The Personalist Project

Accessed on October 04, 2022 - 2:42:31

Gaslighting and its Near Relations

Devra Torres, Mar 29, 2017

Are you a gaslighter? Of course not, right? 

You would expect that gaslighting--"a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception and sanity"--would be a rarity, practiced only by the few malevolent bullies. How many of us, after all, would take on the elaborate project of tricking people into questioning their own sanity? 

I'd guess that in its full-blown form, it's exceedingly rare. I remember once when the girls in our college dorm hatched an elaborate plot to convince our friend Heather that she had napped straight through till the evening of the following day. When she woke up after an hour or two one Thursday, she found us traipsing around in towels and curlers, pretending to prepare for Friday night. The whole dorm was in on it, and it almost worked.

That was just for fun.

But there are other, much more common scenarios. Trying to manipulate other people's perceptions isn't unusual at all, unfortunately. How firm a hold, after all, do most of us have on our own memories or perceptions? Especially the ones about how someone has treated us. These kind are exceedingly susceptible to twisting--because of fear, jealousy, wishful thinking, defensiveness, or projection.

And it can be tempting to gaslight your children--or at least to seize control of their perceptions of what's normal, acceptable, and possible. All the tokens of respect that we know we're supposed to offer people in general can seem out of place when it comes to your own children. With grownups, it's easier to realize we don't know all that's going on in their own hearts. We don't pry; we don't assume; we don't manipulate. Or we do, but at least we realize we're not supposed to.

But with children...well, we have stewardship of their upbringing. Because they're more transparent than adults, we can be tempted to assume that we're seeing all there is to see. We've been children, after all, and they've never been adults. We've experienced being two, or five, or thirteen. They've never been twenty, or thirty or (yikes!) fifty-two. We make an exception to our nonjudgmentalism and easily grant ourselves permission not only to judge their motives and their hearts, but to try to improve them.

(Although if you look back to your own childhood, chances are you remember the frustration of dealing with some grownup who was both certain she saw into your heart and entirely mistaken. And because children have smaller and less sophisticated vocabularies, they are often unable to articulate just where the grownup is getting it wrong. And that's assuming an unusually receptive grownup, one with the humility to realize she might be getting it wrong and the patience to listen to a child's explanations). 

Manipulation of children for their own good, or just for the sheer convenience of a grownup, used to be more blatant, and more socially acceptable. I remember my father telling how his beleaguered mother used to pick up the phone and say to the dial tone: "Hello? Is this the man who comes to take bad children away? Well, I have a bad little boy here..." My father would panic and mend his ways, at least for ten minutes or so. Apparently these tactics weren't uncommon in Grandma's day.

These days, we look askance at them, and rightly so. But a popular childrearing series recommends what may be a more insidious form of manipulation. When a child commits some infraction, the authors advise, the parent should say, very quietly and calmly, something like, "Oh, I'm sorry you did that. We'll talk about the consequences later. Try not to worry"--retaining a veneer of respectful courtesy, but with all the benefits of a cowed and anxiety-ridden culprit.

Full-blown gaslighting may be rare. But the temptation to usurp someone else's perceptions of reality is anything but.