The Right Way to Recover? Gaslighting and Psychological Manipulation

The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play called “Gaslight,” and it’s a story about a wife and a husband who’s set out on making her think she is going insane. One of the tactics he uses is making small changes to their environment—such as moving furniture around—but when the wife points out these changes, he accuses her of being delusional. The wife also confronts the husband about the dimming of the lights around the house, but he also denies that has happened.

In psychology, the term has been adapted to describe someone having their perception of reality distorted by another person (or a group of people) to the point where they are no longer sure of what their reality is. An example of a group of people who undergo gaslighting would be a cult where the targeted members are fed information that makes them doubt their own beliefs, memories, perceptions, morality and so on.

How does this apply to recovery? Unfortunately, there are many instances of gaslighting that happen in the very places that promise to return us to sanity. There has been a lot of debate over the years whether Alcoholics Anonymous qualifies as a cult—it doesn’t—and there have been questionable “branches” of AA that would meet some of the definitions of a cult and whose practices are questionable. A quick Google search will let you uncover some of those controversies. I am not here to stir up any trouble. However, I do want to touch on the topic of gaslighting because I believe it does happen when recovery groups or group members go beyond their call of duty, sharing their experiences, and try to actually mould new members into something. One of the sayings I used to hear in AA rooms was that AA teachings were “brainwashing,” but it was good because people’s “brains needed washing.”

It’s a cute saying, yet it sends chills down my spine. It makes me think of forced confinement, lobotomies, and other kinds of abuse perpetrated on alcoholics over the years. People who have recovered from their substance use disorder have no special power that should allow them to manipulate those around them in the name of recovery. Yes, certain beliefs and experiences should be shared as they are helpful—for example telling a newcomer how to replace his evening bar visits by attending a meeting is not the worst idea or sharing meditation practices with those who struggle with stress is a great way to help. Talking about their own histories and their journeys of recovery is also useful—telling people things should be done a certain way or else they will drink is not – it is dangerous. So many times, I’ve heard stories of newcomers being told that if they don’t do this or that they will get drunk.

Many of us are programmed to rebel—it’s a survival instinct—and that kind of gaslighting can have the opposite effects of those intended. “You say I’ll get drunk if I don’t attend the special Sunday morning meeting? Well might as well get drunk now, what’s the point of trying?” Fear, ridicule, and/or pontificating do nothing for recovery. They only arrest it. They distort it and harm the newcomer from getting the clear picture.

In my experience attending regular meetings, putting my recovery before anything else and getting involved in service was what helped me to get sober. I can share that information with a newcomer, but I could never say that he or she will relapse if she or he skips a business meeting or doesn’t show up at a roundup. I can’t even be sure that a newly sober person will relapse if they stop going to meetings all together! Maybe they can find recovery elsewhere! Who am I to say that dismissing AA is going to ensure their demise? I believe that recovery support groups should stick to experience, strength, and hope instead of advice and alternative explanations of their reality. That, in my opinion, includes the belief in god as Higher Power—I am here to tell you that there are lots of us who have recovered without that as a requirement for our success.

About the Author

David B. Bohl, author of the memoir Parallel Universes:  The Story of Rebirth, is an independent addiction consultant who fully understands the challenges faced by so many who seek to escape from, or drown their pain through, external means. His story offers hope to those struggling with the reality of everyday life in today’s increasingly stressful world.

Through his private practice substance use disorder consulting business, Beacon Confidential LLC, David provides independent professional consultation, strategic planning, motivation and engagement, care coordination, recovery management and monitoring, and advocacy services to individuals, families, and organizations struggling with substance use issues and disorders.

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Timmarty nieskilife-jJohn SDon Recent comment authors

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We had a guy at meetings I USED to attend that would say: “Do the steps or you will die!” The same line of thinking was invoked by many there as it related to going to meetings all the time. “Go to meetings or you WILL drink”. Well, I can tell you I’ve personally debunked this theory by removing myself from AA and lo and behold I am STILL sober. What do you know. I always thought to myself “These guys are full of crap”.

John S

I think that an early sponsor gaslighted me, though unintentionally. It was this idea that I was somehow at fault for everything. Anytime, I would talk about something that bothered me, he would turn the situation around and suddenly I was the one at fault and I got to where I was confused. He would often tell me “we alcoholics and a perception problem.” I would hear this and think that I couldn’t trust my own perception of reality. He was well-meaning. I think that he was just trying to show me how with a little introspection, I could understand… Read more »

David B. Bohl

John S, I believe that much of gaslighting that’s experienced is unintentional (there are exceptions, particularly from those with narcissistic tendencies).  And that darned spiritual axiom that says:  “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us” can do much harm.  Perceptions can certainly be affected through alcoholism, and it is my experience that my view of reality was deeply altered through the progression of my alcoholism.  I had to clarify my perceptions of reality, and there was no way for me to do that while still… Read more »


David, thanks for this article, it is an important thing to discuss, and there is too much going on of it. As for the spiritual axiom, it can be interpreted two different ways though. I think it is way too common that it is interpreted as that every time we are disturbed everything is our fault. there is another way though – every time we are disturbed there is something wrong with us. It may not be the main problem, it may not even be major, it may be the main problem lies somewhere, but there is something there that… Read more »

David B Bohl

Thanks for weighing in Life.  Always great to hear from you.

Food for thought:  sometimes those guilt merchants were not so direct and/or were sourced a long time ago.  What they’ve sold is shame that often takes much time and great effort to work through.  Those experiencing shame often cannot see you alternative, and quite reasonable, ‘spiritual axiom’ interpretation.

marty nieski
marty nieski

Life, I was told, if I didn’t get on my knees, go on retreats with them etc. etc. I would drink.  I’m glad to report that I got, and stayed sober, not because of them, but in spite of them.  Today is my 38th anniversary in AA using the old principles, don’t drink and help a newcomer.  I am so glad I found secular AA.  I have also found a few kindred spirits to start two meeting here in NE Conn.  I no longer fell as if I’m fighting City Hall.  Thanx for your support.

joe k
joe k

Thank you for your article. One of the things that drives me crazy is “unless you get on your knees and pray, you won’t stay sober”. I don’t pray myself but I know for some people that do pray it is a personal matter on how they pray. I would find it odd that a sobriety god would not dispense sobriety because someone didn’t get on their knees. I used to go to meetings everyday but I’ve found the message of the meetings are becoming “unless you do this, you won’t stay sober”. I firmly believe recovery is a personal… Read more »

David B. Bohl

Joe K, I certainly agree with you when you say:  “recovery is a personal journey and there is no right or wrong way to recover.”  I’d further add that finding the way that works best for you is the secret to recovery.



Thanks for a very good article.

One thing you didn’t mention was that the house in the play (movie) was lit by gas ,hence “gaslighting”.

You had to light a mantle on a lamp linked to a tube the gas came out of.  The light could easily be dimmed , like the dimmer switches we have today.

My grandparents had gaslight when I was a small child.

David B. Bohl

That’s absolutely true Jen. Good point.

David B. Bohl

Thanks for weighing in Don.  Many might not consider my thoughts “muted” at all!

We come into the rooms for a reason, mainly to heal.  Platitudes are seldom helpful in achieving that.