Gaslighting and 5 Other Signs of a Manipulative Personality
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Gaslighting and 5 Other Signs of a Manipulative Personality

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April 29, 2012, last updated May 2, 2013
By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist (contributions and updates by Susan Callahan, Health Editor)

Are you being gas lighted? Is someone you are dealing with a manipulative person? Do you feel something is seriously wrong in your relationship but you can't quite identify what it is? Do you frequently feel confused, stressed, anxious and down? Have you ever asked yourself, "am I being manipulated?"

In the 1938 stage play "Gas Light" by Patrick Hamilton (also known in the United States as "Angel Street"), a husband causes his wife to feel she is losing her mind by making tiny, insidious changes in the home such as slowly dimming the gas light.

The term "gas lighting" has, over time come to be used in psychology to describe the manipulative personality. But gas-lighting is not the only sign of a manipulative personality. Manipulation can have many forms. Would you recognize if you were being manipulated? Manipulators can be hard to spot. If you feel something's wrong in your relationship but you can't really say what, if you feel confused, crazy and not good enough, or you wonder if you're being too sensitive, you may be close to a manipulative personality. 

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, manipulation means "to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage."

Manipulation can have neutral or even positive connotations ---it can mean "to manage or utilize skillfully".  And, some professions such as politics have come to be almost synonymous with manipulation.  Machiavelli, who might rightly be called the Father of the Art of Manipulation and whose name is the root of  the term "machiavellian", wrote his rules of manipulation as a how-to manual for politicians. (Read more on personality disorders affecting politicians).  But when it comes to relationships and not mechanics, manipulation is rarely a good thing.

Dr. Mary Casey, author of "How to Deal with Master Manipulators" says "Manipulators aim to control their partners by pressing the buttons that get them emotional, whether it be making them feel afraid, unworthy, stupid, insecure, angry or frustrated." One of the ways of manipulating someone is through gas lighting.

Gas-lighting as a Form of Manipulation

Gas-lighting is a form of manipulation where the lover, husband, wife or boss plants so much doubt and false information in the mind of their target that they no longer trust their own judgment. They play with your mind.  When you doubt your own perception and memory, you are more likely to buy into what your partner or family member is telling you. This gives your manipulator power and control over the relationship - power they so desperately desire.

Gas-lighting can be successfully accomplished through several tactics. Do you recognize any of the following behavior in your friend, husband or boss?

A manipulative person tells you something with such conviction, and over such a long period of time, that you begin to believe them. You ask yourself "why would they lie about this, when they are so sure? Perhaps I got it wrong..." On the other side, he or she may deny something so strenuously, and with indignation, that you also begin to doubt your own feelings. Gas-lighters often give you facts to back up their argument which are largely true, but may contain tiny distortions that are impossible to pin down. Or they may leave out one key fact that changes the story entirely.

Gas-lighting, while effective, is much more successful when used with other manipulation tactics such as the five that follow. Any tactic that causes you to doubt your gut feelings and back down is effective. The manipulative personality has to have her own way at all times, and at all costs, so she will use subtle and hard-to-pin-down methods to get you to give in.

Five Signs of Manipulative Personalities

1. Lying

The most obvious sign of a manipulative personality is also one of the most effective methods of manipulating others - lying. Lying gives the manipulative person an advantage; namely, they know what they're really doing when you don't. If the person were entirely honest it would create a level playing field, which wouldn't give the person control or power. There are countless ways to lie that don't include the obvious untruth. A manipulative person can lie by omission (leaving out information that would tell you the whole truth about the situation), through vagueness (being so hazy about the details that you're really none the wiser) and leaving out key details within a litany of true facts.

2. Leveling

Leveling is a sneaky way of manipulating by attempting to put yourself on the same level or the same moral standing as someone else. Witness an exchange between a woman confronting her boyfriend about his behavior, saying "I wish you would tell me when you're upset with me instead of ignoring me and not talking. When I'm upset with you I always tell you why." To which the boyfriend responds, "So you're saying you're better than me?" He is implying that they are two people of equal character and that the woman is being arrogant and demanding when she confronts his behavior. She then wonders if she has treated him unfairly, and backs off. Leveling can be effective when the manipulator is adamant that all values, beliefs and standards of behavior are equal if sincerely felt. This assertion makes it difficult for the other person to challenge what they believe in their heart is bad behavior. Over time, the manipulator sets her own rules and the manipulated person loses his own sense of principles and values.

3. Saying Yes and Meaning No

Giving assent is often used by a manipulative person to get you to back down because you think they are agreeing with what you say. In a healthy relationship, sometimes one person will back down in a disagreement because they begin to see the other's point, or they change their mind. But in a manipulative relationship, one person says they agree but actually have no intention of changing their viewpoint.

4. Being Your Servant

If someone wants power and control over you in a relationship, they may act like your servant and claim to have only your best interests at heart. It's very difficult to call someone on their bad behavior when they constantly claim to be doing things for your own good, or for the good of society as a whole. Picture the wife who wants to create a better life for her children and family so she pushes, bullies and persuades her husband into taking a promotion against his better judgment. He instinctively knows he is not happy, but he can't actually pin down what she is doing wrong. He will, in time, come to buy into her rationalizations and feel guilt for his hatred for his new job. Dr. Mary Casey says "While abuse is obvious, victims of manipulation don't even realize they are being manipulated because the manipulator masks their behavior as positive, caring and nurturing."

5. Playing the Blame Game

Manipulative people hardly ever accept the blame for doing something wrong. They are far more likely to pin the blame on others. If you confront a loved one for doing something that was hurtful or harmful, they will tell you someone else caused them to do what they did. They may even blame you. This tactic deflects your anger and hurt. You begin to think about the other person's role in the situation, and you begin to consider how your loved one perhaps wasn't entirely at fault. You back down, and wonder if you are being too harsh.

Deception is the key to manipulation, and the outcome is confusion and doubt in the target's mind. A person who knows, trusts and acts on their own judgment is powerful --- too powerful for a manipulative person to handle. Instead, gas lighters and manipulative personalities will instill doubt, fear, guilt and shame in another person to get them to abandon their challenge, back down and tow the line. The manipulative person maintains control, at the cost of the other.

And that, after all, is really the ultimate aim of a manipulative personality. They want to control you --- entirely. In much the same way that a scientist in the old sci-fi movies controlled a slave robot, the manipulator seeks to turn you into a robot. Robbed of your self-assurance, robbed of your independent judgment, robbed of your mind, a victim of manipulation begins to appear over time more and more robotic.

How can you guard against being manipulated? One of the best ways is to stay connected --- to yourself and to your larger social circles. Manipulators do their best work when they divide and conquer, turning friends against you, turning you against them. They do their best work in isolation. So, when you discover that your social circle is shrinking, watch out. That's a sign that you are with a manipulative person. Healthy people who love you want to enlarge the circle of love around you.

Best advice to protect against manipulation? Meditate. Spend time knowing your own thoughts, feeling the power of your independent mind and  well-thought out judgments.

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The movie "Gaslight", starring Ingrid Bergman, was about a woman manipulated by her husband.

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