Gaslighting Across the Spectrum Part 2: Gaslighting x Level of Intensity
Information on gaslighting has exploded in recent years. This has made recognition of gaslighting as a denial, deception, manipulation, or abuse tool more easily accessible to those who are living the traumatic impacts of it. It has become easier for those trying to heal from it to recognize it, practice damage control, prevent, and heal from it. However, the abundance of information, opinions, etc. has also created confusion – ironic given confusion is the byproduct of gaslighting.
Most confusing can be what gaslighting is and isn’t – or at least isn’t always. Before beginning, let me issue a disclaimer. The following represents my opinions about gaslighting. The opinions, for the most part, are not research-based. In fact, there is very little actual research on gaslighting.
These opinions are based on over 30 years of clinical work as a victim advocate, psychologist, and group collaborator on the Multidimensional Partner Trauma Model which includes gaslighting, and as a specialist in working with those in recovery for sex addiction and partner betrayal trauma.
Gaslighting can occur across a spectrum, with various levels of intensity, impact, and function. This series will examine gaslighting from 3 different dimensions: Part 1 – Gaslighting on the Continuum, Part 2 – Gaslighting x Level of Intensity, and Part 3 – Gaslighting x Primary vs. Secondary Feature.
This is part 2 of the Gasligting Across the Spectrum series.
Gaslighting x Level of Intensity: Mild, Moderate, Severe
- Mild Gaslighting: In milder cases, gaslighting may involve subtle comments or behaviors that cause the victim to question their judgment. For example, someone may downplay the significance of their partner’s feelings or experiences, making them feel like they are overreacting or being too sensitive.
Alternatively, the gaslighter may deny experiencing emotions that are readily apparent to his or her partner. The gaslighter may have limited awareness of his or her own feelings due to a variety of reasons, including childhood gender shaping (e.g., men don’t have emotions), lack of role modeling of healthy emotions from primary attachment figures, trauma, or addiction-related compartmentalization of emotions. If the gaslighter is disconnected from his or her own emotions, the capacity for awareness of the emotions may be limited or non-existent.
Notice that it isn’t the nature of the gaslighting behavior alone that defines it as mild. Rather, it is the nature of the behavior in combination with a relatively lower frequency, intensity, duration, and attitude with which it is delivered.
When the gas is administered by someone demonstrating microaggression or intentionally weaponizing (weaponizing in this context doesn’t mean with intent to psychologically damage but maybe about backing the partner off to avoid feeling discomfort) `the invalidation of his or her partner’s emotions in the context of the partner’s known history of pre-existing pain about the label of ‘oversensitive,’ the gaslighting may no longer qualify for “mild.”
Notice that the level of intensity of impact on the partner may not correspond to the level of intensity of the gaslighting tactic. A mild level of gaslighting administered chronically can chip away at the partner until it eventually has the same impact as a much higher level of gaslighting.
The ‘mild gaslighting’ experienced over a long time may result in surpassing a threshold of disconnection from self, such that disconnection becomes more like a trait than a temporary state. Factors that might compound impact for the partner in this example might be a prior history of trauma or historic issues of worth, previous experience with attachment binds around emotions, a history of bullying around emotions, or harmful gender stereotyping in other types of settings.
- Moderate Gaslighting: In more moderate cases, gaslighting can involve persistent manipulation and psychological tactics, such as denying past conversations, events, or promises. This can lead the victim to feel confused and unsure of their own recollections. This might or might not involve some level of conscious choice or awareness of the impact.
However, lack of awareness is often, but not always, a function of a lack of desire to become aware of the thing that would create discomfort for the gaslighter (e.g., ‘I feel justified in keeping my secrets and protecting my secret life’; ‘I don’t want to look more closely at my behavior because then I might feel bad about myself’ or ‘I might have to experience my partner’s pain and I really don’t want to do that’ or ‘my partner might expect things of me, like empathy or changing my behavior’). There is a convenient lack of awareness.
- Severe Gaslighting: At the severe end of the spectrum, gaslighting can be a pervasive and deliberate attempt to control and manipulate another person. This is a power game and unquestionably psychologically abusive. It may also serve the purpose of protecting secrets or a secret life, but it is an aggressive form of protection. The partner is treated as an object and any resulting harm is seen as collateral damage to achieving control. This may include tactics like a conspiracy of lying, distortion of reality, isolation from friends and family, and threats or intimidation.
Victims in severe cases of gaslighting, most recipients will suffer from significant psychological trauma, as will the innocent bystanders who witness the abuse – namely, children and other family members.
In part 3, we will focus more specifically on the type of relational gaslighting that occurs in sex addiction recovery and whether the gaslighting is a primary or secondary feature of the offender.