Although gas lighting was used in China 1700 years ago, the first gas lighting in England was on Westminster Bridge in 1813 (Wikipedia). By the 20th century gas street lighting was ubiqitous in England. We even still had gas street lamps in Lincoln when I was growing up in the 1950s – I remember each lamp cast a small circle of light, and there were huge gaps of darkness in between them. Today, gas street lamps no longer significantly exist and gaslighting has a totally new meaning.
In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made the film Gas Light, where a manipulative husband makes his wife think she’s losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly dimming the flame on a gas lamp. He disrupts her environment, making her believe she’s insane, and controls her by cutting her off from family and friends.
Flash forward to the 2010s, and a new term ‘gaslighting’ starts to appear, inspired by this film. Here’s a good summary of its psychology. Basically this is emotional manipulation to control and undermine another person. It can be quite hard to spot, once sucked into its orbit – particularly in a relationship with strong positives as well as strong negatives.
Why do people gaslight others? The above website gives a good summary:
“The typical goal of the gaslighter is not just manipulation, but power and control—typically with the misguided cooperation of the manipulated victim.”
If you’re being gaslighted the website identifies steps you can take to protect yourself, including gaining distance, keeping a record, setting boundaries, getting an outside perspective, and ending the relationship. Of course, ending the relationship can lead to further problems, such as harassment and stalking, but that’s another story.
Gaslighting not just a person-to-person thing. You may have noticed that we’re being gaslighted by some of our politicians on a regular basis – for instance those who tell us the country cannot afford to provide support for a healthy life for each of its people, particularly those who have little, yet it can afford to be extremely generous to those people who have a lot. Indeed, it seems like party leaders in a democracy increasingly resort to gaslighting by conflicting narratives, rather than doing their real job of addressing real world problems in the most effective way for all concerned.
Gaslighting – worth knowing about.
Picture of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons