Most of us have become somewhat familiar with the concept of gas lighting.
It is a cruel and malicious form of emotional abuse that results in someone questioning themselves and their own health by distorting the truth – or outright lying – to distort things in your favor.
For example, when Linda found evidence of an affair in Jeff’s belongings – lipstick stains, the smell of perfume, and a stash of condoms – he insisted those things were all hers.
“Honey, don’t you remember? You wore that shade at dinner the other day? And the smell of your perfume always changes when it’s on me. It just has to be how my body reacts to it. These condoms? You are for us. It was an impulse buy, you know, just in case. “
With the right bend and that confident grin, Jeff convinced Linda that she must be wrong. Maybe her lipstick is really that shade. And they haven’t had sex in weeks, but he has to feel into her now, right?
Jeff deliberately set Linda on fire with gas.
But what about accidental gas light? Can you act similarly and have the same harmful effects on someone without knowing it? Actually and unfortunately yes.
Why accidental gas light can happen
While gas light, as we usually understand it, is a tool used by manipulative and abusive individuals to control others, accidental gas light is not done with the same thought of outcome. A person who lights someone with gas without trying to achieve an intentional goal that is self-favoring is not trying to cause harm. Of course, the lack of intent does not mean that the outcome is no less harmful.
It is almost certain that we have all experienced accidental gas light at some point. For example, imagine any situation where you have been constantly trying to explain something to someone who never seems to understand. Or if you’ve kept telling someone about an event or date and they still never seem to remember.
If you’ve ever felt like banging your head against a wall when it comes to communicating with someone, it’s entirely possible that you are being gas-lit – and maybe unintentionally.
The person you are struggling with is probably not trying to frustrate you or make you feel like you are unable to communicate clearly. They are far more likely to deal with their own internal problems (maybe you, maybe not), and instead of dealing with them directly, they are subconsciously reacting inappropriately. The net effect can make you feel like crazy.
Examples of accidental gas light
Confused enough? Let’s look at a few examples of how accidental gas light can occur for clarity.
Example 1. Carla’s daughter-in-law Simone is pregnant. Simone thinks a warm bath is relaxing and good for her and the baby – Carla disagrees completely. In fact, she has gone so far as to assume that Simone will be an irresponsible mother and possibly already harming her baby. Although Simone’s doctor told her it was okay, Simone is now guessing for herself and her willingness to be a parent.
Carla may feel like she has the best of intentions and really cares about her daughter-in-law and unborn grandchild, but what she’s doing is some form of gas light.
Example 2. Greg accidentally retreated into a light pole. It made a small dent in his wife’s bumper, Wendy’s car. Wendy saw it and was terribly upset. She asked Greg what had happened and why he hadn’t told her. Greg denied having anything to do with it, pretending he was really offended that Wendy was blaming him.
Although he didn’t come out and accuse Wendy of denting the car herself, he allowed her to believe it probably happened when she used the car instead of him. As a result, Wendy feels terrible for being so negligent and unobserved.
Greg lied to avoid trouble with his wife. There are problems with this, but by turning Wendy around and making her question her own actions, he sets her on fire. He is not deliberately abusive or trying to control them, but his actions fit the definition of gas light.
Example 3. Mark and Jim had a big argument. It was about the fact that Jim is more forgiving than Mark with curfews when their sons are together. On Jim’s watch, the boys can stay outside until midnight. Mark’s rules at home are that the children are there by 10 p.m. The argument became heated and personal when Jim described Mark as an “overprotective sissy”. Both men went angry.
At the next meeting, however, Jim pretended it had never happened, going so far as to laugh and joke with Mark about good times together. Mark was completely confused and angry since the last time they were together it was so ugly.
By not addressing the argument they had, Jim ignites Mark. Maybe he thinks it better to keep going and that rewarming things won’t help. The truth is, if arguments go unresolved, it can be some form of gas light, especially when you owe someone an apology and pretend everything is fine.
How to bring it to a standstill
The first step in stopping these behaviors is to be aware of them and explain why they are wrong.
When you are the victim, you need to allow yourself to see the fact and be comfortable that the problem is not yours. This can be difficult, but without realizing it, it will likely happen to you again. You also need to find a way to discuss this with the person who gas lit you.
When you are the gas lighter it can be far more difficult to see what you are doing and why it is wrong. If you never intended to hurt someone, it can be difficult to learn that your behavior is hurtful. But if someone asks you to investigate your own actions, you owe it to them and yourself to do so.
If you refuse, you will likely be riding down a slippery slope where your behavior may no longer be viewed as unintentional, but intentional. In this case, you will also likely notice that friends and family you once enjoyed are starting to keep their distance, a sad consequence of unaddressed and uncorrected unintentional gas light.
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Author: Dr. Kurt Smith
Dr. Kurt Smith is the clinical director of Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching, a Northern California counseling practice that specializes in helping the men and women they love. His expertise lies in understanding men, their partners, and the unique relationship challenges couples face today. Dr. Kurt is a lover of dogs, sarcasm, and anything outdoors, helping those who want to improve their relationships.