Katie is a friendly, upbeat person who walks down the street with a smile for everyone. Her job as a sales rep means that she’s often talking to new people, which she loves. An attractive woman in her late twenties, she went through a long period of dating before she finally settled on her current boyfriend, Brian. Brian can be sweet, protective, and considerate, but he’s also an anxious, fearful guy who treats every new person with suspicion. When the two of them go on a walk together, Katie is outgoing and talkative, easily falling into conversation with the man who stops to ask directions or the woman whose dog cuts across their path. Brian, though, is full of criticism. Can’t she see how people are laughing at her? She thinks they like these casual conversations, but they’re actually rolling their eyes and wondering why she’s so chatty. And that man who asked them for directions? He was only trying to seduce her—she should have seen how he leered at her the moment her back was turned. Besides, behaving in such a manner is highly disrespectful to him, her boyfriend. How does she think it makes him feel to see her making eyes at every guy she passes? At first, Katie laughs off her boyfriend’s complaints. She’s been like this all her life, she tells him, and she enjoys being friendly. But after weeks of relentless criticism, she starts to doubt herself. Maybe people are laughing and leering at her. Maybe she is being flirtatious and rubbing her boyfriend’s nose in it—what a terrible way to treat the man who loves her! Eventually, when Katie walks down the street, she can’t decide how to be- have. She doesn’t want to give up her warm and friendly approach to the world—but now, whenever she smiles at a stranger, she can’t help imagining what Brian would think.
Liz is a top-level executive in a major advertising firm. A stylish woman in her late forties with a solid, twenty-year marriage and no children, she’s worked hard to get where she is, pouring all her extra energy into her career. Now she seems to be on the verge of reaching her goal, in line to take over the company’s New York office. Then, at the last minute, someone else is brought in to take the job. Liz swallows her pride and offers to give him all the help she can. At first, the new boss seems charming and appreciative. But soon Liz starts to notice that she’s being left out of important decisions and not invited to major meetings. She hears rumors that clients are being told she doesn’t want to work with them anymore and has recommended that they speak to her new boss instead. When she complains to her colleagues, they look at her in bewilderment. “But he always praises you to the skies,” they insist. “Why would he say such nice things if he was out to get you?” Finally, Liz confronts her boss, who has a plausible explanation for every incident. “Look,” he says kindly at the end of the meeting. “I think you’re be- ing way too sensitive about all this—maybe even a little paranoid. Would you like a few days off to destress?” Liz feels completely disabled. She knows she’s being sabotaged—but why is she the only one who thinks so?
Mitchell is a grad student in his mid-twenties who’s studying to be- come an electrical engineer. Tall, gangly, and somewhat shy, he’s taken a long time to find the right woman, but he’s just begun dating someone he really likes. One day, his girlfriend mildly points out that Mitchell still dresses like a little boy. Mitchell is mortified, but he sees what she means. Off he goes to a local department store, where he asks the personal shopper to help him choose an entire wardrobe. The clothes make him feel like a new man— sophisticated, attractive—and he enjoys the appreciative glances women give him on the bus ride home.
But when he wears the new clothes to Sunday dinner at his parents’ home, his mother bursts out laughing. “Oh, Mitchell, that outfit is all wrong for you—you look ridiculous,” she says. “Please, dear, the next time you go shopping, let me help you.” When Mitchell feels hurt and asks his mother to apologize, she shakes her head sadly. “I was only trying to help,” she says. “And I’d like an apology from you for that tone of voice.”
Mitchell is confused. He liked his new clothes—but maybe he does look ridiculous. And has he really been rude to his mother?
Understanding the Gaslight Effect
Katie, Liz, and Mitchell have one thing in common: they’re all suffering from the Gaslight Effect. The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people: a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self and his sense of having power in the world; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define her sense of reality because she idealizes him and seeks his approval. Gaslighters and gaslightees can be of either gender, and gaslighting can happen in any type of relationship.
Are You Being Gaslighted?
TURN UP YOUR GASLIGHT RADAR.
CHECK FOR THESE TWENTY TELLTALE SIGNS
Gaslighting may not involve all of these experiences or feelings, but if you recognize yourself in any of them, give it extra attention.
You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” a dozen times a day.
You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
You’re always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend, boss.
You wonder frequently if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/wife/employee/friend/daughter.
You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
You buy clothes for yourself, furnishings for your apartment, or other personal purchases with your partner in mind, thinking about what he would like instead of what would make you feel great.
You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
You have trouble making simple decisions.
You think twice before bringing up certain seemingly innocent topics of conversation.
Before your partner comes home, you run through a checklist in your head to anticipate anything you might have done wrong that day.
You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
You start speaking to your husband through his secretary so you don’t have to tell hims things you’re afraid might upset him.
You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
Your kids begin trying to protect you from your partner.
You find yourself furious with people you’ve always gotten along with before.
You feel hopeless and joyless.
Excerpted from THE GASLIGHT EFFECT: HOW TO SPOT AND SURVIVE THE HIDDEN MANIPULATION OTHERS USE TO CONTROL YOUR LIFE Copyright © 2018 by Dr. Robin Stern. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.