Emily Articulated: Gaslighting

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

Gaslighting is a subtle, yet powerful series of rhetorical tactics used by people in order to dominate, control and create doubt in the minds of others. In psychology, gaslighting is understood as a form of manipulation used by individuals or groups of people to intentionally make their victims question their own thoughts, feelings, perceptions and experiences. This is achieved through techniques like denial, minimizing, reframing and diverting, and often results in victims feeling destabilized or dissociated from their reality. 

Emily Erickson.

Although efficacious, gaslighting can be hard to recognize because of the subtle and subversive nature of its practice. But, by identifying and describing the most common ways it is expressed both at the individual and group levels, we can easily place gaslighting in the context of interpersonal relationships and in the collective consciousness of certain social groups within our society.

Common gaslighting techniques include:

Blocking and Diverting. When using blocking and diverting as a gaslighting technique, the manipulator diverts the conversation away from the subject matter with the intention of taking control of the narrative. With this tactic, the topic is pivoted away from the original conversation, focusing on the manipulator’s experience rather than the previous subject matter. This can sound like, “Don’t put me through this same old fight again.” 

Countering. Similar to diverting, countering uses manipulation to shift the subject matter away from the topic being discussed. By changing the subject, the manipulator will call the victim’s thoughts into question; will refuse to acknowledge an experience or recollection; and will often pose a self-serving question as a response, seeking to diminish their victim’s conviction. An example of this is, “Don’t you remember what happened the last time you thought that way?” 

Minimizing and Trivializing. When gaslighting with the techniques of minimizing and trivializing, a manipulator will attempt to make their victim’s thoughts, feelings or perceptions seem insignificant. The manipulator will imply the victim’s experience is blown out of proportion, or that they are being irrational for feeling strongly about something. Gaslighting through minimizing sounds like, “I was just kidding, don’t be so sensitive.”

Avoidance and Denial. When using avoidance and denial to gaslight their victims, manipulators will circumvent conversations that are disadvantageous to them, and will strategically forget experiences, conversations and promises to maintain power over the narrative. An example of this would be, “That is not what happened, you’re making things up again.”

Twisting and Reframing. When a manipulator uses a twisting and reframing technique, they’re reconstructing their victim’s words and experiences to make themselves the victim or to paint themselves in an altruistic light. To do this, manipulators often call the victim’s experience or memory into question, and use confidence and bravado to foster doubt. This would sound like, “If you’d actually stop to think about what happened, you’d realize I was trying to help you.”

The techniques of gaslighting are not limited to individual relationships, and can be used by larger groups of people to manipulate or suppress the viewpoints of other groups of people. Group gaslighting occurs through the concept of collective consciousness, or when a set of beliefs, ideas or moral attitudes are shared by a group of people. 

Lately, locally and in my own circles, I’ve noticed the manifestation of group gaslighting being used to suppress conversations and calls to action around the Black Lives Matter movement. Although many of the gaslighters I’ve identified aren’t consciously engaging in these tactics, their comments and counter-arguments neatly fit the bill of manipulation.

Examples of collective gaslighting from my world of late:

Blocking and Diverting. When confronted about her agitation with the Aunt Jemima syrup bottle being rebranded, one woman I know from my hometown shifted the conversation away from the subject matter, highlighting her own experience instead. She said, “I’m just so sick of all of this racism crap. Slavery was a long time ago. I’m just glad my grandkids won’t have to experience this.”

Countering. When discussing the present-day effects of the institution of American slavery, another woman near to my heart countered my question about the Black experience in America with a question of her own. She asked, “Well, what about Irish slavery?”

What’s more, Irish “slavery” is a myth — indentured servitude, while being its own injustice and affecting many groups other than Irish immigrants, was not the same as chattel slavery for several reasons — not least of which was that indenture could be worked off and was not inheritable by children.

Minimizing and Trivializing. When presented with a list of demands by local activists, one local government official attempted to make their ideas seem trivial, and the subject of their concerns small. He said, “We will always have that small percentage of bad actors in every society and even here in Bonner County but to paint the entire population with the broad brush of racism and bigotry is irresponsible and ignorant.”

Avoidance and Denial. When discussing the importance of making people of color feel welcome in our community instead of fearful, one local Facebook commentator denied the fact that some people have had negative experiences with racism in our community. She said, “If people of color were to come walk around our town, they’d get nothing but smiles.”

Twisting and Reframing. When considering the idea behind the “Love Lives Here” movement, many commentators have re-framed themselves into being victims instead of manipulators. They say, “The problem is, love does not live there, I’ve seen more hate and bias labeling behind those signs than love. Love only is extended to those that agree with their narrative.”

By understanding gaslighting and its manipulation effects, we can better prepare ourselves to recognize and counteract the tactics, preserving productive conversation and confidence in our own perspectives.

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