Book Summaries

Book Summary – The Gaslight Effect by Dr. Robin Stern.

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In The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, licensed psychoanalyst, and Co-founder and Associate Director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Robin Stern, Ph.D. shows how the Gaslight Effect works and tells you how to: Turn up your Gaslight Radar, so you know when a relationship is headed for trouble.

Gaslighting is an insidious form of emotional abuse and manipulation that is difficult to recognize and even harder to break free from. That’s because it plays into one of our worst fears — of being abandoned — and many of our deepest needs: to be understood, appreciated, and loved.

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….[I]f there’s even a little piece of you that thinks you’re not good enough by yourself—if even a small part of you feels you need your gaslighter’s love or approval to be whole—then you are susceptible to gaslighting. And a gaslighter will take advantage of that vulnerability to make you doubt yourself, over and over again.

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.

Gaslighting Tango

Sometimes the gaslightee faces a greater penalty than mere disapproval. Perhaps she and the gaslighter are raising children together, and the gaslightee feels unable financially or emotionally to become a single parent. Maybe the gaslighter is an employer, and the gaslightee fears professional repercussions for challenging her boss or for leaving her job. Perhaps the gaslighter is a relative or an old friend, and the gaslightee fears repercussions within the family or the social circle. The gaslighter might also threaten the gaslightee with what I call an “emotional apocalypse”—a barrage of insults, threats of suicide, or a terrifying fight—something so upsetting that the gaslightee will do virtually anything to avoid it.

The gaslighter is someone who desperately needs to be right in order to bolster his own sense of self and hold on to his own sense of power. The gaslightee tends to idealize her gaslighter and to long for his approval.

Whatever the penalty, gaslighting depends upon the participation of both parties. The person doing the gaslighting is responsible for his own actions. But the gaslightee is also responsible for hers. Her vulnerability springs from her need to idealize the gaslighter, win his approval, or preserve the relationship at all costs.

 The essence of gaslighting is the Gaslight Tango—the dance between two people who each need the participation of the other.

A form of Bullying

In fact, gaslighting is a type of stealth bullying, often practiced by a spouse, friend, or family member who insists that they love you even as they undermine you. You know something’s wrong—but you can’t quite put your finger on it. The term “gaslighting” puts a name to the abuse, enabling you to see clearly what your boyfriend, your Aunt Martha, or your so-called best friend is really doing.

“When you don’t take responsibility for your actions, or deflect responsibility, or try to undermine the credibility of the person asking you about your actions, that’s gaslighting,”

Look to your flight attendants.

Just as on board a plane, the flight attendants’ behavior signals whether that lurch is a minor bit of turbulence or the beginning of a major disaster, so too do the “flight attendants” in your own life help you see whether that new boyfriend is just having a bad day or continuing a pattern of abuse. When you’ve begun to question your own reality, your flight attendants—friends, family members, perhaps even a therapist—can help you forge an accurate assessment.

Gaslighting works only when you believe what the gaslighter says and need him to think well of you.”

20 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.

 1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
2. You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” a dozen times a day.
3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work. 
4. You’re always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend, boss.
5. You wonder frequently if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/wife/employee/friend/daughter.
6. You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier. 
7. 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.
8. You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
9. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
10. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
11. You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
12. You have trouble making simple decisions.
13. You think twice before bringing up certain seemingly innocent topics of conversation.
14. Before your partner comes home, you run through a checklist in your head to anticipate anything you might have done wrong that day.
15. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person—more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
16. You start speaking to your husband through his secretary so you don’t have to tell him things you’re afraid might upset him.
17. You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
18. Your kids begin trying to protect you from your partner.
19. You find yourself furious with people you’ve always gotten along with before.
20. You feel hopeless and joyless.

“A gaslighter has such a flawed sense of self that he can’t tolerate the slightest challenge to the way he sees things. However he decides to explain the world to himself, that’s how you must see it, too—or leave him prey to unbearable anxiety.”

The Stages of Gaslighting

Stage 1: Disbelief“What Are You Talking About?”

Your gaslighter says something outrageous—“That guy who asked us for directions was really just trying to get you into bed!”—and you can’t quite believe your ears.

You think you’ve misunderstood, or maybe he has, or maybe he was just joking. The comment seems so off the wall, you might let it go. Or perhaps you try to correct the error but without a whole lot of energy. Maybe you even get into long, involved arguments, but you’re still pretty certain of your own point of view. Although you’d like your gaslighter’s approval, you don’t yet feel desperate for it.

Stage 1 can leave you feeling confused, frustrated, and anxious.

Stage 2: Defense –  “Maybe You Have a Point”

Stage 2 is marked by the need to defend yourself. You search for evidence to prove your gaslighter wrong and argue with him obsessively, often in your head, desperately trying to win his approval.

You know you’re in Stage 2 if you frequently feel obsessive, sometimes desperate. You’re no longer sure you can win your gaslighter’s approval—but you haven’t given up hope.

In Stage 2, you’re far more invested in winning your gaslighter’s approval for being a good, capable, and lovable person—and he’s even more invested in proving he’s right. If you don’t agree with him, he might step up his version of the Emotional Apocalypse: yelling more loudly, finding more pointed insults, giving you bigger doses of the silent treatment. You feel that you’ll do anything to avoid this treatment, so you try even harder to please him.

“Now, instead of starting with your own perspective, you start with his. It may even feel normal to be constantly on the defensive. When your gaslighter overreacts, you no longer wonder, “What’s wrong with him?” Instead, you jump either to placate him or to defend yourself.”

Stage 3: Depression – “It’s All My Fault!”

Stage 3 gaslighting is the most difficult of all: depression. At this point, you are actively trying to prove that your gaslighter is right, because then maybe you could do things his way and finally win his approval. Stage 3 is exhausting, though, and you are often too worn out to argue.

Stage 3 is exhausting, though, and you are often too worn out to argue.

 By Stage 3, you’ve adopted your gaslighter’s point of view and are marshaling evidence on his behalf, not your own. That’s because you still believe that you need your gaslighter to feel better about yourself, to boost your confidence, or to bolster your sense of who you are in the world. And in Stage 3, you’re not only willing to consider your gaslighter’s perspective, you’re actively taking it on.

Being gaslighted by someone whom you’ve trusted for years can be even more debilitating than entering into a gaslighting relationship from the start. Because your trust has a solid foundation, it’s all the more bewildering when you find yourself being badly treated—and you may be even more likely to blame yourself. How could the problem be him? It must be you.

Three Types of Gaslighters

Gaslighting comes in many forms. Some of it looks like abuse, but some of it can look as though your partner is being a good guy or even a romantic lover.

The Glamour Gaslighter: When He Creates a Special World for You

Like all gaslighters, he’s distorting reality and demanding that you agree with his distorted view; he’s behaving as though he’s done nothing out of the ordinary, acting as though you’re the unreasonable one for being upset. But the glamour and romance may cover up how badly he’s behaving and how distressing you first found it.

Glamour Gaslighting can be very confusing—you know something is wrong, but you love the romance. So if you can’t get him to agree with you that there’s a problem, then you start to agree with him that everything must be fine.

The Glamour Gaslighter can be the most attractive man in the world, because creating that magic is his specialty.

There are many ways glamour and romance can play into a relationship, and of course, not all of them are negative. But if your guy is using romance to distract you from your own feelings—if he brings you flowers to stop you criticizing his lateness, or insults you in front of his friends and immediately follows it with an extravagant compliment that takes your breath away, so that you begin to doubt your own perception that anything is wrong—then you are involved in glamour gaslighting.

The Good-Guy Gaslighter: When You Can’t Quite Say What’s Wrong

If you’re involved with a guy like this, you may often feel confused. You may sense on some level that you’re being dismissed or disrespected—that your wishes and concerns never really get through—but you can never quite put your finger on what’s wrong.

When the façade is one of acquiescence but the real agenda is disregard.

The Intimidator: When He Bullies, Guilt-trips, and Withholds

Glamour Gaslighting and Good-Guy Gaslighting are often hard to spot because so much of the behavior involved might be so desirable under other circumstances.

But some gaslighting behavior is more obviously problematic: yelling, put-downs, freeze-outs, guilt trips, and other types of punishment and/or intimidation. You may have all sorts of reasons for putting up with this unpleasant behavior—you see this man as your soul mate; you think he’s a good father to your children; you believe that his criticisms of you are correct—but you also know on some level that you don’t like being treated this way.

Being involved with an Intimidator can be challenging to say the least. To make your relationship more satisfying, both of you will need to work on two areas: the gaslighting and the intimidation, which is unpleasant even when it’s not part of gaslighting. The Intimidator may need to alter his way of relating—but you’ll also need to work on your own ability to withstand his intimidating actions, so that you don’t give in immediately to avoid the unpleasantness.

The Gaslight Culture

Gaslighting can find even more purchase in today’s climate, in which people feel more anxious than ever. We are all constantly bombarded by a welter of news and information that we are well aware might not be accurate—might even fall under the rubric of “fake news” or “alternate facts.” In such a climate, we become less certain of what we believe and consequently more vulnerable to gaslighting than ever.

Gaslighting is painful and challenging enough to resist when it takes place in the privacy of your own relationship.

Advertising insists that no man can love a woman who doesn’t have a perfect size 2 body and a beautifully made-up face; School officials tell children that learning is valuable for its own sake while reminding them that if they don’t have the grades and the SATs, they won’t get into the colleges they want.

 Politicians give us one reason for their actions, then switch ground midstream and offer another, without ever acknowledging that the new “party line” isn’t the same as the old one. 

We are living in a Gaslight Culture. Rather than being encouraged to discover or create our own reality, we are bombarded with a million different powerful demands to ignore our own responses and accept as our own whatever need or view is currently being marketed.

The gaslighter is someone who desperately needs to be right in order to bolster his own sense of self and hold on to his own sense of power. The gaslightee tends to idealize her gaslighter and to long for his approval.

Gaslighting can occur only when a gaslightee tries—consciously or not—to accommodate the gaslighter, or to get him to see things her way, because she so desperately wants his approval so she can feel whole.

Why Do We Go Along with It?

There are two reasons: fear of the Emotional Apocalypse and the Urge to Merge.

Fear of the Emotional Apocalypse

Most gaslighters seem to hold in reserve a secret weapon, an emotional explosion that flattens everything in its vicinity and poisons the atmosphere for weeks afterward. A person in a gaslighting relationship fears that if the gaslighter is pushed too far, he’ll invoke this Emotional Apocalypse, something even worse than the ongoing attrition of annoyed questions and cutting remarks. This apocalypse is such a painful experience that, eventually, she’ll do anything to avoid it.

The gaslightee is terrified that her partner might yell, or criticize her, or even leave her, and she’s sure that if her fear is realized, she’ll be completely overwhelmed.

When you’re able to see past the fear that is choking you and clouding your mind, you may be able to shrug off your gaslighter’s point of view and refuse to engage with it—neither believing it nor arguing with it, but simply holding on to your own inner truth.

The Urge to Merge

Those of us who are prone to being gaslighted seem to have one thing in common. No matter how strong, smart, or competent we are, we feel an urgent need to win the approval of the gaslighter whom we’ve idealized. Without that approval, we feel unable to see ourselves as the good, capable, and lovable people we so desperately want to be. Needing our gaslighters’ validation, we’re terrified to feel divided from them in any way. So it makes us nervous to see things differently from our loved ones, or to have preferences that are different from theirs.

The Empathy Trap

“Empathy is the ability to imagine what another person is feeling by putting yourself in his or her place”

Empathy: The balm that makes sorrow bearable, the gift that multiplies joy. Ideally, empathy is the current that flows between two people in a close relationship, helping us to feel less alone, reassuring us that we are loved and understood.

But sometimes, sad to say, empathy can be a trap, and never more so than in a gaslighting relationship. Your very ability to offer empathy—and your own need to receive it—can make you prone to the Gaslight Effect.

The Explanation Trap

Explanation Trap, the effort to explain away behavior that disturbs us, including gaslighting. Instead of letting these early signs set off the warning bells they are meant to, we find seemingly rational explanations to prove to ourselves why these danger signals aren’t really dangerous.

As with all gaslighting, the Explanation Trap affects us because, on some level, we desperately want a particular relationship to work out; we think this relationship may finally win for us the approval of a man who makes us feel good, capable, and lovable. And so we look for reasons to ignore the unpleasant truth and idealize the gaslighter.

The Negotiation Trap

Another version of the Explanation Trap—especially common among women involved with Good-Guy Gaslighters—is the Negotiation Trap. Like women caught in the Explanation Trap, those of us caught in the Negotiation Trap tend to focus not on the overall satisfaction that a relationship brings us but on our success—or lack of success—in negotiating with our partner.

Certainly, negotiations can be enormously productive. Be careful, though, not to let the negotiation process blind you to your own emotional reality. If you’re not feeling satisfied by the end result, it doesn’t matter how you got there, what he says about it, or whether your victory looks good “on paper.” All that matters is your own deepest, most authentic sense of your inner truth.

The Power of Fantasy

Many of us remain in difficult relationships because of the fantasies we have about our gaslighters and about ourselves. We see a gaslighter as our soul mate, the man we can’t live without, the great love of our life. Or we have a romantic notion of “friends forever” and precious memories of a longstanding friendship. Maybe we have fantasies of a have a romantic notion of “friends forever” and precious memories of a longstanding friendship. Maybe we have fantasies of climbing the career ladder and feel that if we leave an employer gaslighter, we’re selling out our own hopes for professional advancement and growth. And when it comes to families, our fantasies are especially powerful.

Many of us have intense feelings about the parents or siblings who have known us from early days, seeing them as people we owe everything to, should be able to depend on, or can be especially close to. Even after we grow up and move out, we may feel lost because we’ve left them but not the fantasy that we should have an all-powerful person in our lives who can take care of us and love us unconditionally.

For all of us, fantasy plays a powerful role in gaslighting relationships, though we may not recognize it as such. When my patients, friends, and acquaintances make passionate statements about their gaslighters, they believe they’re only stating facts.

All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.

Lifelong Learner | Entrepreneur | Digital Strategist at Reputiva LLC | Marathoner | Bibliophile |

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