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Gas lighting: A wicked form of mental abuse

Posted on: July 17th, 2016 in Mental Health, Relationships, Trauma No Comments

Rooms illuminated with gas light are notoriously known to feel unpleasant and oppressive. Being manipulated by another person also feels unpleasant and oppressive. When someone manipulates another person into questioning his or her own sanity, it is called gas lighting.

Origin of the term

First described in the medical journal Lancet in 1969, the term “gas lighting” is said to have come from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play entitled “Gas Light.” The play is about a young woman named Bella who marries Jack, a narcissist. Jack is stern and overbearing, and often leaves the house without saying where he is going. He apparently goes up to the attic and tampers with the gas light, causing the house to go dim. When Bella anxiously tells Jack about hearing someone walking around the attic and the lights going dim, he tells her she is imagining it and that she is likely going insane.

A curious case

An interesting case report illustrates a modern example of gas lighting. The report describes a man who underwent extensive neuropsychiatric evaluation for talking in his sleep. According to his partner, the man would describe detailed sexual confessions that included recitations of ex-girlfriends’ telephone numbers. The patient decided to electronically record the events during the night. The recordings only revealed his partner yelling and screaming at him, no sleep talking. Apparently, the partner had stolen his address book and was using the false accusations to negotiate favorable domestic financial arrangements for herself. She was later diagnosed with morbid jealousy and psychotic illness.

Why they do it

Gas lighting is just one form of narcissistic abuse, but is a very effective way to gain power and control over another person or group of people. Renowned author and psychotherapist Christine Louis de Canonville describes in detail how and why narcissists use gas lighting and its effect on others. She discusses how narcissists use gas lighting to “instill in their victims an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception, or judgment.”

The gas lighting process is gradual and progressive — an insidious form of psychological warfare. The social stigma of mental illness further enables the narcissist to discredit and marginalize the victim.

How they do it

According to Louis de Canonville, the narcissist conducts the insidious process of abuse, including gas lighting in three stages:

  1. The Idealization Stage: The narcissist is charismatic, charming and happy, and idealizes the victim. During this stage, the victim falls for the euphoric relationship while the narcissist learns the victim’s strengths and weaknesses, and gains power and control over the victim.
  2. The Devaluation Stage: The narcissist suddenly begins to devalue and mentally abuse the victim. The victim goes from doing everything right to doing nothing right, seemingly overnight. Often, the victim already has been isolated from family and friends and is left feeling alone, depressed and oppressed.
  3. The Discarding Phase: When the victim idealizes the narcissist and becomes overly dependent on him or her, the victim no longer has any use. The relationship ends, leaving the narcissist ready for another victim to conquer and leaving the victim completely drained of his or her identity. Some victims are forcibly and wrongly deemed insane and institutionalized at this point.

Signs and symptoms in victims

Louis de Canonville further describes some feelings victims may have and behaviors they might demonstrate:

  • Second guessing own thoughts, feelings and ideas
  • Knowing something is very wrong but being unable to pinpoint it
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless and utterly joyless
  • Withholding information and withdrawing from others
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Confident, fun-loving, relaxed people become a shadow of their former selves
  • Moving on

Although this form of mental abuse is extremely severe and long-lasting, Louis de Canonville does emphasize that recovery from narcissistic victim syndrome is possible if victims can escape. Victims can escape on their own only in the early stages, before their own identity is lost. Psychotherapy is recommended. Co-occurring disorders — such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and substance use — must also be addressed to promote optimal recovery. Specialists who practice trauma-informed care or are experienced with narcissistic victim syndrome can help start the journey back to life.

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About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. Sovereign Health is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

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