You may have heard the term “gas-lighting” in the psychological abuse and recovery literature, but what exactly is it, why is it used and are there any ways to spot when this is happening or has happened to you?
Gas-lighting is a form of psychological abuse designed to erode a person’s sense of reality, perception and sanity. Common forms of gas-lighting include claiming things were said or done when they weren’t, or vice versa, and a general intentional flipping of reality on it’s head to confuse the victim.
It is a tool often used by psychopaths/sociopaths, narcissists and other toxic personality types and can create long lasting emotional damage to it’s victims. It is therefore very important for people to be aware of this tactic.
It derives it’s name from the 1938 stage play and subsequent film adaptations of the same name, where an abusive husband plays mind games with his wife by deliberately dimming the gas lights in the house, but then denying his wife’s perception that this is what is happening, despite him knowing full well they they are dimming and he is the one causing it.
It can take a number of different forms, but most commonly takes the form of constant denial, inversion or flipping of reality, projection, blame shifting and loaded statements and accusations. These emotional abuse tactics are all designed to make a person question their own judgement and sanity and give their power further away to the psychopath or sociopath.
Character Types Susceptible to Gas-lighting
There are a number of character traits which make a person particularly vulnerable to gas-lighting, in that they may already be naturally predisposed to question themselves. Here are some traits which can make you an easier target for gas-lighting, or may even indicate that you have been gas-lighted in the past:
- You are a naturally self doubting person who tends to second guess yourself a lot (Did this happen, did that happen, did, i say that, did I leave this there? etc etc.)
- You have weak ego boundaries and a general inability to say no. Some common terms for this are “co-dependent” and “people-pleaser.”
- You often ask others for their opinion or for advice on what you should do.
- You are prone to giving your power away and deferring to others in situations.
- You have a tendency to always blame yourself 100% whenever your are involved in a situation where something goes wrong.
- You tend to get bothered and hot under the collar about accusations or criticisms made against you. You feel the need to vigorously defend yourself and ruminate about it for a long time afterwards
See also Kali Morton’s excellent video on gas-lighting.
How Does Gas-lighting Work? Denial, Mind Games and Inversion of Reality
There are a number of different emotional abuse terms and tactics that come under the umbrella terms of gas-lighting, but the three listed above of denial, mind games and inversion of reality cover many of the methods used. They are designed to erode a person’s sense of self and reality and make the person think they are losing it.
The first tactic that psychopaths use of denial is very common and just means they will flat out deny that something was done or said, even when confronted with cast iron evidence. Because a psychopath is just able to look you in the eye and outrageously deny or lie about something without even blinking, this is often enough to fool self doubting people, even if they have evidence to the contrary.
It is the brazenness and outrageousness with which psychopaths and narcissists are able to lie and manipulate that takes so many people aback.
They just seem able to do it without any fear or giving away any physical cues and so often it is simply enough to deny something and the accuser will think they must be mistaken even if they are not, especially if they are prone to second guessing themselves anyway.
The related tactic of inversion of reality could just be argued to be another form of denial but warrants special mention here because it is so common. A psychopath/narc will flat out deny something was done or said when it clearly was.
Again people who have conclusive evidence but are prone to self doubt are often targets here. They are often intimidated by the psychopath’s seemingly brazen confidence in their denial and back down, even when they are right.
Over time this repeated denial and inversion of reality by the psychopath chips away at the victim’s sense of reality and perception. They may have a natural tendency to second guess themselves but after repeated gas-lighting they are left with no confidence whatsoever in their perception and often feel a loss of identity as they don’t even know who they are anymore.
The related tactic of mind games already covers the first two we mentioned and is a wider umbrella term for the relentless psychological abuse psychopaths inflict on their victims. As well as denial and inversion of reality, this may also include projection, blame shifting, and underhand or undermining comments.
Projection and blame shifting are related and occur when the psychopath refuses to accept responsibility for anything even when it clearly is their fault and twists things again so that the victim is the one at fault.
The psychopath projects their own flaws and faults and responsibility onto the target and leaves them with a load of psychological negativity that isn’t rightfully theirs to carry.
Again this is exacerbated if the target has a natural tendency to blame themselves and accept responsibility for things even when it is not appropriate or warranted. The psychopath/narc will often spot this about a person and take advantage of this psychological weakness. They realize they can easily dump and project blame and responsibility onto this person.
The mind games can also take the form of subtle digs and undermining comments where the psychopath makes comments where they are ostensibly saying one thing but meaning another.
You will often find they relentlessly steer conversations back to a place where they are taking overt or subtle digs at you, constantly chipping away at your perception and beliefs and trying to plant the belief in your mind that it is you, and not them, that has the problem.
Even if you try to conduct conversations with them completely sincerely and non politically from your side, you will find they constantly look for opportunities to use the content of any conversations to further gas-light you.
This ties back to a great summary definition of the Cluster B disorder mindset “Any and all communication is an opportunity for abuse” for these people. This is why you must forego all sincerity when interacting with the insincere.
In the later stages of a toxic relationship they will often become more brazen and just make openly outrageous comments and accusations, such is the extent to which they have eroded their victim’s identity and perception of reality.
Psychopaths also take a pleasure in playing some of these mind games “in plain sight“, where these underhand, concealed digs are made out in the open in front of others, but the hidden or alternate meaning is only understood by the victim.
They often get a “kick” out of the fact they are able to chip away at the person in front of others, but without these others knowing what is going on. This tactic can serve to further isolate the victim from a group as well.
To summarize then, gas-lighting is a gradual process whereby the psychopath slowly erodes and undermines a victim’s sense of self, reality and perception, to the point where they no longer trust themselves at all and are completely under the psychopath’s control.
The gradual and relentless nature of the process cannot be over-emphasized, since the psychopath is very happy to “play the long game” on this and slowly break the person down psychologically and chip away at them with slightly ever more increasing boundary violations and inversions of reality over time.
Victims can be left with a total loss of identity and self confidence which can have devastating effects on their ability to function effectively and independently in the world so it is very important this tactic of psychological abuse is more widely understood and recognized so it can be defended against.
Gas-lighting comes under the more general umbrella of the relentless mind games psychopaths and other toxic people play with their victims
Gas-lighting & The Smear Tactic
This is another form of gas-lighting and emotional abuse that deserve special mention as it is so pervasive and insidious in toxic people who want to undermine and discredit another person. The smear tactic initially comes from law and politics and is another way to undermine a person by the use of false accusations.
Martin Armstrong intelligently articulates this tactic and how it is used in the legal profession. A lawyer will ask a defendant, right off the bat, “When was the last time you beat your wife?”. “I didn’t”, the defendant may respond, but it is already too late.
The lawyer has set the agenda by embedding the accusation into the question to begin with so immediately the accused is on the defensive, having to defend something he may not even be guilty for.
The defendant may from that point on will have to spend all his time and energy defending something that may not even be true about him.
This is an excellent way to control a discussion and create a false narrative about someone, and as much it is used in the macro sphere in politics and law, it is every bit as prevalent in the micro sphere of personal relationships. Toxic people do this all the time to undermine someone, especially in a work setting.
Making statements about someone which already contain embedded (false) assumptions and accusations is another way of gas-lighting as it immediately puts the person on the defensive. They’ve assumed control of the debate by making an accusation against you which you will now feel you have to defend, even if it isn’t true.
In this way they drain your time and energy by inducing you to defend against projections and assumptions they have chosen to load into statements about you or questions they ask you.
Psychopaths will increasingly and relentlessly do this when it suits as it is part of the more general area of mind games with which they are very familiar and adept.
Through repeatedly loaded question, they will chip away at your self esteem and credibility to the point where you may start to believe the assumptions and accusations they are making about you, even if they aren’t true or are misrepresenting the facts of what happened in a certain scenario.
False or misleading assumptions or allegations can begin to dominate discussions and conversations about you and sap your time and energy.
People need to especially watch out for this in toxic work environments. Spreading false rumours and accusations about someone and putting ideas in people’s heads about someone by painting an inaccurate picture of them or pouncing on small mistakes is a common tactic psychopaths and sociopaths use to control and undermine their targets.
The smear tactic is often used in politics but also to dis-credit and undermine someone in work and personal relationships
Secondary & Tertiary Gas-lighting
As if the gas-lighting from the psychopath or narcissist wasn’t bad enough, victims also often have to suffer from knock on forms of gas-lighting, where they are also invalidated by onlookers and therapists.
These are often labelled secondary and tertiary gas-lighting respectively. Let’s run through each in turn briefly:
Secondary Gas-lighting – This is where onlookers in situations also invalidate the person by claiming they don’t see the abuse that it going on, or insist the psychopath or narcissist “isn’t like that”, or some other excuse. Sometimes isn’t intentional but can still be very damaging, as the victim can feel further isolated and unsupported in situations.
The very dynamic of Cluster B abuse can also create this issue, because psychopaths and narcissists only target very specific people with weak ego boundaries and an inability to say no. They don’t go after “neuro-typicals” with strong boundaries, because they know these people would tell them where to go in no uncertain terms if they tried gas-lighting them.
Therefore these onlookers don’t see the more toxic side to these people, because they aren’t targeted, whereas more vulnerable people with weaker boundaries are. This adds to the “schism” in how the victim experiences the toxic person, and how other people do, and can act as a secondary form of gas-lighting, hence the term.
It should also be said however that secondary gas-lighting is not always unintentional, but sometimes a byproduct of weak, easily influenced and apathetic onlookers in work and personal situations, who can on some level see what the psychopath/narc is up to, but don’t want to stand up against them. They want an easy ride and don’t want to cause trouble or get in the psychopath’s bad books.
Unfortunately, personality disordered people know this is the case and very often take advantage of this.
See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for a conceptual framework of how toxic people often play apathetic onlookers off against vulnerable people.
It is a very common way in which these people compound the gas-lighting and trauma they inflict on their victims, and unfortunately happens a lot in workplace scenarios especially.
Tertiary Gas-lighting – This is where a victim of gas-lighting turns to a professional therapist for guidance, and they also invalidate the person, most often because they don’t have training in Cluster B personality disorders, abuse dynamics, and interpersonal trauma.
The therapist may claim they don’t really know what the person is talking about when they describe the abuse they suffered, or try to place blame on them, or may suggest that this all may be “perception” and in the victim’s head.
The damaging effects of this should be clear. The person the victim is turning to for support and validation can re-gaslight them and increase their distress.
Moreover, in most cases this will not be the fault of the victim – the toxic behavior patterns of Cluster B disordered people is very real. It is well documented, but many therapists are not aware of it, and how to effectively help people recover from it.
This is a shortcoming of the therapist, which is often projected onto the client, who will often not be able to stand their ground, such has their perception already been messed with by the abusive person. They may start to think they really are “losing it”, if the person they turn to in confidence for help also doesn’t believe them.
This is why getting a suitable therapist to recover from psychopathic/narcissistic abuse is so important. They need to have the right training, skills and temperament, otherwise, they can prevent proper healing from occurring.
See our Find a Therapist page for a crucial mini guide on finding a suitable therapist to recover from gas-lighting and relationships with psychopaths and narcissists, with specific criteria to look for.
See also our full article on secondary and tertiary gas-lighting for more on these forms of gas-lighting
Defending Against Gas-lighting
There are two main tactics we can point to to defend against this pervasive tactic of psychological abuse. The first is the most obvious step of understanding and being able to articulate what is going on, and the second step is having the ability to pull out of the distorted reality the psychopath has trapped the person in and step back and look at things from a wider perspective again.
Both these tactics can help you identify and see clearly what is going on, but ultimately the solution in many cases is not confront but to get away from the people who are inflicting this gas-lighting on you. We will go into reasons why this is the case in the next section. For now let’s look at each of these two points in turn.
Understanding and Articulating Gas-lighting
This is the first and most obvious step, since what often makes gas-lighting so distressing for the victims suffering it is that they most often don’t have a conceptual framework to understand what is happening to them at the time. They just have a growing sense that something isn’t right and they may start to feel they are “losing it”.
Most people don’t even know there is a term that exists that describes exactly what they are going through, and that is exactly what this and other online resources such as the videos linked above are trying to resolve by spreading awareness of the topic.
For books which cover the subject, there are many resources but two stand out as covering this subject in depth are Jackson Mackenzie’s Psychopath Free and Tim and Jane McGregor’s The Empathy Trap. Click the links to view both books on Amazon.
See also our Resources Page for more books on psychopathy, narcissism and abusive dynamics.
Just having a name for what they are experiencing is often a huge relief for people who are going through this or have been targets, though this is only half the problem of course as the behavior will still continue from the psychopath.
In some cases this may give the victim the confidence to confront the psychopath and attempt to expose their behavior to others. The person can let the psychopath know “I know the kind of person you are, I know exactly what you’re doing, and if your behavior doesn’t stop, I will report you for harassment and bullying”
In certain cases this may work. Confronting may be an option if the person has plenty of support from others and evidence to back up their claims, but is also not advised in many cases since psychopaths are expert manipulators and can very adeptly turn a group against someone if they don’t already have strong support from within that group.
Nevertheless if the person does have strong backup and support then confronting may work, since psychopaths are predatory types and will attack the easiest target. If they see some resistance and defenses have sprung up to protect their victim, they will often move on to an easier target.
Otherwise if the person does not have strong support in the environment where this is happening then confrontation is not recommended. However the old adage that “knowledge is power” is most definitely true and being armed with a definition and term for what is happening then provides the impetus to take appropriate action and get away from the psychopath as quickly as possible.
It may also be a good idea to log events so you have a recording of things which were (not) done or said, particularly in a work environment, so you have a consistent body of evidence to contradict the psychopath’s constant lying and inversion of reality.
This can provide a sanity check to people who are in the midst of gas-lighting to have proof of things that happened in physical form rather than constantly second guessing themselves in their own heads.
However, we should add the caveat that this should only really be seen as a temporary step and the person must constantly check in with themselves and realize the lengths to which they are going to to protect themselves and that they should not ideally be having to do this in the first place.
If the person gets trapped into this kind of behavior over a long period of time then obsessive compulsive tendencies can form so excessive logging of events should only be a short term solution whilst more permanent solutions (confronting or getting away from the psychopath) are being put in place.
Stepping Back From the Situation
The ability to step back from toxic relationships and see clearly what has been going on and how things have deteriorated is a crucial ability that victims must develop, as one of the very aims of gas-lighting is to trap the person in a narrow, fixated reality where they are constantly second guessing themselves and can no longer “see the wood for the trees.”
Gas-lighting will often leave victims questioning their own sanity and thinking they are somehow losing it. They lose all ability to trust their own judgement and perception and this often means they defer ever more power to the psychopath, making them even easier to control, and so the vicious cycle continues until the victim’s identity has been completely eroded.
Therefore it is very important for people caught in the midst of this to be able to step back and take a bird’s eye view on the situation. If they do this they will often see the degree to which their life and psychological health has deteriorated since a certain person entered their life. They can then take appropriate action to get this person out of their life.
Here is a quick checklist to ask oneself if things are not feeling right. It is a good idea to analyze all your interactions and ask these questions:
- Are you increasingly second guessing yourself and wondering whether you, or someone else, said or did certain things? Is someone in your life trying to change your memory or perception of things that happened in way that does not feel right? Is this happening repeatedly and consistently?
- A common experience that characterizes this second guessing is the “racing heartbeat”, anxious, frantic searching for something or back over records of something to try and verify and make sure you aren’t losing it. Has this started happening more and more recently?
- Are you spending time and energy defending yourself again accusations made in loaded statements? (eg. When was the last time you cheated on me?)
- Do you feel your boundaries and perception of reality being eroded? Have you lost your self belief and confidence?
- Have all these things been happening since a certain person entered your life or since you started a certain job?
- If so, then this person is likely a psychopath or other toxic person and you need to get away from them as soon as possible.
“If you’ve ever felt the need to record a conversation to play it back to that person as proof or so you can be sure you heard it right, you’re being gas-lighted”
Dr Ramani Durvasula
Psychopaths & Narcissists Will Not Stop Gas-Lighting
We will finish off with another crucial point that victims of gas-lighting and other psychopathic abuse need to understand – psychopaths are completely incurable and will not change their behavior. They may move onto another target, but their underlying character and behavior will not change.
This is why the recommended action is most often to escape and evade psychopaths and get away from them once you realize one has made their way into your life. Confronting may work in certain select cases when you have a lot of support but in many cases the psychopath has been working specifically to remove these support systems from a person’s life and isolate them in work and personal settings.
Victims must understand the full nature of what they are up against with psychopaths. They are cold, ruthless predators with no conscience or empathy and therefore there are no limits to what they will do to others or the lengths they will go to to target and undermine a certain person.
We often fall in the trap of judging others by our own values; we are feeling, empathic human beings with morals and a conscience so we automatically assume others must be the same. We must realize that psychopaths have none of these qualities and we need to throw these assumptions out the window when dealing with these toxic characters.
Once you realize this you realize the gas-lighting will not stop. You can’t appeal to their morality or conscience because they don’t have one. They treat psychological abuse almost like a game and only stop once they have got bored and want to move onto another target.
It is for this reason that the best answer for most people in most cases is simply to get them out of your life as quickly as possible. In one’s personal life, this means cutting off all contact and changing numbers, addresses etc; in work terms this means sending your CV out and finding a new job as quickly as possible.
There are certain strong willed, self aware people who may be able to go up against a psychopath but these are precisely the people psychopaths will tend to avoid targeting anyway because they can see the strong self image in the person.
They are predatory and tend to go for high quality people with strong morals but who also have some kind of weakness there, like diffuse boundaries or aspects of self doubt and general over-agreeableness and an inability to say no.
They prefer an easier target and this is what can make going up against them so difficult as the psychopath tends to have singled their target out specifically for some traits which make them open to manipulation.
See our Resources Page for links to some of the best resources on psychopathy and narcissism.
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