Gaslighting: reality is not up for debate
One of the largest independent film festivals in the world, the Sundance Film Festival, recently took place, hosted from Salt Lake City. The highlight was the debut of the eagerly anticipated film ‘Knocking’ - a psychological thriller from Swedish director Frida Kempff. The film features a standout performance by Cecilia Milocco, who plays a woman (Molly), unnerved by haunting knocking sounds from upstairs in her apartment building.
As the noises become more desperate and increasingly sound like cries for help, Molly confronts her neighbours, but no one else can hear them. In an unsettling quest for truth, Molly soon realises that no one believes her, and begins to question if she even believes herself – a realisation that is more chilling.
The film received mixed reviews:
‘Knocking: ‘ A Gaslighting Horror Story That Doesn’t Understand Its Own Strengths. (1)
‘Knocking’ develops an idea that first appeared in the 1944 Oscar winning film ‘Gaslight,’ starring Ingrid Bergman. In one of her most celebrated roles, Bergman plays a wife who is persuaded by her husband (Charles Boyer) that she has lost her mind – he wants control of her affairs to steal her jewellery. Boyer dims the gaslights in the house and arranges for noises to be heard in a sealed attic – persuading his wife these things didn’t happen.
Gaslighting’ – where a person is manipulated to doubt their own version of reality. And when it’s carried out over a long period, the victim even questions their own thoughts and memories.
Gaslighting came up again in the last few days:
An article in the latest edition of the ‘New Scientist’ discusses a high profile argument that comedian John Oliver had with Donald Trump on Twitter last year - ‘it’s a disturbing thing to think I knew he was wrong,’ said Oliver ‘but he was more confident in his lie than I was in the truth.’ (3).
Trump insisted he refused invitations to Oliver’s ‘third rate show.’ Oliver denied inviting him – the President was so adamant that Oliver feared he had forgotten something.
‘Donald Trump used the same technique he used to con the entire country – he ‘gaslighted us,’ reported one journal. (4)
Gaslighting happens in politics:
Former Australian PM Julia Gillard recently said that ‘Boris Johnson was gaslighting a whole nation about the possibility of that a trade deal with Australia would replace trade with Europe.’ (5)
It’s a popular theme in movies:
In the 1991 psychological thriller ‘ Sleeping with the Enemy,’ Julia Roberts plays a person attempting to escape losing her mind due to the actions of her controlling husband (Patrick Bergin). (6)
It happens in relationships:
Married At First Sight – ‘Elizabeth explodes at liar Sam for gaslighting two years after his fake Ines affair.’ (5)
And Gaslighting happens at work:
Did you ever feel like you were losing your mind at work because someone insists that a conversation took place that you’ve no recollection of?
Is it possible you really said you’d attend a meeting even though you knew you had to get out by 5 p.m. to make it to your kid's soccer game?
Chances are, you experienced gaslighting.
When there's gaslighting in the workplace, it will most likely be done by someone in a position of authority, or someone who is well-liked; making the victims less likely to call out this toxic co-worker.
And the more it goes unchecked, the more you can end up second-guessing yourself as to what is reality and what’s not.
South Australian Psychologist, Samantha Young writes:
‘Some of the signs of gaslighting at work include:
Feeling constantly confused about expectations
Apologising for situations that are not your fault
Feeling you can never do anything right
Doubting your memory or recollection of events
Being ‘shot down’ whenever you speak your thoughts
No longer trusting your own judgement – starting to defer to other people’s opinions
Remaining silent rather than expressing your emotions or opinions.’
Gas lighters use techniques to undermine your reality and portray you as the one with the problem.
There is a pattern:
Discrediting: making others think that you are incompetent.
2-faced: Using a mask of confidence, assertiveness or fake compassion to make you believe that you ‘have it all wrong.’
Challenging your actions - making statements like – ‘you’re imagining things that never happened.’
Minimising: by trivialising how you feel, the gas lighter gains power – ‘why are you being so sensitive? You don’t need to get angry over a little thing like that, I was just joking so why are you taking things so seriously?’
Denial and avoidance: refusing to acknowledge your feelings and thoughts - the gas lighter causes you to doubt yourself – ‘no one else here remembers it that way.’
Twisting the truth: ‘you’re lying, I never said that, I don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re changing the subject.’
Redrawing: when the gaslighted confidently and subtly twists and reframes what was said or done in their favour, they can cause you to second-guess yourself, especially when paired with fake compassion.
Gaslighting is covert aggression and workplace bullying. (8)
So, what to do if you find yourself in this situation?
As with any form of manipulation, the first step in freeing yourself from gaslighting is to recognise that it is actually happening.
Recognise it’s not your fault and you do not deserve this treatment. You know your reality and how you feel.
Turn to trusted friends, support network or other people in your work organisation, preferably someone more senior than the person doing the gaslighting.
Address a gas lighter directly - bullies who use gaslighting do not like to be exposed. They’re counting on you not calling them out because they’ve targeted you in the first place.
Avoid them entirely. Do not play into their hands but walk away as soon as they start.
Your reality is not up for debate.
‘Indie Wire:’ 30-1-21
‘New Scientist:’ 29-1-21
‘Donald Trump is gaslighting America:’ US Studies Centre, March 2016
‘The European:’ 18-6-21
‘The Sun:’ 29-1-21
LinkedIn Article by Samantha Young, MD Human Psychology Adelaide