by Collett Smart
‘Gaslighting’ means to manipulate a person into doubting their own sanity, through psychological means. It is a calculated tactic which sees the abuser gain more power and makes the victim question their reality. Gaslighting can happen in toxic friendships too, but for the sake of this article, I am referring to romantic relationships.
Where does the term ‘gaslighting’ come from?
A play, by Patrick Hamilton, called Gaslight was adapted to film in the 1940s. Each time the husband turns up the gas lights in his private attic or upstairs room, the gas lights downstairs go dim. The husband is up in his attic looking for jewels, which belonged to a woman he murdered.
The wife notices the dimming lights and asks her husband about this. He tells her she is simply imagining the dimming lights. The husband seizes an opportunity to get away with his crime. That is, by having his wife declared insane.
He sets out to convince her and others that she is ‘crazy’. In so doing, he takes every opportunity to create little changes around the home (missing pictures and jewellery, strange footsteps) and then tells her she is delusional when she tries to point them out. He slowly isolates her from others…
Although we now use the term ‘gaslighting’, this form of abuse is not new.
What’s happening to women and girls?
Intimate partner violence is a leading contributor to illness, disability and premature death for women aged 18-44 years old. On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner, in Australia. In other countries where I work it is even higher. According to the most recent data from 2017/18, a woman is murdered every 3 hours in South Africa.
Gaslighting is a form emotional abuse
1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15 (and these are only the reported cases). Fifteen!! This means we must be looking out for our girls earlier.
How is gaslighting done?
Remember that gaslighting is calculated emotional manipulation, often in the form of undermining yet subtle, chronic insults. It is usually done when your daughter doesn’t comply with something her partner/boyfriend wants to control. She might often hear terms like,
“Oh you’re crazy!”
“You’re just imagining things”
“You’re remembering that all wrong.”
“You’re always so dramatic!” ”
You’re just being hysterical.”
“Don’t take it so personally”
“I was only joking.”
“I say those things because it’s what everyone else is thinking.”
“I was just trying to help you.”
It can happen slowly and insidiously, for so long, that the young woman actually begins to question her own sanity. She begins to wonder if she is in fact ‘crazy’. Exactly what the abuser wants. i.e. “Look she’s obviously the problem here! It’s not me.”
The psychological toll on our young women
Because gaslighting is sinister, like other forms of abuse, it seeks to harm the victim and then blame them for it. i.e. Your daughter must deal with the initial verbal or emotional injury, and then also face the accusations that follow. In all of this, the young woman loses her own voice. She loses her sense of trust in herself and her ability to interpret the world. The abuse undermines her self-confidence, sense of worth and sense of safety in the world. The woman can feel confused, mistrustful and even become angry – which then feeds the abuser with further psychological ammunition.
The reason it is so confusing is because the accuser is a master at telling blatant lies. Often in a very calm and everyday kind of voice. If the abuser does shout, it will usually be blamed on the victim – “You see what you did? You provoked me and so I yelled.”
Supporting our daughters
We must help our daughter to claim her voice back. So it is important we don’t tell her what we think she is feeling. Rather our aim should be to empower her. Perhaps start by gently saying what you have noticed happening, and then let her know that you believe she is really strong in so many areas of her life (be honest and realistic with these).
Remind her that you are available any time she might want to come and talk, even if it is not today.
At a time she is open to it, you might gently ask your daughter if she feels as though she:
- is always apologising in the relationship. Often when she is not sure why or to just keep the peace.
- frequently makes excuses for her partner’s behaviour.
- knows that something is wrong, but just can’t pin point it.
- finds herself having the same conversation over and over again, yet can’t seem to convince her partner to acknowledge her point of view.
- asks herself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times a day/week.
- often feels confused and even ‘crazy’ in the relationship.
- lies to her partner, to try to avoid the put-downs and criticism.
- has had trouble making simple decisions because she is afraid of the outcome.
- has begun to doubt herself and her decision making ability.
- wonders if she is ‘good enough’.
Encourage her, if she prefers, to talk with girlfriends, a life coach or a counsellor, that you will support her in this. Not because you believe she is weak, but because it will help her sort through her thoughts and do what she believes is best for herself and in her relationship.
Last thoughts – Helping your daughter use her voice
Something that all of us can do more of is encourage our girls to use their voices more. And when you disagree with your teenage daughter’s budding opinion, be careful not to cut it down with your own. Rather, you might say something like, “Can you tell me more about that?”, or “How did you come to think that?” or “So what you mean is…”
Encourage her to use assertive phrases at home, around the dinner table, during family disagreements and in her friendships.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
“No, Just no.”
“I don’t like how I feel right now, so I want to finish this conversation later.”
“I don’t like how I feel right now, so I think we should end there.”
“I would like you to respect my point of view.”
“Please stop talking over me”
“I will have to leave this conversation.”
“I feel that you are trying to tell me what my experience is. I’m not OK with that.”
“You need to stop.”
Even “Do not contact me again”, when she believes she needs to be safe.
A person who leaves you feeling drained and makes you regularly question your own sanity, is not someone you want around. Your daughter deserves more.
Please reach out to your GP or to your local Lifeline for more personalised support.
Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
Kids Helpline Australia (FREE – even from a mobile phone) – 1800 55 1800
Lifeline New Zealand – 0800 543 354