The Kinks’ Guide to Gaslighting
What one song can reveal about the word of the year
(a media-full verison of my post on Psychology Today)
Merriam-Webster announced their word of the year: Gaslighting. There are good reasons for it becoming so prominent in 2022. The pandemic-driven stress on mental health is one, the echoes of the Depp/Heard trial in our celebrity cult(ure) is another. But the talk and text on gaslighting has been long in the making, coming on the heels of the discourse on narcissism.
A Google Ngram study clearly shows their coalescence.
This may just be a fad, where everyone’s ex is a narcissist, or a growing awareness of abuse and social injustice, facing the White House’s previous tenet, or it may reflect narcissism’s ascent to world domination, sort of.
Either way, gaslighting was always there, and is likely here to stay. While it’s hard to find songs that celebrate Merriam-Webster’s 2022 word of the year, The Kinks saw this one coming fifty years ago, making in their “Days” several cool moves that can help us understand what gaslighting is all about, what makes it so sinister, and what we can do about it.
1. “Days when you can’t see wrong from right”
When you’re gaslighted you can’t see wrong from right, both factually and morally. We often focus on the former, the distortion of truth, the blurring of the line between facts and fiction. As in Orwell’s 1984, the gaslighter would have you believe 2+2=5 or whatever other number he picks. Orwell called it “doublethink” and saw it as the ultimate weapon against human freedom. It’s a tricky business, a half-conscious effort to overcome consciousness itself, in particular, to do away with cognitive dissonance; in Orwell’s words: “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies... to repudiate morality while laying claim to it.”
Indeed, morality is part of it. Many of us navigate life with both a map, and a moral compass. The map provides a view of reality, the way the world is; our compass tells where we, and the world, ought to go. The gaslighter creates a normative, not just factual, narrative, which both tears your map apart and compromise your compass. And he does so partly because he lacks that compass himself or has a very confused one.
The gaslighter will project his moral mess: He may well know he’s deceitful but lacking a (better) compass, it seems perfectly fine to him – “the deceived deserves it!”
But gaslighting is not just factual and moral; it’s also emotional. Your compass’s relics may want to rebel, to cry out, “This is wrong!” But when you’re so attached to your gaslighter – in family, romance, politics, or workplace – self-doubt will quickly creep in: How can your mother, your leader, your love be so wrong, so bad? The conclusion seems obvious: it’s you who are wrong. It’s you who get the facts mixed up, it’s you who are bad, it’s you who doesn’t love enough.
2. “You took my life, but then I knew that very soon you’d leave me”
The stakes of gaslighting are existential, a matter of life and emotional death. Victims of gaslighting and narcissism often say they feel like they hardly recognize themselves anymore, and indeed, are sometimes hardly recognized by others. We go about life not only with a map and a compass, but with a seismograph and gyroscope; the former is about sensing others around us, the latter about knowing ourselves and seeking to retain a stable self (what Anthony Giddens calls “ontological security”).
As if losing your map and compass is not bad enough, an effective gaslighting also impairs your seismograph and gyroscope.
The gaslighter wants you to doubt not only the observable facts, but the hidden ones too. You may be able to repudiate what one claims was done, but how can you ever know what one thinks, feels, wants? The answer requires our “theory of mind,” the human capacity to detect and relate to the beliefs and emotions of others. But if “mindreading” is a very human superpower, gaslighting is its kryptonite. Empathy becomes double-edged. You may sense that your boss despises you and is out to get you, but if her gaslighting is effective, you’ll end up despising yourself for thinking that about her.
Finally, it’s not just about knowing others, but about the age-old imperative of “know thyself.” The gaslight casts a great shadow over you – and over how you see yourself. Once you internalize the gaslighter’s contempt for you, you may feel that your life as you know it is over, “the nothing” has taken over. Your craving for others has carved an inner void within yourself.
Two realizations dawn on you once you grasp the dimensions of the destruction. One is usually wrong, the other mostly right. First, it’s tempting to believe that the gaslighter “took” your life, but this is rarely the case. More often, you willingly gave it away. It’s understandable to feel a victim, but it takes (at least) two to tango gaslighting, the victimhood here is partly self-sacrificial.
Second, beholding your void, you realize what’s coming next: “very soon you’d leave me.” What distinguishes a gaslighter from your everyday liar, or even a manipulator, is that the gaslighter – usually driven by shame of their vulnerability, past and present – is after control, exercising power over people. One goal is a supply of services, practical and emotional; another is power for its own sake, basking in having others under your thumb.
And true enough, once the gaslighter has hollowed you out, he’ll most likely discard you. Still, if he believes that he can still reap some benefits from you, he might stick around for a while, which is when you might start wishing they’d leave.
3. “I won’t forget a single day / I bless the light that shines on you / Now I’m not frightened of this world… Believe me”
What’s next? What comes after the disillusionment? At first, turning the “Believe me” refrain on its head: from the gaslighter’s demand to your plea – seemingly of him, but mostly of yourself. Can you again believe (in) yourself? Only if you acknowledge the gaslighter’s ghost that may still haunt you. “You’re with me every single day,” The Kinks readily admit, and then suggest three routes forward, and they are not mutually exclusive.
The first has ominous undertones. The gaslighting ends with recapturing truth, and a pledge to never forget – and never forgive? Some will seek revenge; it’s payback time! That’s understandable. When we’re wronged, we seek retribution, some sort of cosmic correction. But the universe (for all we know) doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. With the death of God, we also lost theodicy, which was never that great to begin with. Karma, afterlife, or worldly vengeance cannot reinstate it. We seek comfort believing people carry on themselves the scars they inflict on others. The bad news is that narcissists are not like that; gaslighters sport little guilt.
And so, some turn to the other end of the spectrum, wishing well for their gaslighter. This is an uplifting option: tame hate with love. If genuine, it can certainly help one get over the pain, but few are fully capable of such an emotional feat, that by itself can hardly fill the void.
Perhaps payback and love can entwine in the “mark of Cain,” which God inscribed to guard the first murderer, who was terrified that all now wish him harm. The gaslighter will thus openly bear what she tarnished, the shameful truth, while having what she wanted: protection.
Finally, beyond retaliation and love, to some valuable lessons learned: If the best way out is through, having been through some of the worst, visiting the world’s darkest corners, you may become less frightened of it. You will never be the same – for worse, and for better. Not only because, on your post-traumatic cartography, you might better know what and whom to avoid, but because you earned a chance to study those darker corners in yourself.
And with that, Believe me, it’s time to turn off the gas, and confess: that’s probably not what The Kinks actually meant…