The Netflix series The Maid skilfully outlines the patterns that come with so-called gaslighting – patterns that leave you almost blind to the emotional abuse that’s even happening.
It tells the story of Alex who leaves her partner Sean in the middle of the night with her daughter after he is abusive towards her. She has no money and little support. She ends up sleeping in her car and, when finally she asks for help from the government, she has to admit that her partner didn’t hit her so she doesn’t believe she’s being abused.
In fact, she’s been conditioned to downplay his behaviour.
The term “gaslighting” comes from a play which Alfred Hitchock later adapted into a film called Gaslight. In it, a man tries to convince his wife she’s going in sane so he can steal from her. When he turns on the lights in the attic to search for her jewelry collection, and the gas lights dim downstairs, he tells her it’s all in her imagination. Gradually she begins to question her own memories and perceptions.
Gaslighting is described as a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in their victim’s mind.
The reason? To seek control over someone. By distorting reality and having someone doubt their own judgement, it is an effective tool to weaken.
Emotional abuse is subtle. So subtle in fact that many almost never see it slowly creeping in their relationships. What looks like grand gestures and sentimental displays of love quickly get blasted away by the true intent. Many victims will remember the fond moments – the good things their abuser has done to prove they are ultimately good people. But the problem is that it’s a manipulation of feelings – a trick of the light that is disarming.
*Louise describes how she became the victim of this type of abuse. “On the one hand my boyfriend was telling me that he didn’t want to upset me but that he was just concerned about my reactions to things. I knew I was only reacting the way anyone would if they’d been hurt, but he kept referring to my mental problems, my issues. He used the fact that I’d been on medication in the past as proof I was unstable in some way.”
Gaslighting can have catastrophic effects for a person’s psychological health. The process is often gradual, chipping away the person’s confidence.
It can involve manipulating a person’s environment behind their back. Other times, the abuse is entirely verbal and emotional including withholding – “I can’t listen to this. You are completely overreacting” to questioning the victim’s memory. Other forms include pretending to forget events that have happened to further discredit the victim’s memory. An abuser may deny making promises to avoid responsibility or trivialising “everyone thought that joke was funny. You are the only one who was offended.”
Often, it takes a long time for a person to realise they are being gaslighted, as its associated behaviors are usually covert. Dr. Robin Stern, a director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, explains; “when people are abused there are signs you can point to that are more obvious. Those hit or threatened for instance. But when someone is manipulating you, you end up second-guessing yourself and turning your attention to yourself as the person to blame.”
Gaslighting can also come hand in hand with gender power dynamics and can sometimes lead to women being labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘too emotional’. Typically, this manifests as women being labelled as erratic for their responses to traumatic behaviour.
Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect says that the same factors that leave a person vulnerable to gaslighting may result in lower self-esteem, anxiety, and ultimately depression. “Over time, you begin to believe that there is something wrong with you because one of the most important people in your life is telling you this.” Additionally, PhD psychologist Matthew Zawadzkski, says that gaslighting “radically undermine another person that she has nowhere left to stand from which to disagree, no standpoint from which her words might constitute genuine disagreement.”
According to the author, common terms used to gaslight might include
- You’re so sensitive!
- I was just joking!
- You are making that up.
- It’s no big deal.
- You’re imagining things.
- You’re overreacting.
Louise says that she managed to extract herself from her relationship but admits it was hard.
“First I knew I had to identify the problem. Then I tried to sort out the truth from the distortion by writing down the conversations we’d have and analysing them. I tried to think about how it made me feel. My therapist told me to visualise myself without the relationship or continuing it at much more of a distance and, importantly, casting the vision in a positive light. Lastly, I talked to close friends and I tried to have compassion for myself and to tell myself it wasn’t my fault.”
Women’s Aid can help you if you are experiencing domestic abuse. You can also contact them 24 hours-a-day on 1800 341 900.