Gas-lighting: Psychological Warfare

Gas-lighting: Psychological Warfare

I had never heard of the term gas-lighting until I was in a tumultuous relationship with a woman with borderline personality order who accused me of gas-lighting.   At the time I asked her what it meant and she told me to look it up, so I did and the more I read about it and researched it, the more I realized she was the gas-lighter and I was the one being gas-lighted!

What Is Gas-lighting?

Gas-lighting is a deceptive and insidious form of control and manipulation. The name comes for the 1938 play, Gas Light. People who are being gas-lighted are deceived into doubting what they know to be true through the use of false information. These victims end up doubting their memories, feelings, perceptions and nearly everything about themselves, including their own sanity. Overtime, the gas-lighter’s manipulation tactics become more complex making it harder for the victim to recognize and avoid. If this sounds like psychological warfare, that’s because it is.

Gas-lighting is most common and noticeable in intimate relationships, but they can happen in professional relationships as well. Gas-lighters are usually charming at first and often have personality disorders such as narcissism or borderline.  Many sociopaths and addicts are skilled gas-lighters as well.

Gas-lighters attack their victims most sensitive areas: their sense of identity and self-worth. Through my research and interviews with clients who were in toxic relationships, I found that it was common for gas-lighters to show one face to their victim and another to the rest of the world, making it hard for their victim to reach out to others in fear that no one will believe them.

In it’s most basic form, gas-lighting can be seen as projection taken to it’s highest level. The gas-lighter needs to create a certain reality by attempting to shape the reality of the person being gas-lighted. They will change facts in-order to create a new narrative more suitable for themselves and disregard their victims reality.

Gas-Lighting Can Be Used To Manipulate A Whole Society

Gas-lighting not only happens in day to day relationships, but historically has and is happening in a greater context. Think about how the narrative around Thanksgiving downplays the genocide of Native Americans, or how many American History books brush over the horrific slavery of and treatment of African Americans. Cultural appropriation and white-washing are both ways experiences and realities of others are overwritten, manipulated and downplayed. It happens so much in our society through the use of media and stereotypes that’s it’s not easily recognized, but is just as damaging to those who are the victims of gas-lighting.

I once read a book called Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, that in many ways detailed how American Society has been gas-lighted to perceive African Americans a certain way.

My Personal Experience

One example from my personal situation is that the person I was dating continuously disrespected our relationship by flirting with other guys. Even other people who knew us would come and tell me and it became embarrassing. When I would talk to her about it she would accuse me of being insecure, other people of manipulating me and accusing me of looking at other women.

It got so bad that I started questioning if I was insecure, if other people were trying to sabotage our relationship and although I had never been accused of having wandering eyes before, I started to doubt that as well. I started becoming more aware of my behavior and attempting to never even look in another woman’s direction. I started becoming paranoid and questioning things my friends were telling me about her. I started to doubt myself so much that I became oblivious to the ways she was continuously and increasingly disrespecting me and our relationship.

That’s what gas-lighting does. It makes you start questioning your own reality to the point where you don’t trust what you know to be true.

How I ended up overcoming this was through some deep introspection and awareness. First,  thanks to her accusing me of gas-lighting (the gas-lighter often accuses their victim of being the gas-lightee), I became aware that I was actually being psychologically manipulated.

I had to regain trust in my own sense of self and judgement and realize that I wasn’t crazy and that my eyes and heart weren’t deceiving me. I had to find a way to separate myself from her and see the truth for what it was and once I did that, it was like someone had turned the lights on in a dark room and allowed me to see everything. I had to take back my power and it’s then when I decided to leave because I knew she wasn’t going to change and the new “woke” me, couldn’t stay in that toxic relationship and keep my sanity.

Despite the fact that I knew I had to leave, it still took multiple attempts before I was able to walk away for good. Toxic relationships are usually hard to leave and take several attempts.  During that time I did reach out to friends for support and I continued to read articles and books that opened my eyes and made me strong enough to eventually leave for good.

-T.R. LMHC

Mental Health Awareness Week: Borderline Personality Disorder

istock_000008463493xsmall-243x300Perhaps out of all of the different types of personality disorders, borderline personality disorder is the most studied and most known as it seems like more and more people today are being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and it was definitely one of the most common personality disorders I run into when working with teenage girls.

People with borderline personality disorder are said to stand on the threshold between neurosis and psychosis. They are characterized by their incredibly unstable affect, behavior, mood, self-image and object relations (how they relate to others).

Borderline personality disorder is thought to represent about 1 to 2 percent of the population and is twice as common in women compared to men.

People who have borderline personality disorder seem to be in a constant state of crisis. They experience almost every emotion to the extreme and typically have mood swings. They can go from being very angry and confrontational one moment, to crying the next moment to feeling nothing at all the very next. They may even have very brief periods of psychosis known as micropsychotic episodes that are generally not as bizarre as those who have full-blown psychotic breaks and may even go largely unnoticed or written off as “strange”.

The behavior of people with BPD is highly unpredictable and they generally do not achieve everything they can to their full potential. Their lives are usually marred by repetitive, self-destructive actions.

These individuals are very often associated with cutting and other self-injurious behaviors as they may harm themselves as a way of crying out for help, to express anger or to feel pain or numb themselves from intense and overwhelming emotions and affect. As a matter of fact, most of the young women I ended up counseling who had BPD were referred to me for their self-injurious behaviors and/or their intense mood swings.

They may feel both dependent and hostile which creates an environment for stormy interpersonal relationships. They can be dependent on the people they are closest to, yet lash out with intense anger at the smallest perceived slight or frustration. They basically pull and push people away all the time, yet they can not tolerate being alone and will prefer chasing and trying to have relationships with people who are not good for them, even if they themselves are not satisfied in the relationship. They tend to prefer that roller coaster over their own company.

They will complain about being treated like crap in their relationships, discuss leaving their partner, yet if their partner doesn’t respond to their text or phone call they will panic and do whatever it takes to track them down.

When they are forced to be alone, even briefly, they will take a stranger as a friend or become promiscuous to fill the loneliness they feel. They are often trying to fill the void of chronic feelings of emptiness, boredom and lack of a sense of identity. They may even complain about how depressed they feel despite all the other emotions that they usually display.

People with borderline personality disorder tend to distort their relationships by characterizing people to be all good or all bad. They will see people as either nurturing or as evil, hateful figures that threaten their security needs and are always threatening to abandon them whenever they feel dependent. The good person, even if they really are not a good person, then gets idealized while the bad person, even if they really are good, gets devalued. More often than not, the same person can be seen as good one moment and bad the next, meaning that a woman can see her husband as perfect and caring today and tomorrow he is the most evil man in the world and she hates his guts, even if nothing really changed between them over the last twenty-four hours.

This aspect of BPD I found extremely frustrating at times because one moment a client would see me as the only person in the world who could understand and help her and the next session she would treat me like she hated me and like I hadn’t ever helped her. One client in particular for instance was chatting with me like I was her best friend one week, the next week when I was redirecting a negative statement she made about herself she said “F*ck you” out of the blue and walked out of the room, only to come back the next week and apologize, but this cycle repeated itself over and  over again. It wasn’t uncommon for her to tell me in one session that she “couldn’t stand me” and the next session tell me that I was the only one who understood her.

Another reason people with BPD are trying even for therapists is that they are very good at subconsciously projecting a role unto someone and getting that person to unconsciously play that role. It can be very draining and even scary trying to deal with someone who has BPD as their impulsiveness and instability as well as their dependency needs can make them overwhelming for many people.

For the most part, this particular client and all other clients I’ve dealt with who had BPD were overall pleasant people with great personalities whenever they were in a good mood and I generally enjoyed our sessions, but there were times when they made therapy so difficult that although I enjoyed working with them, I was relieved when I was able to discharge them, not that I was happy to get rid of them so to say, but it was draining and by then I felt like I had given them everything they could have learned from me and now needed to practice the skills they built up with others.

 DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic Criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is what we use in the mental health field to diagnose mental disorders and personality disorders and it list the criteria for BPD as:

A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, and marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1)   Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

Note:  Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.

2)   A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between  extremes of idealization and devaluation.

3)  Identity disturbance:  markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

4)   Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).

Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behavior covered in Criterion 5.

5)   Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.

6)   Affective [mood] instability.

7)   Chronic feelings of emptiness.

8)   Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).

9)   Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

 Treatment

Psychotherapy has had the best results for treating individuals with borderline personality disorder, especially when combined with pharmacotherapy. Reality-oriented and social skills training are ideal in order to help people with BPD see how their actions affect others. Intense psychotherapy on an individual and group level is often recommended to help clients work on their interpersonal skills and to deal with their self-destructive and self-injurious behaviors.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a specific type of psychotherapy that works great with people who have borderline personality disorder, especially those who do self-harm behaviors like cutting. It has perhaps gotten the best recognition for being high effective with people who have BPD.

I mostly used psychotherapy in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, but later started utilizing much of DBT and it proved to work faster if not better than traditional cognitive behavioral therapy.

More Information

There are some great books on borderline personality disorder, but I recommend the classic, I Hate You- Don’t Leave Me: Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder by Kreisman MD, Jerold J. and Hal Straus as a great place to start.

www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com  is another great resource and they even have a list of movies with characters who have BPD and they include:

Fatal Attraction (1987)

In “Fatal Attraction,” the infamous femme fatale character played by Glenn Close displays the emotional instability and fear of abandonment that are symptomatic of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. Her character also exhibits the BPD symptoms of self-harm, intense anger, and manipulation as she stalks her former lover and his family.

Single White Female (1992)

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in “Single White Female” exhibits the Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms of fear of abandonment, impulsivity, and mirroring as she attempts to take over the persona and life of her roommate (Bridget Fonda).

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

“Girl, Interrupted” is based on the memoir of Susanna Kaysen, who struggled with mental illness and Borderline Personality Disorder as a teenager and young adult. The film, which stars Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, centers around Kaysen’s 18-month stay at a mental hospital.

Hours (2002)

The three main characters in “The Hours,” which include author Virginia Woolf, all struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder, depression, and suicide. The movie, which links women from different generations to Woolf’s book “Mrs. Dalloway,” stars Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore.

Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron transformed into the role of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” Wuornos was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which may have contributed to the unstable and angry behaviors that led to her killing at least six men.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

One of the few comedy movies that features a character with Borderline Personality Disorder is “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” In this movie, Uma Thurman portrays a woman with superpowers and a secret identity who also displays the BPD symptoms of impulsivity, unstable interpersonal relationships, and poor self-image.