts. It may be it helps them to recognise something that is happening to them or they may feel less alone.

        I am British but live in Germany. I can imagine it happens quite a lot here actually because there is really a huge drive for perfectionism. It starts at a really young age and many young people grow up filled with self-doubt.
        For example, you start being graded already in P1 and teachers don’t mark your paper with what you got right, but with what you got wrong. And you get graded in everything. There’s constant testing and it’s really, really tough. They are trying to change things for the better now, but you can really see how it’s instilled in people. I can imagine that would make gaslighting particularly effective here. Maybe it even makes people more prone to doing it – as they feel inadequate themselves? Just a thought.

        My husband actually had an issue at work about two years ago. (I feel like I am learning from your post and questioning things!!) He got a really huge promotion. It was really exciting as he was working on developing a new technology which had really far reaching effects. He really felt it was the pinnacle of his whole career, especially as he would be managing one major part of the project.
        Another guy was managing a different part. What became clear to me, after my husband finally opened up about it, was that the other guy was really stressed and somewhat overwhelmed by the work expected of him.
        Anyway, he started making digs and telling always my husband that he was doing something wrong. Then he started making up things and telling other people, like bosses in the company that my husband was messing up, even though he hadn’t he’d made mistakes and making complaints about him! He made my husband feel really incompetent, and he started to doubt himself. I am not sure if this is also gaslighting.
        Anyway, my husband was so stressed all the time. The job held huge responsibilities, as you might imagine, and my husband started having panic attacks. He’d never had a panic attack before. It was always about that guy’s behaviour. I knew he was having trouble with the guy, and found him really stressful to deal with, and I knew that he really felt the weight of the responsibility on his shoulders. You know how men are, they find it so difficult to say what’s going on. But when he finally opened up to me and actually spelled out what was happening then I could give him a different perspective. I told him the guy was abusive and it was not ok. I gave him a list of things to go and say to his own boss and I said if all else failed he could leave the job and he’d find something else. But his boss is great and he immediately sided with my husband and really supported him.
        My husband was so worried about his reputation at work. He had a fantastic reputation up to then. Like you said, just from losing self-confidence and nervousness a few things did go wrong then and he got really worked up about it. But once he talked to me I helped him to look at it all from a different perspective. He could kind of process it differently.
        He did leave the project. He told his boss he would bring it to a certain point, and after that he had to leave as he could not work with that guy any longer, as he was detrimental to his mental health. But I felt bad for him, that guy really ruined something for him, that he should have really enjoyed and been proud of.

        Thank you. My daughter is doing really well at the moment. She also did a bit of therapy right afterwards. The therapist only saw her a few times though as he said she really is completely sound. I think that was really important for her. The director had constantly told her she was was mentally unstable.

        My mum also has a mental illness. It’s really difficult to deal with, even in the aftermath.
        I wish you well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Curiously, my husband and I were chatting about this post yesterday. We realized that two of his colleagues had tried to gaslight him. At the time, we just thought there was a difference in culture.

        I am sorry that your husband had to leave his project (mine did too) and glad your daughter saw a therapist. It was appalling for the director to say she was mentally unstable – he should have been fired.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s interesting. Probably it happens more than we think from what you said. I’m sorry that happened to your husband.
        I know, it’s such a shame that both your and my husband had to leave. But as I said to my husband at the time, you can’t control how someone else behaves but you can decide how things go in your own life.

        The director was terrible. Originally she was a teacher at my daughter’s drama school, and that’s how they got to know each other. There were some ‘fall outs’ then. But somehow my daughter mostly got something from working with her.
        Her then boyfriend was also training to be an actor at the time (now he’s a director) and worked on a project with the same teacher. Anyway the boyfriend had a huge bust up with her in rehearsals one day (the director) and my daughter was contacted by another actress as she was really worried he would harm himself. My daughter called us in hysterics as you might imagine and we were all trying to find him and call him. Eventually my daughter found him and calmed the situation down.
        So in their studies they do loads of emotional stuff, as they are taught to really access their emotions, so we just kind of assumed the director had just gone a bit to far and hit something pretty painful.
        At some point after that the director/teacher was fired from the academy and told our daughter and a few others that she had been victimised etc. My daughter felt bad for her.

        My daughter finished her training and left the academy with the best grades of the year and raving reviews from critics for her final performances there. So she all ready to go. She got a couple of smaller acting jobs and one as a drama teacher running a drama workshop and everything was going well, but then Corona hit and she lost all of her jobs. She was crushed. Also her boyfriend lost all his jobs. So it was pretty tough for them. But she’s a very positive person and she picked herself up and started an ensemble with one other actress and that director. So basically they were building their own company. Their aim was then to do various shows around the country and she worked so hard on the roles. Invested all the money she could etc.
        As the director wrote some of the scripts she’s not even allowed to use the roles she worked so hard on and she lost all the money she invested. Shame.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I lost my contract work in the Pandemic, too, but it will probably return eventually. It has been a very trying time for the whole world – I can’t imagine what it is like in Haiti or Cuba.
        Your daughter is obviously very talented, so when we reach the ‘new normal’, I hope the world opens for her.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s just been awful. I know how affected my family and I. But then I think of the people who lost people (my close friend in Scotland lost her partner at Christmas, who had no previous illness at all, he was never off work or anything, and he was only mid 40’s) and I think we got off pretty lightly so far.
        I was so horrified by the news from India. Absolutely awful.
        I hope you get your contract back soon!

        My daughter is very talented – thank you. It’s quite funny being the mum of an actress. It really hit me when I saw strangers taking photos of her the first time. It was very strange!! But I love going to watch her. She loves the most emotional roles – like she played a schizophrenic, an anorexic, a really evil soldier, a woman whose husband committed suicide… Then she played Snow White!! So something quite different. Mostly she works in theatre but currently she’s working on a film project with her ex-boyfriend.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I am sorry to hear about your horrendous experiences, Kerry, a victim of gaslighting can be pushed so far that they question their own sanity, and that’s why the best way to outsmart a gaslighter is to disengage. You can show up to the discussion with a mountain of evidence, videos, recordings, and more, and a gaslighting person will still find a way to deflect, minimize, or deny. It is more worth it to walk away with your perception intact. Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you very much for your insightful comment, Aiva. It didn’t occur to me that my choice to leave was the best one. The other victim, however, needed the job and I am glad I was able to help with the intervention. They did deflect, minimize and deny. K x

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post Kerry!
    There is a lot gaslighting in dating. It happened to me a long time ago. Looking back, I don’t know how I put up with it for a couple of months. Back then the term gaslighting was not around, so I thought of him as a master manipulator. But he is the poster child for gaslighting.
    It does make one feel insecure and question him/herself. I am glad I wised up.
    Blessings to you! ♥♥

    Liked by 3 people

    • You are the first person to mention gaslighting in a romantic situation and I am fascinated. It makes you wonder what he achieved from his behavior. I guess it is a form of domestic abuse and I am glad you left him. K x

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for sharing your stories, and so sorry you were a victim of gaslighting in more than one situation. I have fortunately been able to avoid this in a work situation, although I must say that one of the reasons I enjoyed teaching is that it’s you and the students, rather than an office environment where you are with the same people and stresses every day, and those types of behaviors can foment. There’s a fine line between gaslighting and bullying, and sometimes they seem to go together.
    I have seen this in personal relationships, especially when I was a victims assistance volunteer with domestic abuse situations. The saddest for me personally was a cousin of mine, who has been like a sister to me. She has dealt with several physical ailments so she has been up and down with her meds. At one point when I now believe she was struggling with being overmedicated, her husband was gaslighting her and I suspect he wanted to have her committed. I took her away to Mexico for a week and one night she fell asleep without her meds and woke up very alert and coherent. We realized what had been happening and she was able to confront her husband when we returned. In most domestic violence situations, the victim doesn’t have the strength or confidence or is afraid to get out or stand up for themselves.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Ruth. I am so horrified by what your cousin went through but thank goodness you were able to intervene. Gaslighting is such an insidious form of domestic violence because it causes you to doubt reality. Plaudits to you for working with domestic violence victims – I am not sure I could.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences being gaslit, Kerry. That didn’t sound like an nice workplace where you were criticised all the time. The scary thing about it is that more often than not, many people don’t realise they are being gas lit until quite a time has gone by. Work can be such a competitive arena. Everyone wants to show that they can do the job and get a payrise and unfortunately sometimes this comes at the expense of others.

    Getting along with colleagues can be tricky. As Kaitiscotland alluded to, sometimes you don’t know who you are working with until you are in the position. That can be tricky – you either put up with them and be miserable, or leave and face the toll of finding another job.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life but I’ve never been on the receiving end, never felt the need to exert control or indeed I’ve never seen it happen with other people. Clearly it must go on but here, at any rate, if we have a problem with people we just punch them in the face *joke*

    Liked by 1 person

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