Gaslighting – it’s way more scary than the film

A few days ago I wrote about negative comments on the Autism sites I belong to – one in particular to be fair. Now I’m back home and can work on my computer I’d like to expand on this.

I’ve been reading a lot about, and around, the subject of Autism. As I’m now diagnosed as Autistic I sure want to know as much as I can about it. One term that came up very recently was Gaslighting.

Why Gaslighting?

The term is derived from the 1938 psychological thriller ‘Gaslight’ by Patrick Hamilton; the play was then adapted for film in 1940 and 1944. Ingrid Bergman starred in the 1944 version as a wife who is psychologically manipulated by her husband as he attempts to convince her and others that she is insane. The title of the play was taken from the gas lights in their home that the husband dimmed, and then convinced his wife that she was imagining the changes.

What does the term mean now?

Since the 1960s gaslighting has been used to describe the manipulation of another person’s perception of reality, and in the 1970s it entered the realm of psychoanalytic literature. The characteristics are:

  • wanting full control over victim (thoughts, feelings, actions)
  • emotional abuse of victim in subtle ways (hostile, coercive)

The signs can be:

  • withholding, countering, or discounting information in a way that suits the abuser
  • verbal abuse, usually in the form of jokes
  • trivialising, and undermining the victim’s views, beliefs, reactions, and their thought processes
  • convincing the victim that their thinking is distorted, and that the victimiser’s ideas are correct and true
  • undermining the victim’s mental stability by targeting their self-confidence and self-esteem

Example from my working life

Gaslighting in the workplace is especially significant with regard to a person’s well-being and mental state when the perpetrator is in a position of power. I was unfortunate to be targeted by three of the senior staff, and then I was let down by the head who refused to believe that anything untoward was going on.

I was a Primary Teacher in a school with just six class teachers and the Head. One teacher was very junior being the most recently qualified; another was on a short contract and kept her head down. The other three (besides me) were: Deputy Head, and two senior staff members. It was these three that ‘had it in for me’ from the start and by the end of my first term I was heading for a serious breakdown.

The Deputy knew I had mental health issues; he’d been at my interview and I’d never hidden this. Yet over the course of that term he mocked my qualifications in the staff room, he and the Reception teacher mocked the music I played before class (which I needed to calm myself), and the Year 5 teacher actually shouted at me in front of the whole school. By the end of the term in December I was near complete shutdown. By January I was back in hospital.

How it manifests on social media sites

I have been a targeted directly by individuals whose aim is to shut people up who voice opinions contrary to their own. I have also seen posts by people who have experienced the same, even to the extent that they leave the site. These people use bullying, belittling, questioning of opinions and knowledge of facts; they use offensive language, constant bombardment of posts; their one aim is to break you down so that you agree with them. It is often extremely effective. Some say they fight against them by arguing back; others say to just ignore them so they give up. When you are feeling desperately vulnerable both tactics can be difficult.

Is there an answer?

To be honest, I don’t know.

I have tried blocking people. I have tried scrolling fast down certain posts. I’ve tried fighting back (exhausting). I have tried ignoring (seems defeatist). Now I am focusing on those posts that have a feel-good message, or ones asking for support that I feel I can contribute to, or others where a bit of encouragement is needed.

So far this appears to work. I’m happier on the sites and I am getting positive feedback from the people I reply to. That’s all I can ask. Help and comfort those who are in need; ignore those who are up for a fight.

A bit like life on the outside really.