Are We All Being Gaslighted?

Are you feeling anxious, off-balance and confused? Are you feeling shame, anxiety, and a sense that nothing makes sense anymore? You could be suffering from gaslighting.

I’ve long been fascinated by “psychopaths,” or as they were later called “sociopaths,” and are now labeled, individuals with “anti-social personality disorder”.

Whatever name they’re called by, I’ve met several of of these people over my lifetime. As a 20-year old I was pursued by a psychopath who turned out to be a serial killer. I barely escaped his attentions.

After earning a professional degree I got to know another sociopath quite well because we were colleagues at work for a couple of years.

Her increasingly outrageous antics resulted in many people being frustrated and put off-balance. Chaos and confusion reigned until that organization lost tens of thousands of dollars and she was fired.

Later on in my life I crossed path with two sociopaths both of whom were running insurance scams: one the biggest health insurance scam in US history; the other a nickel and dime con to cheat my condo association’s homeowners’ insurance company.

These two anti-social personalities, one imprisoned for his crimes, the other never punished, did major damage to me in terms of finances and my health.

That’s why on a walk through Barnes & Noble on day I snatched up the book by Harvard psychologist, Martha Stout, called “The sociopath next door,” and I read it in one sitting.

There I learned the term “gaslight,” taken from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous murder-mystery movie bearing the same name was something sociopaths often do. Gaslighting is the practice of making another person feel like they’re going crazy.

Having seen Hitchcock’s movie Psycho when very young, I was surprised to learn that most sociopaths are not serial killers. Dr. Stout says this is rare; she estimates that 1 out of every 25 Americans  is a sociopath. Some are even successful businessmen.

Recently psychologists coined the phrase “personality disorders,” thus separating these types of disorders from more serious forms of mental illness. They’ve found these kinds of disorders tend to be less amenable to treatment with drugs or psychotherapy than mental illness. Sociopathy is now called anti-social personality disorder.

The classification of personality disorders brought up a new question for me.

Taken alone, the term anti-social personality seems to be quite clear. And taken alone, the characteristics of borderline personality seems easy to spot. And taken alone, a narcissistic personality is pretty obvious too. But these three personality disorders and others also seem to overlap with each other sometimes.

For example, I used the word “chaos” when referring to a sociopath I worked with. But chaos is frequently created by individuals with borderline personality disorder as well. Their exceeding fear of abandonment and bipolar tendencies can create chaos in the lives of people who care about them.

So here’s what I want to know. Where do we draw line between specific types of personality disorder, especially the line between narcissistic personality disorder and anti-social personality disorder?

I’ve met both types of individuals and seen that each can have destructive impact on others. Yet both can be quite functional and charming.

After hearing the news, I was instantly intrigued that Scott Peterson decided to solve his marital problems by dumping his pregnant wife’s body in the San Francisco Bay—just a short walk from where I lived.

It became clear to me that what Dr. Stout calls a lack of “conscience” or “empathy” can significantly impact the problem-solving ability of those with anti-social personality disorder.

Narcissism puts blinders on people and causes them as well as others emotional pain. But a total lack of empathy not only makes anti-social personalities as cruel as a cat toying with a mouse, it also shreds their problem-solving skills.

This, I think, is what causes such confusion and chaos among other people when they observe the anti-social personality in action.

We ask each other “Who would tell so many lies?” and “Who would kill their wife and baby instead of getting a divorce?”

Impulsiveness might seem to be the answer, but it isn’t really. Sociopaths can be very patient and careful planners when intent on gaslighting a victim, much like cats hunting prey.

As Dr. Stout noted, sociopaths study the rest of us closely to try to learn to emulate the rest of us in many ways. In her opinion, however, they were usually “loners”. This is the only thing in her book I disagreed with. I’ve known sociopaths with families, and ones with “minions” they’ve managed to manipulate to help them gaslight others.

But at the same time, there seems to me to be a blind spot for the anti-social personality, perhaps somewhere in the brain, that prevents them from anticipating how strongly others will ultimately react to their actions.

I think that blind spot comes from an excessive amount of over-confidence in their own cleverness to get away with lying, cheating, robbing, ruining reputations, and on rare occasions murdering, others.

Whenever we find ourselves overwhelmed by the degree of pettiness, spite, or ridiculous reasoning by someone who seems quite narcissistic and tends to create confusion and chaos, we should be very vigilant.

There’s a good chance this person is intent on stealing something from us or from others we care about—usually that’s money, but it could be other things—reputation, a job, self-esteem, possessions, freedom, even our life’s blood.

I believe individuals with anti-social personality disorder seek a feeling of being superior to other people, i.e..  “one-upping” others.  Anti-social personalities live for this feeling.

What they hate most is being bored or feeling like “losers”. That’s why they go to such trouble and take so much joy in causing others so much frustration and grief.

So, today, when so many of us around the globe are feeling gaslighted, shouldn’t we all be asking the same basic question that US court judges are pondering, “Are the reasons given by the current Executive Branch of the US government rational?



#1 Raoul A. Martinez on 02.08.17 at 2:41 pm

This a fascinating definition of “gaslighting”. I liked it. Our Executive Branch of Government certainly seems to engage in it. Some of the comments by Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon from the current administration, through their use of “Alternative Facts” and the phrase “Truthful Hyperbole”, that President Trump himself used in his book, confirm this. I enjoyed your article. RAOUL

#2 Mary O'Sullivan on 02.13.17 at 2:09 pm

Astounding. This is a very clear analysis of gaslighting and, sadly, a description of most of the people on the Trump team.

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