Gaslighting: Should we Label the Victims as Psychotic or Abused?

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At a social gathering, a woman becomes inexplicably panicked and hysterical; her soothing husband whisks her away from the public spectacle. To the disinterested onlookers she seems an emotional wreck, he a noble protector. They respect his chivalry, perhaps pity him a little. Safely back home, his exasperation pours out, ‘If I could only get inside that brain of yours and understand what makes you do these crazy, twisted things!’ However, we know what his wife does not even suspect: that he himself has slowly planted the seeds of her anguish and self-doubt and is plotting to drive her out of her mind.

The scene comes from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight, the second screen adaptation of an earlier play. In it, Bergman’s character Paula is slowly manipulated by her husband into believing she is losing her mind. He moves objects around the house to confuse her, steals her possessions while claiming she has lost them, and his mysterious, secret ventures into the attic cause the gas lights to flicker and dim, which only Paula ever sees, causing her to doubt her own sanity. The title of the film has thus lent itself to this form of psychological abuse, ‘gaslighting’.

Essentially, gaslighting is a term used within psychology to describe the psychological abuse that results when one person attempts to convince another that they are mad. In the film, the viewer is fully aware that Paula is not insane and that her husband is up to no good. However, this is not apparent to the people around her, unable to see what is going on behind closed doors at home. Indeed, when she is out and about her husband often plays a trick or two so that he can ascribe her confusion, stress, and later hysteria to witnesses as part of a tragic descent into insanity. Paula herself is trusting and cannot understand what is happening.

As the film progresses and her imagined ‘condition’ deteriorates, her husband informs her that two psychiatrists will be coming to review her so they can take her away to receive the ‘help’ she needs – i.e. to put her away for life in an asylum. Fortunately, this being Hollywood, and Ingrid Bergman to boot, a handsome and observant detective suspicious of what is going on arrives in the nick of time before she can be institutionalised. The question is, though, what would have happened if the doctors had got there first? Would they have diagnosed Paula as mad, or is there a chance they might have realised she was the victim of a campaign of emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of the man she thought loved her?

Having myself managed to escape from a psychologically abusive relationship, unfortunately only after years of ‘treatment’ within the psychiatric system, I would argue strongly that they would almost certainly not have recognised the gaslighting. Psychiatrists, with the onus they put on diagnostic labels rather than discovering the root causes of distress, have little chance of spotting when the behaviour is the result of others’ abuse. My partner, too, was able to persuade both me and those around me that I was mad, that I lacked insight, and that my worries (including about him) were manifestations of my ‘paranoid delusions’.

It began when I tried to leave him for the first time. Having no family to turn to I had nowhere to go, and the stress of it all caused me to break down. My partner took me to a doctor. I was mainly exhausted after weeks of heavy drinking and a lack of sleep, but the GP referred me to a psychiatrist. I see how this could happen: the NHS’s guidance on what to look out for as indicators of psychosis includes: hallucinations; delusions; confused and disturbed thoughts; and lack of insight and self-awareness*. As it turns out, the same might reasonably be expected to result from an unhealthy combination of insomnia, inebriation and constant denigration. Funnily enough, these are all traits a doctor would have seen in Paula too.

The gaslighting I experienced gathered pace once I started treatment within the psychiatric system. My partner positioned himself as my carer and my friends would often tell me that, considering my ‘condition’, I should be grateful to have someone around so dedicated to my wellbeing. That condition was never doubted by anyone. My partner escorted me to psychiatric appointments, where the professionals listened sympathetically to him, valuing his sane perspective. He would also counsel me that a major problem I had was a lack of insight and that he could help me to see things correctly. So much control did he have over me and my so-called illness that he even took responsibility for monitoring the anti-psychotic drugs I was taking. He ensured I took them, except on the nights he wanted me to join him out drinking; on these occasions he would generously allow me a night off the pills. When I accused him of trying to be my doctor he would get angry and I would let it be – after all, no one else I knew would consider that the problem might be anything outside of my own biology. If I ever tried, again, to leave him he would tell my friends I was having a relapse, and this was accepted by all, again leaving me nowhere to go for support.

It took me a long time to realise that I was being gaslighted. In fact, I had no word to describe the experience until years after I had finally escaped him, when I came across the term by chance. What is worse, whenever I talk about my past relationship now with friends in my new life, I am horrified to discover how common manipulative relationships are. Fortunately, most who have shared their experiences with me had families who supported them in getting away. I didn’t. The only people I could turn to for help were psychiatrists because in the UK the medical system is where you are sent with ‘symptoms’ like mine. I can never go back and prove I was gaslighted so I am stuck with a psychiatric diagnosis to this day. There is a laughable idea that mental health conditions are about susceptibility, that yes, our experiences impact upon our minds, but not everyone reacts psychotically so it is alright to label those who do as having some underlying chemical imbalance. Yet who could experience the level of control by a partner that I did – or the trauma Paula suffers in the film – without emerging traumatised?

So what can be done about the problem? The phenomenon of gaslighting has become much better known recently, and this is progress. Victims need a word to describe what is being done to them, to know it is wrong and that they can escape it. Also, popularising the term hopefully means more people seeing through the abuser’s disguise and providing support for the victim. This would require a wider awareness of the fact that diagnostic labels are not scientifically validated and are, at best, subjective opinions of doctors who do not see the patient in the reality of their surrounding world. Meanwhile, the system has to change to prevent the recurrence of what happened to me. ‘Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’ is now a crime in England and Wales carrying a prison sentence. The healthcare system needs to catch up; psychiatrists must stop being blind to anything but the diagnostic labels that actively abetted my partner in his abuse, and realise that severe and long-term psychological fallout can be caused by various traumatic abuses committed behind closed doors, not just the obvious ones.

The problem is not exclusively one that affects women, but researchers acknowledge a gendered aspect to gaslighting given how often in society a woman’s responses to situations are deemed irrational and over-emotional, while it is assumed that men have a monopoly on reason. For a woman who was never listened to when it mattered most, it is now almost impossible to imagine getting a psychiatrist to believe my story and right the wrong of labelling me, a label that has caused so many problems in my life even after I got away from my abusive relationship. Essentially, what the psychiatric field needs to do is listen, and not only that but to hear and actually believe people’s experiences.

I still have no idea whether my partner’s manipulation was deliberate or if he genuinely believed I was ill. Paula’s murderous husband in Gaslight is clearly evil to the core, but either way the outcome is the same: the manipulation causes intense suffering and damage. Paula’s husband eventually gets his comeuppance. There is no such fairy tale for many real life victims who are left to try and prove their sanity in the face of something so perniciously abusive as gaslighting.

* Editor’s note: At the time of writing this blog, online NHS guidance identified four major indicators of psychosis including ‘lack of insight and self-awareness’. This information was updated in December 2019 to limit the major symptoms to hallucinations, delusions and confused or disturbed thoughts.

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E.M. Carr writes under a pseudonym, keeping her identity secret until some future time when it is psychiatrists who feel ashamed about their past treatments and not people who have quite reasonably experienced severe distress when dealing with aspects of this sometimes unkind world in which we live. Having left behind her life of being told she would always be on pills, she gained an MSc in Psychology to challenge the idea she could never have insight into her ‘condition.’ Reading scientific papers she was horrified to discover the lack of actual science behind psychiatric diagnoses and she uses this knowledge as a writer to work for a better world beyond the current inhumane medical model of mental distress.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hey
    Your article resonates with me. I have been gaslighted by my husband for years, usually he says or does something and then denies it, he also twists around anything I say. We attended couples counselling and I have to say I found it extremely biased towards him. When I complained to the counsellor that my husband was gaslighting me, quoting several examples, his response was that he could see no evidence of gaslighting at all.
    I would never do couples counselling again. In my opinion it is extremely dangerous and teaches the (usually) woman how to tolerate abuse, which is worrying when you consider how many people think this process is going to help them. Thank you for your article and I hope you find resolution with those who treated you so badly.

    • Hi,

      Yes, I sympathize you for not being believed. In terms of counselling, I have met many people doing counselling training because they believe that they themselves are okay and sane and assume that what other people need is to learn how to be like them and everything will be okay. People who haven’t suffered themselves often can’t see the suffering of others and these people might actually be in positions that should have that level of empathy as a requirement of the job. The same goes for doctors, psychiatrists, and even, sadly, many psychologists, who cling to their positions of power to believe they are right, assume they know more than you about what is right or wrong, and in the process dismiss your experiences.

      I got away from that relationship in the end by deciding to go with what I believed was the truth – that I was not mad – rather than what people told me must be true because psychiatrists (i.e. scientists) had confirmed it. I was very right to do so. My life is now happy and healthy and I want nothing more than to encourage other women and men suffering that type of abuse to gain the strength to get away from it, something which often isn’t easy because you often have to do it without the support of others.

      One other thing I’d like to do, however, is ensure women’s voices aren’t dismissed in general in society. Gaslighting of women is so common – in the workplace, in families, by organisations who choose to ignore your emails… It is horrible to think how often people and organisations dismiss what women have to say and you realise that they just think you are mad, or someone to be laughed at. What is worse is it isn’t always men who do the gaslighting. Women so often support men who do it and believe what he says over and above the woman’s voice. This dismissal of women’s voices hurts our society a great deal.

  2. This is happening to a friend of mine. His sister used to take him to the psychiatrist and give him his drugs. He is still on the drugs. He was treated badly by his family who are very controlling and when he disclosed abuse by a cousin they minimized the significance.

    The psychiatrist used the term, “Lack of insight,” about my friend in front of me. All it means is that you dare to question the psychiatrists opinion.

  3. Hi

    Thanks for your comment; it has inspired me to share an actual example of gaslighting by a psychiatrist.

    I once asked my psychiatrist about challenging my diagnosis. He told me that to challenge my diagnosis would be a sign of my lack of insight which is, he said, a symptom of my illness, and therefore me challenging my diagnosis would just go to prove I was ill.

    This, I believe, is abusive. Everyone has the right to second opinions or to question what those in power tell them.

    But having recently been following the excellent online ‘Critical Reasoning’ course by Professor Marianne Talbot of Oxford University, I think I am now able to go one further and actually show through formal logic how that psychiatrist’s argument doesn’t stand up. Formally, the argument would be set out like this (I think):
    Premise 1: A lack of insight is a symptom of condition X;
    Premise 2: To challenge having condition X is a lack of insight;
    Conclusion: To challenge having condition X means the patient has condition X

    This, I believe, falls down on the begging the question fallacy . To believe it we have to agree what insight means. I don’t believe anyone can scientifically determine that; it is completely subjective.

    I’m new to analysing arguments in this way but I’m fairly sure the psychiatrist’s argument was deeply flawed. In light of this, I am currently trying to get hold of someone in policy at the Royal College of Psychiatrists to see if arguments like this are standard policy or merely the odd doctor here or there who hasn’t received training in critical reasoning.

    • Couple of things i’d like to say, and i’ll do my best to keep it brief.

      have you ever read the book by Victor Santoro called Gaslighting, or how to drive your enemies crazy? I have been trying to get a copy for some time but it’s out of print. I’d like to see what is contained within this book as a victim of some vicious gaslighting myself.

      I have often wondered (and asked the question elsewhere) about the gaslight in the movie. It seemed to me that the dimming of the gaslight was not an intentional act by Charles Boyer, but an unintended consequence of his search for the jewels. But this to me is the very nature of gaslighting, once the process is started it takes on a life of it’s own. The mind turns on itself and everything is now being questioned which takes up a lot of mind space (for want of a better term).

      I read your article and think back to the time I spent in the hospital and I do believe that as a victim of gaslighting, I can spot others who are being subjected to attack. And what does psychiatry have to offer these victims? When all you have is a hammer…… all the worlds a nail.

      I had a group of people get together and subject me to gaslighting in order to conceal their criminal conduct. I of course trusting and unaware of the crimes, and they concerned about how I would react if I did know, so rather than take the chance they set out to destroy me. And that they did, totally. But oh how they turned on each other when the threat of exposure reared it’s ugly head again.

      I would hope that mental health professionals might be capable of identifying people being gaslighted, and do something to protect the victim. It really takes very little ‘tweaking’ to turn the knife around and have the perpetrator become the target if you know what your doing. Poetic justice?

      Just on the issue of psychiatrists and gaslighting. One of the nastiest things that I ever had said to me by a psychiatrist was this. I was slandered as a wife beater by a Community Nurse to justify his actions. He wrote “wife fears being assaulted” in his documentation (more than once). When I obtained the documents I was furious with my wife for lying to these filthy slanderers and asked her “What are you doing saying such things about me when you know its a lie” and she replied with “I said no such thing”. Now, the point was that when I went back through the documents in detail it became apparent that this had been fabricated by the Community Nurse to meet his standard of their being a threat before incarcerating me.

      Skip forwards two years and I am sitting talking to a psychiatrist after stepping in front of a truck. I show her the documents and she says “your wife was afraid of you” and I said “my wife wan’t afraid of me, I adored my wife and she knew under no circumstances would I harm her”. The psychiatrist responded with “your wife was too afraid to tell you she was afraid of you” to which I responded with ” That is an absolutely poisonous thing to say”. It was bad enough that the Community Nurse had injected poison into our relationship with hos slander, but this. Imagine being told that your partner is so afraid of you they won’t tell you? How does one psychologically resolve that? If she was afraid of me, then say so. Though I had never done anything to make her feel afraid of me, and she swore to my face emphatically that she had said no such thing. It was pure poison, and I hope that the psychiatrist concerned learned from our conversation as to the psychological harm that comes from such statements. Imagine, your children are so afraid of you they can’t even tell you? And what you see is kids who absolutely adore you? But with that poison injected? It’s a form of gaslighting.

      Anyway, good article Ms E.M.Carr

  4. When will psychiatry stop gaslighting it’s clients. “lack of insight” always being used if we don’t agree with the psychiatrist. Never that they have it wrong because they haven’t listened to us. I am working with someone at the moment who is feeling like mental health services continue to gaslight her and I agree with her when she describes it in this way.