June 13, 2024
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Gaslighting: Recognizing Its Effects

There is a growing awareness about abuse and its associated warning signs in the Orthodox community. As an employee of Project S.A.R.A.H., I give many presentations on this topic at schools, shuls and camps to all age groups. I address all types of abuse including physical, financial, sexual, emotional and psychological. While these are mostly self-explanatory, I would like to explain psychological abuse further and its difference from emotional abuse.

The goal of emotional abuse is to undermine the victim’s feeling of self-worth and independence. This is what happens with bullying. Constant belittling and disparaging comments will alter a person’s self-esteem and how they view themselves. In contrast, psychological abuse changes the victim’s perception of reality. In other words, emotional abuse affects a person’s feelings; psychological abuse affects a person’s thoughts.

“Gaslighting” is a term frequently heard when the topic of psychological abuse is raised. This phrase has been used colloquially since the 1960s and originates from a 1938 stage play by Patrick Hamilton entitled “Gas Light.” It is an extreme example; the premise of the story is a husband trying to manipulate his wife and others into thinking that she is going crazy. He wants to have her assessed and committed to a psychiatric ward so he can obtain power of attorney over her. He manipulates small elements in the house and then denies that anything has changed when she asks him to confirm her perceptions. One of the tactics he uses is to slowly turn down the gas light and then deny to her that it is getting darker. By making these small, but real, manipulations and denying them, the husband is causing his wife to doubt her own memory, perception and sanity.

Psychological abuse is not only the most difficult type of abuse to explain but it is also the most difficult to recognize. Psychological abuse is subtle and may include behaviors that do not appear abusive. It is the systematic use of such behaviors over time that constitute psychological abuse and can change a person’s sense of safety or well-being before the victim even realizes it is happening.

During the #MeToo movement I appreciated how lucky I was that I didn’t have a “me too” story to share. I had never been molested or touched inappropriately and, therefore, never abused. It only occurred to me recently, even after presenting on this very topic for years, that I did have a story to tell. I had been harassed by a group of boys over an entire summer but never recognized it for what it was: psychological abuse.

I worked in the infirmary of a sleep-away camp for two years in a row. The first year I had to report a possible case of physical abuse by a counselor against one of the campers. The counselor, whom we will refer to as Adam, was brought to the heads of the camp. It was settled that it was an accident and no further action was needed. Even though everything worked out for Adam, he was very upset that I had reported him. He came into the infirmary to yell at me, tell me that it was none of my business, and accused me of breaking HIPAA laws. I was shaken after the incident, but I knew that I had done nothing wrong.

The next year I returned to the camp to work in the infirmary again and discovered that Adam returned to camp as well. Apparently, he hadn’t forgotten what happened the year before, nor had he forgiven me for it. He decided to get revenge by not only harassing me, but by getting other boys to harass me as well. They stole my cell phone number from a friend by physically restraining him and left weird messages on my phone. They followed me at night when I was walking back to the bunk alone. One time, Adam came into the infirmary, threw bandages around, and left.

These tactics were meant to scare and intimidate me. They didn’t make me feel bad about myself, but the boys wanted me to think that I was not safe. They succeeded to an extent. While I wasn’t always looking around for danger, I was nervous walking back alone at night because I didn’t know if someone was going to jump out and throw something or yell at me. My perception of my safety had been changed.

Only now, looking back through the lens of experience, do I understand what happened that summer many years ago. The boys used behaviors over time in a systematic way that altered my thoughts. Instead of believing I was in a safe and carefree environment I started to worry about my safety. I had another realization when I was reliving this experience. Why didn’t anyone do anything about this abusive behavior? Why didn’t I report this? As part of my job, I was quick to report possible physical abuse of a camper. Thinking back on these questions, I realized that at the time nobody thought what I endured was such a big deal, including myself. The boys never physically hurt me, so no one recognized the psychological abuse for what it was.

We have to emphasize to future generations that intimidation tactics like these should not be ignored. Psychological abuse is a big deal. If at any point you are worried about your safety in what you perceive to be a non-dangerous situation, it is a problem that should be dealt with. Your psychological stability is important. It is our job to continue educating children about all types of abuse and to let them know that no abuse is acceptable. #MeToo


Lauren Klahr, LCSW, specializes in working with those struggling with mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. Lauren works virtually in private practice with those in New Jersey. She also works for Project S.A.R.A.H. with clients in domestic violence situations. To learn more or to schedule a consultation, please email: [email protected] or call (201) 357-0473.

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