The term ‘gaslight effect’ was introduced by Dr. Robin Stern in her 2007 book to describe the long-term consequences of persistent gaslighting, a subtle and often hidden form of emotional abuse. Gaslighting is a devastating form of undue influence. It occurs when an individual manipulates another person by distorting, twisting, and dismissing their experiences, making them question their memories, perceptions, and reality. Gaslighting can occur in a romantic relationship, among family members, in the workplace, within mind control cults as well as by politicians. As a result of enduring gaslighting, individuals experience constant self-doubt, difficulties making decisions, and feelings of instability. I was eager to learn from Robin about her work in this area, especially regarding what people can do to protect themselves from gaslighting.
Robin Stern, Ph.D., has been a practicing psychoanalyst for over thirty years and is the co-founder the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She’s the author of The Gaslight Effect and the newly released The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide. Robin Stern invited me to be a guest on her podcast The Gaslight Effect Podcast, and learned of her longstanding interest in cults. I read her books immediately thereafter and asked her to be my guest.
Understanding the Stages and Impact of Gaslighting
Robin observed in her practice that strong, capable, and self-assured women were experiencing mental health struggles when involved with highly confident men dictating their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Intrigued by this phenomenon, she decided to investigate further, talking to many people who had experienced this. Robin explains that gaslighting is a gradual manipulative process, with the perpetrator being certain, persistent, manipulative, and exquisitely attuned to their target. This ‘certainty factor’ is also a common tactic used to recruit people into cults and to keep them indoctrinated. When someone confidently looks you in the eyes and tells you that something is the truth, it is easy to experience self-doubt.
Individuals who gaslight others can be any gender and are not born this way. Instead, they often learn to manipulate others through social conditioning or as a coping mechanism for unresolved childhood trauma. This differs from the intentions of a typical malignant narcissist predator who seeks power, money, or sex, like many cult leaders.
Robin identifies three stages of gaslighting: disbelief, defense, and depression. In the disbelief stage, the victim initially dismisses the manipulator’s lies as a misunderstanding or an isolated incident. As gaslighting persists, the victim enters the defense stage, where they start questioning their perceptions and defending themselves against the manipulator’s false claims. Eventually, the victim may reach the depression stage, feeling overwhelmed and powerless, as their self-esteem and confidence have been severely damaged. In this stage, the victim sees themselves through the eyes of the perpetrator, internalizing their perspective and dismissing their own.
This gradual process that results in neglecting one’s own reality and inner voice is similar to the mind control process in cults. Members are indoctrinated and conditioned to abandon their previous thoughts and behaviors and adopt a new ‘cult identity.’ This pseudo-self becomes like a clone of the leader, and the cult member comes to accept a new reality, suppressing their authentic self.
Social and Political Instability is Fertile Ground for Gaslighting
Robin and I discussed how recent social and political instability has provided fertile ground for gaslighting. During the Covid pandemic, individuals were grappling with unpredictable circumstances, and the media was adding to the confusion by presenting conflicting realities. This was compounded by the fact that people have been losing faith in their leaders and institutions, making it difficult to know where to turn for reliable information.
The use of fourth-generation warfare tactics, a psychological warfare paradigm that attacks science, institutions, and experts, has added to people’s confusion. This approach creates uncertainty and polarization, making individuals more susceptible to the influence of authoritarian figures who promise certainty and stability. In this environment, individuals who have ‘lost their compass’ may be drawn to charismatic leaders who offer a sense of security, despite their lies and manipulations.
In my book, The Cult of Trump, I wrote about how Donald Trump leveraged this environment to gaslight the American people. When a person with presidential authority tells blatant lies with conviction and discredits respected news sources, people question their perception of reality and discourage them from seeking the truth. Trump’s manipulative techniques mirror many of the thought-stopping tactics employed by cult leaders, who use emotional manipulation to gain sympathy while fostering animosity toward critics. The overwhelming flood of contradictory information, with occasional bits of truth, undermines critical thinking, making it difficult for people to discern reality from falsehood.
Practical Advice to Protect Yourself from Gaslighting
- Use opting-out statements during a controlling conversation, such as “We’ll have to agree to disagree” or “Let’s pick up this conversation at another time.”
- Document conversations and seek outside validation and corroboration of your perspective.
- Learn to recognize the signs of gaslighting and identify and avoid the perpetrator’s triggers.
- Avoid spending time with the person who is gaslighting you. In my TEDx talk on How to Tell if You’re Brainwashed, I speak about how one of the first steps to knowing whether you have been subject to mind control is to take a break and get away from the person or group that is influencing you so that you can gain more clarity of thought.
- Seek support from people who love and care about you, who can provide a different perspective and help ground you in reality.
- Engage in activities that help you manage your emotions, such as sleeping, exercising, or listening to music.
- Develop skills to gather your thoughts, establish boundaries, seek information from reliable sources, and trust your own reality.
Robin said that educating the younger generation is key to immunizing people against gaslighting. To this end, she has co-developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the RULER program, an evidence-based approach to teaching social and emotional learning in schools. The acronym RULER stands for Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotion, and it aims to help students develop emotional intelligence.
An essential part of breaking free from gaslighting is acquiring freedom of mind. By knowing oneself and taking control over one’s own mind, body, and life, individuals can avoid turning their power over to an external authority figure or group. By practicing self-kindness, surrounding oneself with supportive people, and learning the dynamics of gaslighting manipulation, individuals can empower themselves to take charge of their own reality and break free from its damaging effects.
The Gaslight Effect by Robin Stern
The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide by Robin Stern
The Gaslight Effect Podcast hosted by Robin Stern
The Cult of Trump by Steven Hassan
TEDx Talk on How to Tell if You’re Brainwashed Steven Hassan