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Is gaslighting the most insidious form of abuse?

Updated: 4 days ago

We might have heard the term, its popularity in urban language is on the rise, we know its origin heralds from a dark story of human interaction, but what really is ‘gaslighting’?

In philosophy the apologue of a frog being boiled alive, unable to detect gradual increases in water temperature until ultimately it meets its death, never aware of changes in its environment to leap out of the eventual boiling water in time, describes the sinister slowness with which a creature can become overpowered by stealth for the purposes of control and domination.  If the water temperature was turned up too fast the frog’s awareness may have been raised soon enough for it to escape.

Welcome to the insidious nature of ‘gaslighting’.

The word, which takes its name from the 1944 film of the same name, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, describes the actions of a self-serving husband, motivated by greed, who slowly manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane in order to conceal a devious plan to take control of her estate.  In doing so his intention is to convince other people she is insane and should be institutionalised.  

In the plot Paula, played by Ingrid Bergman, begins to notice unusual flickering of the gas lamps in the house when nobody is home, and starts hearing strange noises in the attic.  Gregory however, who has been secretly entering the attic from a neighbouring property and turning on lamps thereby affecting the supply of gas to the rest of the house, while he searches for lost family jewels, convinces her it is all in her imagination.  As well as flirting with the household maid, and moving objects in the house, he accuses Paula of being ‘high strung’ and hysterical, and undermines her to friends.  All in order to cause Paula to question her sense of sanity and to avoid being found out.  Thus, the term ‘gaslighting’ was born.

In modern terminology ‘gaslighting’ has become widely recognised as the deliberate intention to manipulate an individual into questioning their reality through a combination of alternative explanations, twisted narratives, subtle denials, and the exploitation of the person’s trust in what they are being told.  And it is this slow and subtle exploitation of trust which makes it so insidious.  Just as the frog has been placed into water and shows no signs of stress, it is overpowered by its failure to recognise impending danger in an otherwise familiar and safe environment.

With this being said, ‘gaslighting’ is not exclusively limited to relationships, and attempts to gaslight can happen either in an instant, or over long periods of time.  However, if we acknowledge that all forms of abuse; physical, psychological, emotional, are defined by the misuse of something in order to gain advantage, then gaslighting which is rooted in the misuse of a person’s trust in order to covertly gain control of a narrative and undermine a person’s sense of reality, in combination with its stealthy, unseen and often prolonged nature, is therefore arguably the most insidious form of abuse of the human psyche.

Author: Zoe Cave Hawkins, C.Psychol.

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