25 October, 2009


Gaslighting is when you try to keep a person from standing up for herself by making her doubt her own perception of things. The term comes from a 1938 play in which a guy lives below the apartment of a woman he murdered for her jewels. Every night, he goes into her apartment to look for the jewels, causing the lights in his own apartment to dim. His wife notices this, and wonders where he goes every night, but the guy tells her that she's just imagining the lights dimming, and that it's weird for her to ask him where he's going. He almost succeeds in convincing her that she's mentally ill. Not all gaslighting is so calculated, of course; for example, Don gaslighted Betty on Mad Men when he wouldn't admit to cheating on her. He wasn't intending to psychologically torture her, but he did take advantage of her internalized sexism and history of emotional problems in the hopes that she wouldn't make him face up to something she knew he'd done.

I used female pronouns in my definition because it makes grammar easier, and also because gaslighting is easier to do to a woman. Women apologize more, are more self-deprecating, try harder to adjust ourselves to other people's needs. As a result, it is easier to convince a woman that her perception of something is wrong.

Gaslighting is a confusing phenomenon because it's hard to think about how to prevent it. I don't really want to live in a world where everyone assumes they're right all the time. The world is too much like that already. But as things are, the people who are confident that their perceptions are the right ones have such an easy time manipulating people who don't. That isn't good.

I guess the solution to gaslighting is to teach confidence to open-minded people. Being self-deprecating and willing to suspend disbelief are good qualities but we live in a world where they're turned into weaknesses. I guess we have to find some kind of middle ground where people are open to the idea that they're wrong, but also aware that someone might be fucking with them.

Obviously, I'm bringing up the issue of gaslighting because it is such a big issue for me, and I think developmentally disabled people in general. In ABA schools, they mark kids down for "non-compliance," even if non-compliance consists of a kid wanting to stim, or being too tired to do work, or arguing with a teacher's idea of the "right" way to say something. People in workshop and group home settings spend their whole life being told not to complain, to be quiet, to be pleasant. And this does create a lot of nice people, but it also means that, for example, developmentally disabled people often don't speak up if they are sexually abused. And for ASD people, I think it can lead to meltdowns because we are encouraged not to express discomfort so we hold it in as long as we can.

I mentioned in a previous post that pretty much every time I've had something medically wrong with me, it's taken a while to be diagnosed because the symptom has been pain and I've been trained since I was a kid not to express pain. When I was a kid, getting my hair brushed, washed, blow-dried, or cut caused me incredible discomfort and I would cry and yell and complain, but I was always told that I was overreacting and it wasn't really that bad. So I figured it wasn't. So when I had appendicitis I figured it wasn't really that bad. And so on.

This is interesting because in terms of the appendicitis I was, on the surface, gaslighting myself. And also, the reason I wanted to write this post is because someone posted in a disability LiveJournal community about how their mom said they were "eating oatmeal over and over" and they wanted to know if they were actually eating an abnormal amount of oatmeal. A community member, presumably visibly disabled, commented asking what this had to do with disability and why the person didn't make their own decisions, since they were an adult. Well, the reason I perceived the post as disability-related, and I assume the reason the OP chose to post it in that community, is that the OP has an ASD. For a person with ASD, "over and over" can be a trigger that makes the person think, "Shit! I'm doing something that is a symptom of ASD and therefore is wrong! I better change what I'm doing to something normal!" I identified with this a lot because when my mom tells me I'm doing something "obsessive" or I'm "cycling," I react with quite a bit of anger and shame, a lot more than an ordinary person would if their mom told them the same thing. And then in the future I feel bad about doing the thing my mom said was "obsessive."

So here I'm also gaslighting myself, right? As is the poster. It's just an innocent comment about oatmeal, right?

Even if it's not, even if their mom is intentionally trying to fuck with them because she knows how they'll react as a person with ASD--well, you can't really tell the difference, can you? If some person tells me I'm eating oatmeal over and over, and they aren't thinking about my history at all, I'm just gaslighting myself when this makes me feel sort of embarrassed and apologetic and forced into submission because I'm an Abnormal Person and as a Normal Person they know what I should be doing. It's my fault, sort of.

But it's only sort of my fault, because it's privilege. Privilege is invisible but everyone keeps it going, conscious or not. And it's usually only the people who are negatively affected who have to be conscious. The other people can be like, "Hey man, what are you freaking out about?" Which, in this case, ironically amounts to gaslighting about gaslighting.


  1. So true. You just described what I was going to write about next. I might have to cite your post. I am trying to explain to my dad, why I am "different." He knows nothing about ASD's and my entire life everytime any type of emotion or perception about pain or a theoretical idea came flying out of my mouth by accident he immediately discounted it by saying something to the effect of that's not possible, you can't really feel that way, this is how you feel, you can't possibly be in pain, etc. And by accident I mean that I knew this would happen when I spoke so I rarely spoke up as it was which probably made the situation a hundred times worse. This gaslighting as you put it is probably the largest contributor of me feeling like I don't count, of feeling like I am not real because everyone is telling me I'm not. It is the cause of why I constantly question myself. It is only recently that I have taken back some of my self confidence, my own voice.

    I know he didn't do it on purpose because if I was normal his statements may have been entirely accurate. But still after awhile don't you think he would take even one thing I said with even a smidgen of true belief and understanding. He thinks he knows me but I feel that he doesn't know me at all. It seems like at this point he still believes his word is final. He is thinking, how could I possibly feel that he doesn't know me?

    Hopefully that will all start to turn around as I am making efforts to explain it in a way he can really connect the dots. For me the simplest solution for parents of kids with ASD's is to just take their word for it. They cannot use social and physical observations to make assumptions about how their kids are actually feeling. All they have is their words and when you discount their words they have nothing left. No other avenue to go down to say "hey, you are gaslighting me."

    I don't think gaslighting is intentional except in two cases. One, usually a woman, is targeted as being easily manipulated and is the victim of intentional gaslighting which is not necessarily directly related to ASD's but there is certainly a high probability. The second would be anyone who is educated about their loved ones ASD but still continues to regard their own assumptions as correct. I am sure there are many "trained" disability school teachers who would fall nicely into this category. The intent is not necessarily to gaslight but they are certainly intending to rip away all of the persons self perceptions in the name of therapy.

    When people don't take my words seriously I feel like I am being accused of lying. Is that so hard for normal people to grasp? I like your solution to teach people with ASD's to stand up for their own perceptions but the flip side is that we need other people to believe us, to accept our words as truth. Otherwise there are going to be a bunch of people with ASD's sticking up for themselves and we are just going to come across as crazier and more disabled.

  2. By the time my boyfriend and family believed that I was telling the truth about being in pain, I went to the doctor and found out I had a double hernia. Apparently I do not make the correct body movements and facial expressions to convey pain so I must have been lying about it. I am the most honest person I know, I never fucking lie, yet no one ever believes what I say. Maybe they don't think I'm lying outright, but they are indirectly telling me I'm crazy by disregarding my perceptions. They almost had me believe it was all in my head.

    Another example is when I was around 25 I was at the doctors yet again and the doctor was in complete shock that no body had noticed how screwed up my tonsils were. He said I should have had a tonsillectomy 10 years earlier. After the surgery he said that they were the worst tonsils he had ever removed and it was a wonder I hadn't died from the infections I had. Apparently there is some secret way you are supposed to act for people to take you seriously that you are deathly sick. Good thing I am still alive to have finally realized this. I still don't know what the secret to looking authentically sick but damn it now if I am sick I will punch the walls until someone believes me and takes me to the hospital, I don't care if it's socially ignorant because not believing someone when they say they are very sick is socially ignorant.

    Haha. sorry for my comments en masse. I am not venting at you, just at the world at large. :) I really like your post.

  3. I think I've been gaslighted a lot in terms of my emotions. When I was a kid, the fact that I was often emotional about things was often treated as pathological. If I was upset about being teased, it was my fault for being 'too sensitive', and so on.

    To this day I hate being called 'sensitive' and I also hate it when someone apologizes by saying, "I'm sorry you took X the wrong way."

    But anyway, the net effect was that for a long time I often felt like I didn't have the right to feel whatever it was I was feeling. Which is just wrong.

  4. You put into words a lot of what I've been thinking about lately.


    Just discovered this term in the last few days. It could encompass alot of things in my life. Some one said that gaslighting does not have to be done on porpose, but the affect is not any less painfull. Would love to read/know more. Esspecially when trying to deal with someone who does this but is really unable to comprehend the act or the damage it does.

    1. Love how you portray the "good guy" gaslighter on this thread while purposefully mispelling words in an attempt to capture the attention of your gaslightee. ;) ,

    2. hey Anonymous.....if you think people misspell on purpose , you are a manipulative gaslighter and should see psychiatrist because if not,you will never know how to love

  6. #3 multicult gaslighters method.

  7. In my case the gaslighter is my husband. After we had an argument during which he became dangerously physically abusive and threatened to kill me, I reacted by throwing objects out of the window trying to get him to stop. We were on a houseboat in the middle of the ocean. My life was in danger not even a scream would help. Seeing me tossing things overboard, he left in the boat. I took a strong sleeping pill, thinking the crisis was over. I awoke to find four burly men in my bedroom. One had a syringe. He wanted to sedate me (already sleeping!) They were to take me away on my husband's orders and his lies that I was an unbalanced borderline. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. He did not tell them what he had done. The men left when I fell asleep again overcome by the sleeping pill. Since then he has called me senile repeatedly and accused me of things I have not done - silly things such as putting out oats for the seabirds who have no interest in eating oats! He gives me incorrect dates and then tells me I am losing my mind. A friend pointed out this is gas lighting. I was so relieved to know it has a name. Now in retrospect I can see times he has tried to make me appear insane to his family and friends. I am getting out!!!

    1. Wow, that is really scary. Good luck.

    2. Thank you Amanda. All the best for 2016.