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The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Fertile Ground For Gaslighting. Here's What It Means And How To Stop It.

A screenshot of Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman from the 1944 film "Gaslight."
Wikimedia Commons
The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 film "Gaslight," starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, in which a man slowly manipulates his wife to the point where she begins to doubt her own sanity.

Gaslighting refers to manipulating someone into questioning their reality. The term can be traced back to the 1944 film Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the movie, a man tries to convince his wife that she is going insane so he can get away with criminal activity. The husband tells her lies and manipulates her into doubting her own experiences and, ultimately, her own sanity.

Gaslighting has always been with us and may feel more noticeable to some as the pandemic continues. As information about COVID-19 and the vaccine has become politicized, heated arguments between people with widely diverging convictions have become more common, creating an environment in which one side might respond by invalidating the experiences of the other.

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Bella Rockman says the foundation of gaslighting is psychological manipulation.

"The objective is to get a person or a body of people to question their sanity, to question their experience, to question their own reality, their perception," Rockman says. "It becomes problematic when we start to use that as a primary form of communication and getting things done."

Rockman says gaslighting can happen on an individual level, as it sometimes does in intimate relationships or in family systems. But it can also be done collectively via the media, religion, companies or businesses.

According to Rockman, "anywhere there's people, gaslighting happens." She points out that gaslighting goes beyond simply questioning someone's beliefs to better understand them.

"It's more so that coercive turning the arm, bending your perspective, questioning your sanity or your reality and invalidating your comments," Rockman says.

Gaslighting can be shut down, but first it has to be identified and understood. Rockman says there are ways people can extinguish gaslighting:

  • Stand your ground in truth and integrity.
  • Understand changing this behavior may take time.
  • Avoid being accusatory.
  • Be clear about boundaries and non-negotiables.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more about gaslighting, including whether Rockman thinks gaslighting is ever acceptable in service of a greater public good, like squelching COVID-19 falsehoods.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: What exactly is gaslighting? What does it mean?

Rockman: It's manipulation. It's a psychological manipulation to get a person or a body of people ... to question their sanity, to question their experience, to question their own reality, their perception.

It sounds like gaslighting can be something that happens to a person but can also be done to a group of people in a collective way.

In the simplest form, gaslighting can happen in our own households and family structures and family systems. Sometimes — and I know there are parents listening right now so just stick with me here, we mean you the best, really — parents can be gaslighting towards their children. Like if their child expresses a concern or an opinion or a belief or an idea or interests. I have seen so often where parents will be like, "No, you don't. You don't really feel that way. I didn't realize that hurt you. I didn't mean it to hurt you." It's like it can turn into something else where basically the child feels invalidated.

But in addition to that, at a collective sense, there has been gaslighting that has happened in the media space, collecting data and information and then using it in a way where people almost feel like their arms are being twisted to think a certain way versus giving a moderate approach and a fair and a balanced approach where you can then make the decision yourself. But it also happens in religious organizations. It happens in companies and businesses. Anywhere there's people, gaslighting happens.

And I also want to point out everyone gaslights at some point. The line of demarcation of where it becomes an unhealthy toxic communication pattern is where we resort to that pattern to have power and control, to manipulate, to coerce, to get things done over time. It becomes problematic when we start to use that as a primary form of communication and getting things done.

Can you tell us a little bit more specifically, maybe walk us through an example of gaslighting when it’s happening?

OK, there's a difference in questioning [your opinion] for clarity and clarification, like, "Oh, I didn't realize you thought that," or "Really, tell me more." But when that questioning for clarification turns into "I think you're wrong because X, Y and Z. I don't see it that way. And that's not true. That's not how it is. That's not how it happened for you. That's not how it happened for your community. That's not how it happened at that time in history." When people are essentially sort of erasing your truth or erasing truth in your experience, that's kind of where it crosses over the line.

Every time somebody questions or disagrees with you, it doesn't mean they’re gaslighting you. So, let's not overuse the term. It's more so that coercive turning the arm, bending your perspective, questioning your sanity or your reality and invalidating your comments.

It seems like the COVID-19 pandemic has made a really fertile environment for this exact kind of behavior.

It has. A lot of times when I'm doing couples therapy or premarital therapy or dating coaching and therapy, I often say you really want ... to see how they respond and behave in times of great success or in times of great fear, great failure so you can have a full range of who this person is. And I think that it's true of us as a country that this extreme pressure, this feeling of failure, that we're losing lives, that we're losing jobs, that we're losing a sense of control and autonomy, really kind of pushes forward who we are in some ways and in some cases the best of some of us and the worst of some of us.

And I think that, you know, at some point we have to say, look, this is the data, this is a science, and this is the way that I feel most comfortable proceeding with my life. And, I hope that you join me in this very rational, moderate approach. But I'm not going to now in turn gaslight or invalidate you. So, it's a tenuous rope to walk. You shouldn't walk away from conversations more often than not feeling unsure of yourself, feeling dysregulated and feeling unsettled. If you do, it could quite possibly be that you yourself have just been gaslit.

Thinking about, again, the realm of COVID-19 or another situation where there's a clear set of facts that would advance public good and public health if they are followed — is there ever a situation where gaslighting is “good?” And I have “good” in quotes there because what I mean is, is there ever a situation where gaslighting is warranted or merited because you're trying to get to a greater good — for example, trying to get rid of disinformation about COVID-19?

That's such a good question. And I love that you asked me that. You know what? I think that there is a clear difference between persuasion, education, information, even motivation and manipulation. It's not so much what we're doing; it's what’s sourcing what we're doing. So, if we're coming from a place of sort of almost trickery, or pulling the wool over someone's eyes, coercing them, you know, human beings don't like to be controlled or really told what to do for that matter. Let's walk in integrity. Let's realize we cannot control each other.

But if we do our job right, I think that we can be more persuasive and more effective whether it's individual or collective, and we do not have to resort to gaslighting. [It’s] never healthy in the long run. It may even work short term, but it's not sustainable for longevity.

What can people do if they're in a relationship and they feel like they are being gaslighted by someone else?

Number one: Stand your ground. Stand in truth. Stand in integrity. Also realize that it may take time. Do not expect it to change overnight. Please do not go home and clobber your child or your partner or your best friend or your roommate and be like, "You’ve been gaslighting me." You don't want to be accusatory because if you raise a lot of defenses with this, it's just going to cause the other to put up more defenses.

Become clear on your boundaries. Here are my absolute things that are absolute non-negotiables. And one of the things you can even say to your partner is, "Questioning my experience, my reality or my opinion, questioning it to understand it, I'm OK with. Questioning it to invalidate or say it's not true, that doesn't work for me."

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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