How to Recognize 5 Tactics of Gaslighting

"Gaslighting" is a form of manipulation that goes beyond invalidation to make you question your sanity. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals 5 tactics of gaslighters.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #185
couple fighting on couch

Tactic #3: Gaslighting is often fueled by sexism.

Of course, gaslighting can be used by anyone against anyone—it’s not always gendered. But it’s often used as a form of emotional abuse against women. It “works” in part because it feeds off sexist stereotypes of women as crazy, jealous, emotional, weak, or incapable.

For example, in an excellent 2014 paper published in Philosophical Perspectives, the author, Dr. Kate Abramson of Indiana University, details a story where a female grad student discovers the male grad students have made a list ranking the female grad students by attractiveness. When she expresses that such a list is inappropriate, she is told she’s overly sensitive, that she’s policing innocent conversation among male friends, and really she’s just insecure about her ranking on the list, isn’t she?

What just happened there? If a woman rings the alarm on sexist behavior, gaslighters use sexist stereotypes to undermine the woman’s complaints. Instead of taking her seriously, each of her complaints might be refuted as a silly misinterpretation or dismissed as her being too sensitive. In this way, the sexist stereotypes are used to reinforce themselves—an uninterrupted pattern of circular logic: “See, she’s just another insecure, overly emotional woman we don’t have to listen to.”                                   

Tactic #4: Gaslighters make disagreement impossible.

Once you are discredited, you can’t protest. When credibility is undermined—you’re crazy, a liar, unstable, a failure, or have lost your mind—anything you say is automatically suspect and builds the case against you. Therefore, you can’t disagree. And the louder your protests, the more your gaslighter can smile smugly and say, “See, I told you so.”

Tactic #5: Gaslighters make you agree with their point of view.

This might sound the same as the last tactic: making you agree with them sounds the same as making disagreement impossible, but it’s subtly different. Hear me out: Gaslighters need the world to conform to their standards. And they need the very individuals they gaslight to agree with them.

Therefore, it’s not enough for gaslighters, for example, to insist that sexual harassers were just having a little fun. They need the target of the harassment to agree that it was all just a little fun. Ideally, the target would not only agree but also believe that she deserved to be undermined because she was being crazy, overly sensitive, or imagining things.

Now, refusing to witness or substantiate your reality is invalidation. But gaslighting means getting you, the target, to invalidate yourself as well. Not only does no one take you seriously, you wonder if you can take your own experience seriously: your common sense, your feelings, your memory, even what you’ve seen before your very eyes. In other words, gaslighting not only invalidates your experience, it makes you question your capacity to trust your experience in the first place.

As for Ingrid Bergman as Paula, she is validated in the end and Gregory is arrested, but not before she dishes out some gaslighting revenge of her own as he sits tied to a chair. In a final attempt to manipulate her, Gregory tells her to get a knife and cut him free, but as she pulls his knife from a drawer she proclaims, “There is no knife here; you must have dreamed you put it here,” before tossing it away and quipping, “I am always losing things.”

Whether in Hollywood or your own household, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Isolation is a key ingredient to gaslighting, so if today’s episode spoke to you, reach out. Having just one person validate your experience can be a lifeline that begins the process of reeling yourself in from all the lies to believing your own truth.

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