Five times a year since 2003 No More Secrets (NMS) has hosted a movie night for all of our current men and for our Alumni. Combined with a pot luck this event gives everyone a chance to connect with the larger NMS community. It’s heartwarming to watch the “new guys” meet and interact with our “old timers”. Two weeks ago we had our 72nd Movie Night and 14 of our alumni came. The age range for this event was 20 to 68! Our motto has always been “each one teach one”.
I never tell anyone what the movie is going to be. I always pick a wide range of movie and I challenge the men to try to figure out why I chose it and what does it have to do with us. The last three movies I showed were “Fences” with Denzel Washington, a documentary “The Mask You Live In” and an animated movie “Inside Out”. I never want a guy to not come because he’s seen the movie before or he’s sure he wouldn’t like it. This time was no different. Even my 20 to 27 year olds liked it!
Now for a little sidebar. About four years ago I had a very angry wife in my office who was screaming at her cheating husband. Rightfully so I might add. Then out of nowhere she accused him of “gaslighting” her for their entire marriage. That was a new expression to me. After it all settled down I asked what she meant by that and she replied, it’s when someone manipulate events and situations in order to make a person believe that he or she is crazy. Kind of like “He kept stealing her keys and putting them in the freezer in order to gaslight her”. Get the idea?
Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of addicts, abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.
The term comes from the 1938 stage play, Gaslight, and a pair of 1940s film adaptations. The most well-known of these was released in 1944, starring Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman. In it, Boyer’s character convinces his wife (played by Bergman) that she’s imagining the occasional dimming of their home’s gas lights. (The lights dim whenever he is in the attic, searching for his wife’s deceased aunt’s jewels, which he hopes to steal.) Over time, his persistent lies cause Bergman’s character to question her sanity.
I wanted each man to get honest about how they used “gaslighting” with important people in their life in order to continue on in their behavior without consequence. To think that a group of recovering sex and love addicts in 2018 could relate to and enjoy a black and white movie from 1944 is amazing but true.
People who gaslight typically use the following techniques:
- They tell blatant lies.
You know it’s an outright lie. Yet they are telling you this lie with a straight face. Why are they so blatant? Because they’re setting up a precedent. Once they tell you a huge lie, you’re not sure if anything they say is true. Keeping you unsteady and off-kilter is the goal.
- They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
You know they said they would do something; you know you heard it. But they deny it. It makes you start questioning your reality—maybe they never said that thing. And the more they do this, the more you question your reality and start accepting theirs.
- They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
They know how important your kids are to you, and they know how important your identity is to you. So those may be one of the first things they attack. If you have kids, they tell you that you should not have had those children. They will tell you’d be a worthy person if only you didn’t have a long list of negative traits. They attack the foundation of your being.
- They wear you down over time.
This is one of the insidious things about gaslighting—it is done gradually, over time. A lie here, a lie there, a snide comment every so often…and then it starts ramping up. Even the brightest, most self-aware people can be sucked into gaslighting—it is that effective. It’s the “frog in the frying pan” analogy: The heat is turned up slowly, so the frog never realizes what’s happening to it.
- Their actions do not match their words.
When dealing with a person or entity that gaslights, look at what they are doing rather than what they are saying. What they are saying means nothing; it is just talk. What they are doing is the issue.
- They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
This person or entity that is cutting you down, telling you that you don’t have value, is now praising you for something you did. This adds an additional sense of uneasiness. You think, “Well maybe they aren’t so bad.” Yes, they are. This is a calculated attempt to keep you off-kilter—and again, to question your reality. Also look at what you were praised for; it is probably something that served the gaslighter.
- They know confusion weakens people.
Gaslighters know that people like having a sense of stability and normalcy. Their goal is to uproot this and make you constantly question everything. And humans’ natural tendency is to look to the person or entity that will help you feel more stable—and that happens to be the gaslighter.
- They project.
They are a drug user or a cheater, yet they are constantly accusing you of that. This is done so often that you start trying to defend yourself, and are distracted from the gaslighter’s own behavior.
- They try to align people against you.
Gaslighters are masters at manipulating and finding the people they know will stand by them no matter what—and they use these people against you. They will make comments such as, “This person knows that you’re not right,” or “This person knows you’re useless too.” Keep in mind it does not mean that these people actually said these things. A gaslighter is a constant liar. When the gaslighter uses this tactic it makes you feel like you don’t know who to trust or turn to—and that leads you right back to the gaslighter. And that’s exactly what they want: Isolation gives them more control.
- They tell you or others that you are crazy.
This is one of the most effective tools of the gaslighter, because it’s dismissive. The gaslighter knows if they question your sanity, people will not believe you when you tell them the gaslighter is abusive or out-of-control. It’s a master technique.
What are the warning signs of Gaslighting?
Because a victim has had their confidence eroded by the constant gaslighting, they live in fear of doing the wrong thing, and making their situation even more dangerous for themselves. They invariably find themselves asking “what if”, and always trying to second guess themselves. This often effects how they problem-solve and make decisions in their life.
- Asking “Am I too sensitive?”:
Projection and blame are the hallmarks of gaslighting, and the victim become hyper-sensitive to the constant humiliation of their abuser. They hear countless times that they are “too sensitive”, that they soon begin to believe the lies. As a result, they look for approval before doing anything, fearful that they will make more mistakes that will end in more humiliation. This form of gaslighting makes the victim doubt everything about themselves, so they constantly ask, “Am I being too sensitive”.
Living with the narcissistic Dr. Jekyll and Mr./s Hyde, the victim finds themselves always apologizing for “never doing things right”, they even apologize for their very existence; it is a way of avoiding more conflict with their aggressor. Apology is not just something the victim does to be polite; it is a powerful strategy for staying safe while in the war zone, and a means to disarm the anger of the gas lighter. Most importantly, the power of apology is that it can take the shame off the narcissist and redirect it towards the victim, therefore avoiding some of the narcissists rage.
- Lack joy and happiness in life (melancholy):
If one lives under the constant tyranny of the gaslighting narcissist, they can expect extremes of lethal hostility. Many victims go through physical and mental torture that can cause them to suffer a personality change, leaving them feeling confused, lonely, frightened and unhappy. Often, they continue to carry this melancholy even after they escape from the abuser.
- Withholding information from others:
Victims experience great shame about their situation; they get tired of trying to cover up their abuse as they go along. When well-meaning friends and family members tell them they are being abused, they avoid the subject, and soon they learn to withhold giving more information to avoid further conflict. The importance of shame in narcissistic abuse is a difficult issue, but I don’t think it is too difficult to accept that the crimes of the gaslighting narcissist stigmatize the victim to their very core. Their shame is a normal response to the social failure they so often feel because of their abuse (i.e. the shame of being unable to protect themselves from their abuse). This shame can be seen as defensiveness and withdrawal by others. The relationship between shame and social supports is too complex to deal with here.
- Knowing something is terribly wrong but can’t figure out what:
The goal of gaslighting is to control and influence the reality of the “gaslightee.” It only works when the victim is unaware of what is really happening. The more the victim doubts their own reality or competence, the more dependent they become of the abuser. It is a vicious circle of events that is totally confusing to the victim, and that is exactly what the gas lighter wants.
- Trouble making simple decisions:
To be caught in the narcissistic web of deception and illusion is the equivalent to be a fly trapped in the spider’s web. When entering the web, does the victim know that it is about to be bound up and eaten alive any more than the fly? The answer is “no”. However, the narcissistic web is akin to the disintegration of the self; the victim, under the threat of continual danger, forms a psychic bond with the abuser to avoid fragmentation of the self. In forming that bond they are compelled to organize themselves around their idealized abuser’s desires and surrender their authentic potential: Having to ask permission to do anything, not being allowed to have their own opinion, never allowed to win the argument, constantly being chastised and humiliated, compromising their own thoughts, values, needs, and belief. Understandably, caught in this web they lose all autonomy, even their ability to make decisions for their own self.
- You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, and more relaxed:
To survive, the victim enters what is termed the “the narcissists dance”. This is an unconscious defense mechanism which helps to keep the victim safe, but in so doing they almost lose themselves by placating, complying, and appeasing. This becomes part of their way of being, a great “pleaser” with everybody. Unless this unconscious dance is exposed in therapy, and the victim educated about narcissistic behavior, they are actually left vulnerable to becoming narcissistic supply yet again. The reason is that they are conditioned (like Pavlov’s dogs) in a way that makes them a target for other hungry narcissists, who are always on the hunt for new supply, and are quick to spot those primed already.
- You feel hopeless and joyless:
What had once seemed like heaven has now turned into a hell. There is no peace or joy in this place, just fear and suppression. Life loses all hope, as if the light has been turned off. All that remains is the deep black cloud of depression. And the victim is forced to live in a state of acquiescence to survive. Their perceptions of reality are continually undermined by the gaslighting sham, so they end up losing confidence in their intuition, memory, or reasoning powers. They are spun lies, lies that tell them that they are over-sensitive, imagining, unreasonable, irrational, over-reacting, and that they have no right to be upset. Hearing this time and time again, their reality is turned inside out, and they begin to believe that this may all be true.
The narcissist’s form of psychological abuse has managed to instill in their victim an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception or judgment. In this state they are truly a hostage. However, many manage to get the courage to break free, but this is usually after several painful attempts. The most difficult aspect for the recovering sex addict is their innate inability to show and honestly feel remorse. With real change and ongoing empathy any effort to really change will be short lived.
Over time, chronic gaslighting can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, low self-esteem, attachment deficits, and more. The majority of the cheated-on spouses experienced acute stress symptoms characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder – a pretty serious diagnosis. After more than twenty years working with cheaters and their betrayed spouses, not to mention addicts of all types and their betrayed spouses, I can assure you that it isn’t any particular sexual act or addictive behavior that causes the most emotional pain. Instead, it’s the constant lying, deceit, and being made to feel judgmental, wrong, and just plain crazy. In other words, it’s not the cheating or the drinking/drugging that does the most damage, it’s the gaslighting – the denial of reality.
Most of the time, however, betrayed spouses want to salvage their damaged relationship. And if the addict is committed to living openly and honestly and behaving differently in the future, this is absolutely possible. If the cheated-on partner is also willing to engage in a process of healing and growing, this restoration is even more likely. Yes, it is often quite a while – typically a year or more – before relationship trust is fully reestablished, but couples who do survive one partner’s sexual addiction often find that if they stick with the recovery process, their relationship can become more intimate and more meaningful than ever. You can read testimonies of some of our NMS members here.
Whoever would have imagined that a 1944 black and white movie would come to define such a pervasive marital issue in contemporary America in 2018 but it has?
If any of this feels or sounds familiar it is because it probably is.
If this resonates in you that you might be doing this gaslighting behavior to a love one please seek some help.
If you are feeling the effects of being “gaslighted”, you’re not alone.
Please seek some help. Either way misery is optional. Call me!