Gaslighting is a damaging psychological manipulation technique, often found within abusive relationships. The original term gaslighting comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight,” adapted from the 1938 play “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton.
In this blog, we will look into the psychology of gaslighting, the history of its roots, and how people experiencing it, can recognise the signs of this destructive behaviour within abusive relationships.
Understanding the psychology of gaslighting
Gaslighting is a harmful and abusive tactic prevalent in domestic abuse relationships. It is used by perpetrators of domestic abuse to undermine their victim’s self-esteem, self-worth and self-perception. Abusers use a number of psychological mechanisms aimed at altering the state of mind of their victim so that they begin to doubt their own perception of reality:
- Denying Reality: Gaslighters often deny facts, events, or their own actions, causing victims to question their memory and sanity.
- Trivialising Feelings: Gaslighters belittle victims’ emotions, dismissing their feelings as irrational or exaggerated responses to fabricated situations.
- Projection: Gaslighters frequently project their own actions onto victims, shifting blame and guilt while portraying themselves as innocent.
- Isolation: Gaslighters strive to isolate victims from friends and family, increasing their dependence on the gaslighter’s distorted version of reality.
- Control: Ultimately, gaslighting seeks to control the victim by manipulating and dominating them, eroding their autonomy and self-esteem.
Historical roots: “Gas Light” play and 1944 film adaptation
The term “gaslighting” is derived from the 1938 play “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton, later adapted into the 1944 film “Gaslight” directed by George Cukor. The play and subsequent film, where set in Victorian London. A husband, Jack Manningham, is secretly looking for the lost jewels of a previous occupant.
Each night he goes to the attic to look for them. He turns on the gas lights, causing the lights in the rest of the home to dim and flicker. When the wife questions this phenomenon and the sound of footsteps when Jack is supposedly not in the house, he denies wrongdoing and implies her perception is flawed. Over time, he intensifies these tactics, making her doubt her sanity and memory.
The film’s title became synonymous with the type of psychological manipulation of its main character, and so the term “gaslighting” was accepted into the modern English language to describe the act of making someone doubt their own reality through manipulation and deceit.
Gaslighting in an abusive relationship
Gaslighting tactics are commonplace in abusive relationships. Here are some ways gaslighting is used as part of a pattern of control, by perpetrators of domestic abuse:
- Emotional abuse in an abusive relationship: Gaslighting can form the core of emotional abuse, methodically undermining a victims’ self-esteem, self-worth and self-perception.
- Isolation and dependency in an abusive relationship: Perpetrators of domestic abuse often isolate victims from their support groups, such as friends and family, this makes them more vulnerable to gaslighting.
- Manipulation of reality in an abusive relationship: Abusers manipulate victims’ perceptions of memories, events and behaviours, causing them to doubt their judgment and sanity.
- Maintaining control in an abusive relationship: Gaslighting is a tool abusers use to maintain control over victims, making manipulation and exploitation easier.
Gaslighting is an extremely damaging form of domestic abuse. It is essential to recognise gaslighting in an abusive relationship. Trusting one’s perceptions, seeking support from trusted individuals or professionals, and documenting instances of manipulation are crucial steps toward breaking free from the cycle of abuse.
No one should endure the pain of manipulation and control – everyone deserves a relationship built on trust, respect, and validation of their own reality.
Supporting someone you know
Do you think you know someone affected by the issues described on this page? Find out how you can support them here: Supporting someone experiencing domestic abuse.
Learn how to recognise the signs of domestic abuse – FREE learning modules here: Vue App (somersetsurvivors.co.uk)
If you are experiencing gaslighting or any form of domestic abuse, worried about someone you know, or are concerned about the impact of your behaviour towards others, then help is available: somersetdomesticabuse.org.uk or by telephoning 0800 69 49 999 – between 8am – 8pm, 7 days a week.
In an emergency you should always dial 999. If you are worried that an abuser may overhear your call you can remain silent, tap the phone and dial 55 when prompted by the operator who will send help.
If you are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired you can register with emergencySMS.net. Once registered you will be able to send a text to 999 if you require help in an emergency.
About the author:
Michael trained as a journalist in the late eighties. He started writing health and wellbeing articles in 2013 in that time he has had submissions in local and national press and magazines and worked for the NHS. His current position is in local government as a Public Health Communications Officer, where he has worked to promote awareness of support for drugs and alcohol abuse, mental health, smoking cessation, sexual health, hypertension, healthy living, covid and flu. He currently leads on domestic abuse awareness.