• Dr. Michael Johnson

    Psychologist, Specialist in Problematic Sexual Behavior

  • Dr. Michael Johnson

    Specializing in Sex Addiction Treatment in Austin, TX

Gaslighting and Reality

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Imagine that you got up one morning and everything was different. Suppose that your life partner asked you why you were wearing a blue shirt when you knew you were wearing a white shirt and seemed puzzled when you insisted that you saw it as white. Suppose you got to work and your telephone extension had been changed from 4432 to 4435 but everyone insisted that it had always been 4435. Imagine what you would begin to think if you pointed out a new piece of art in your favorite restaurant only to be told by your lunch partner that it had always hung just where it was. Imagine that you began to notice that you experienced a reality slightly but significantly different from the reality other people experienced. What if these sort of oddities began happening day in and day out? The world that other people perceived, understood, and remembered was different from the world you understood. And now suppose that this condition persisted, not just for days, but for weeks, months, and even years.

What do you think would begin to happen inside of you? You might get angry with everyone in the world because they saw the world differently from you - you might continue to insist that you are right. But after a while your anger would probably fade. If you have a shred of rationality, you would begin to think, "How likely is it that I alone think my shirt is white, my phone number is 4432, and the painting is new? If everyone I trust thinks the world is different from the way I think the world is, there must be something wrong with me" If you have a shred of rationality, you would begin to think that it was you. Your anger and frustration would begin to shift and include anxiety or even fear, depression, confusion, and self-doubt. If you have a shred of rationality, you would wonder if you might be going crazy.

Watch a baby test the world and learn about her reality detection devices. The baby reaches out her hand, picks up the pretty bobble, raises it over her head, and lets it fall back to the surface. She giggles with glee. She is delighted by her reliable and consistent understanding of the way gravity works in the universe. She couldn't tell you that. But inside, she knows what she is learning. She is learning that reality is consistent and that her senses are reliable devices for detecting reality. Her self-esteem is building. She is thinking (in baby think), "I can, I can, I can..."

Surprise changes in reality are amusing in small, brief doses. It is why we like jokes and are excited by thunder. When reality briefly defies our perception, we get a rush from the novelty and then quickly restore ourselves to reality. But the story is different if reality is altered in permanent ways. It is a different story if those we trust to help us remain in touch with reality tell us that we are not in touch with reality. We begin to feel odd. "I see dead people".

We check out reality with other people all the time. It is part of how we keep our reality detection devices properly tuned. "Do you see what I see? Is it me or is that ladies hair on fire?" Our self-esteem suffers and our trust in ourselves begins to erode if our reality detection devices begin to seem unreliable. In the end, we begin to think we are crazy. This is an essential component of bone fide Brainwashing. If you have complete control over another person and you make reality unpredictable, they have to rely on you for reality. "Today is Tuesday. So is Tomorrow." The organizing fabric of reality as derived from sensory and perception begins to deteriorate if that reality is not validated by those around us. This is a technique for making other people crazy.

This sort of reality distortion is a principal plot device in the play and movie, Gaslight. A man marries a naive young woman and sets out to drive her crazy so that he can steal her jewels. Each time he leaves the house the gas lights dim and she hears footsteps on the floor above (he sneaks back in by a secret stairway, dims the light, and walks the floor.) No one else notices and he insists that he was away. She begins to think she is crazy. The more the victim of Gaslighting trusts the person who is bending reality, the more the victim suffers.

Some people claim that the partner of someone who is having an affair always knows. I doubt that is true. But I do think that partners often know that something is amiss - if they pay attention to their intuition. And that holds for more than affairs. I think most people detect subtle shifts in the conduct and emotion and mood - the aspect if you will - of their partners. When we detect shifts, we check it out by asking questions. Usually, if our intuition is working and our friends are truthful, they validate our intuition.

Sex addicts lie to keep their secret lives secret. They lie by omission and commission. They lie to lots of people. Most especially, they lie to their partners. They lie to cover up. They lie when their partners ask questions and express suspicion and doubt. Addicts gaslight their partners. This is one of the wounds that partners suffer and must heal.

When addicts get into recovery they are often surprised by the intensity of their partners reactions. But reflect on the little thought experiment that began this essay. When you deceived your partner, you caused her or him to call reality into question. You damaged their relationship with reality. Because your partner trusted you - trusted that you would not distort reality - your partner may have felt quite crazy. There is relief for partners when they know the truth - they begin to know that they are not crazy and so can begin to restore their own relationship with reality. But trust does not restore quickly.

Return to your imagination and think what you would think and feel if your partner and coworkers and friends admitted that they had been deliberately distorting reality to keep secrets and make you crazy. Imagine that they had been doing that for years. Even if those people disclosed their acts, expressed their remorse, and promised never to do that again, how long would it take you to again trust them to validate your reality?





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