OPINION - Coronavirus holds up a mirror to hidden gaslighting abuse

by Robin Stern | Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence
Tuesday, 19 May 2020 18:04 GMT

A couple carries take out containers and a grocery bag as they walk towards a street art piece in progress called "Stay Home" on the same day that Governor Jay Inslee extended his stay-home order until May 4 as efforts continue to slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Seattle, Washington, U.S. April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Robin Stern is a co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Since the new coronavirus took over our lives, mixed messages over the risks have left many people feeling confused, unmoored, doubting their decisions and second-guessing their thinking about how to react. It’s like living in a gaslight culture, a term coined nearly a century ago to describe a kind of psychological manipulation or abuse of people - particularly of women.

The rising numbers of reports of domestic abuse during the global lockdowns has countered a widespread view that people with greater resources, greater access and education don’t abuse each other.

Abuse can happen in all strata of society and this particular method of abuse - gaslighting - is just as common among people with more resources. I worked as a therapist with well-heeled clients on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for 30 years and saw that this dynamic was prevalent among my clients  - and many friends. It’s a form of manipulation that can hide behind a veneer of social acceptability when one person in the relationship is more powerful.

The term “gaslight” was introduced almost a century ago in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play “Gas Light” that was made into a film of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman. The play and movie tell the story of a man who carefully and gradually (and diabolically) manipulates his wife into believing she has lost her sanity.

After the release of the film, psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychiatrists began using the term “gaslight” to refer to countless clients who had begun to question themselves and their realities after receiving repeated false information or personal accusations. These statements were designed to psychologically disorganize their reality and distance them partners, colleagues, friends, and even family members.

Almost all circumstances are the same. The victim begins to question small things - such as if they misheard or misremembered a detail of a story, or misrepresented something about themselves in some way. It then becomes bigger things - like if what they heard or saw actually happened, or if their memories reflect actual events or if even if they are sane and OK. This series of persistent lies erodes their confidence in themselves and their worlds, until they have lost all touch with their own reality.

To be clear, gaslighting is more than deception. Gaslighting is the follow-up to the lie that punctures the confidence the victim has in how she understands herself, daily life and other people. It gets the victim not only to believe the misrepresentation but to question their own resistance to the lie. It stops that victim from leaving or seeking help. 

Gaslighting is a theme of the HBO series “Big Little Lies” - the show based on the Liane Moriarty novel that continues to make news even though the last episode aired in 2019 and it is not yet known if another season is in the pipeline. “Big Little Lies” is about a wealthy community in Monterey, California, where child abuse, rape, insider trading, infidelity and homicide play out against a backdrop of Teslas, infinity pools, and over-the-top, costumed birthday parties.

As the title suggests, virtually every character tells a lie at least once; their motivations vary. But the biggest lies revolve around the death of the glowing Perry Wright who, unbeknownst to friends and family, beat his wife Celeste routinely.

There’s another assumption about gaslighting, that it happens only between spouses or romantic partners. It can happen intergenerationally, too. Psychology 101 tells us that children always seem to know the truth their parents seem to hide. They are listening when we don’t think they are, they are seeing the emotions in our micro-expressions, ones we try to hide; they are reading our body language.

Through most of the two seasons, we think Celeste and Perry Wright’s children do not know about their father’s  violence but we realize in the last episode that they not only knew about it but filmed it.

These are examples of how gaslighting isn’t always maliciously motivated although it’s still harmful. We see how important it is in Monterey to keep up appearances, to keep the story going. The gaslighting here isn’t necessarily designed to drive someone crazy or undermine their character, but to cover up the reality so that anyone looking on, suspecting, knowing another view, would need to second guess themselves based on what they see and hear from the people involved.

Feeling flummoxed by mixed messages as public health experts employing trial and error through the pandemic is one thing, but doubting one’s sanity or reality is another. The best way to avoid both being a gaslighter or a victim of it is to know about it, recognize it, regulate emotions - in other words, develop the skills of emotional intelligence -  and, above all else, maintain one’s reality.