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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  1. John S February 11, 2019 at 7:16 am - Reply

    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 my reaction to situations so as to learn healthier ways of dealing with disagreement or disappointment.

    I’m no longer so confused by my reactions to people or to situations. I tend to trust my instincts better and I don’t think of myself as having a perception problem. If I ever repeated to someone who I sponsored what my sponsor told me about having a perception problem, I am really sorry. I know that is a line that I will never use again.

    • David B. Bohl February 11, 2019 at 7:39 am Reply

      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 drinking.

       

      • life-j February 11, 2019 at 2:27 pm Reply

        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 needs work in us, no matter what else is going on.

        But yes, there are the protestant guilt advocates  that want everything to be our fault.

        • marty nieski February 11, 2019 at 11:05 pm Reply

          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.

        • David B Bohl February 11, 2019 at 4:44 pm Reply

          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.

  2. joe k February 10, 2019 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    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 journey and there is no right or wrong way to recover.

    • David B. Bohl February 11, 2019 at 7:27 am Reply

      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.

       

  3. Jen February 10, 2019 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    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.

  4. David B. Bohl February 10, 2019 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    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.

  5. Joe C February 10, 2019 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    Like a three-point shot at the buzzer to ease a deficit of two, this is another timely game-changer Of Ann essay. I didn’t know where that expression came from; thank you. Sensible and sensitive, David.

    I’ve been in both sides of this transaction; I’ve been the sly addict, trying to persuade you that you’re crazy; I’ve had people try to tell me AA or recovery or the universe works “this” way, when my experiences was “that.” Blind faith, in my own motivation or others is a novel idea but, as you put it, “an examined life” is more fruitful.

    • David B Bohl February 10, 2019 at 3:04 pm Reply

      My examining, Joe C., is necessary to heal and remain healthy.  Without, reality becomes distorted beyond recognition.

  6. Oren February 10, 2019 at 10:53 am - Reply

    Thanks, David. As usual, you have concisely and clearly highlighted a recurring problem in AA–and in other forms of “human pack behavior” (as I often think of our species). Have you done any writing or thinking about cult “programming” vs. the “deprogramming” that some victims have undergone (sometimes involuntarily)? Your essay and the comments from Tomas and Don have me speculating about how substance abuse and substance use culture “programs” the brain. So does 12-step culture “deprogram” this condition, or does it “reprogram” our minds and behaviors, as Tomas suggests? Both, or either, depending on the recovery environment in which one finds oneself?

    “Gas-lighting” is a term that’s new to me, although the concept is one I’ve considered (and observed).

    I hope you’ll keep these fine, thought-provoking essays coming.

    Oren

    • Don February 11, 2019 at 6:51 am Reply

      Oren, thanks for also reading my comments. and thinking! thinking is good, and so very rare in today’s reactionary, emo-button pushing and response, world.

      I will say this: yes, substance abuse curing, do in fact have elements of cult programming, in my opinion.

      Hierarchy.

      when 3 or more people get together, there seems to be an unspoken need, for hierarchy. dominance and submission. drunks are no less capable, or driven, to meet the beat of this silent drum.

      lots of incorrect, inaccurate, even dangerous things source from that trait, I think.  some groups are better or worse than others at keeping this in check. so some good reprogramming, and plenty of terrible reprogramming, all mixed in the blender of human interaction. it’s not an attribute of 12 step world, but human nature. the trick, my job, is as MarySusan mentions, is to sort through it all, take what I can use, and leave the rest. super difficult todo, but necessary.

      conundrum: I need people in my life, to recover, to function, to thrive. I generally distrust and quietly loath, a large portion of the people I meet, in life, in aa.

      the solution, for me: continue to go to meetings, continue to practice a mindful thought life, do stuff I dont want to do, and stop doing stuff I want to do. make micro adjustments, as required. the recovery path is one of fluid adjustment, NOT a stoic, bataan death march laser focused on any one thing, except for the knowledge, it’s the first drink that gets me drunk.

      Namaste

    • David B Bohl February 10, 2019 at 2:59 pm Reply

      Thank you for your kind thoughts Oren.  I believe that hanging with healthy people who offer safety and validation are a great way to go about “releasing (someone) from apparent brainwashing, typically that of a religious cult, by the systematic reindoctrination of conventional values” (a definition of deprogramming).

  7. MarySusan February 10, 2019 at 10:51 am - Reply

    You know the old saying when one finger points three point back.  I am well versed on gaslighting having nearly died from living with a pathological narcissist abuser.  I do not think the term is being used correctly in this article from my point of view, but just like in meetings where a variety of experience and anectodal expression is dropped and picked up by some as helping, so will this.  To me it is the beauty of communication.  We share and absorb or discard.  What helps one person might harm another.  It is all in the application.  Use what you hear to remain sober and maybe more will be revealed later.  Drinking is not the solution. But some will not bother or care to have a defense because they are either still in denial about alcoholism or they are too wounded to mount a solid defense.   I say this.. let someone help. My answers were defective. I needed a defense against the first drink. Knowing that changed how I listened.

    • life-j February 11, 2019 at 2:34 pm Reply

      MarySusan, was it you that commented on my article on conference approved literature? Would you please revisit it?

    • David B Bohl February 10, 2019 at 2:56 pm Reply

      MarySusan, narcissists are well-versed in gaslighting, as it sounds like you’re quite aware.  What I know is that anyone who negative affects my perception of reality can be quite detrimental to my health.

  8. Tomas L February 10, 2019 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Thank you for an excellent essay!
    I like your thoughts about the saying that our ”brains needed washing”. There is some truth to it in that drinking has some scary similarities to the indoctrination in a cult. Whatever the problem was in my drinking days, another drink was invariably the answer. But just like the victim of a cult, what I needed was not a new cult, but to break free of my sick and harmful behaviour and thought patterns. In cult terms, it’s deprogramming we need, not reprogramming.

    • David B. Bohl February 10, 2019 at 2:51 pm Reply

      Thank you Thomas.  Great to hear from you.  I agree that I am well-acquainted with the risk factors and negative consequences – and fear.  What I need are healthy perspectives and protective factors to lead a good life – hope.

  9. Don February 10, 2019 at 5:58 am - Reply

    HA! well said! a muted, but subtle fierey, essay on a widespread issue of people interacting with people!

    totally agree, yes, gas lighting is almost a constant in society, made plain by the intimacy of a meeting.

    a part of our conditioning. not even necessarily intentional, but more, evidence of the “unexamined life” all folks lead. heck, I like to imagine, I’m more examined than most, YET, quite guilty of bad behaviour like gas lighting, on a regular basis!

    wherever 2 or get together, bad voodoo will happen. bad ideas parroted, promote unintentionally, given life.

    here in FL, the retirement capital of the world, where meetings are full of “old timers”, we hear all sorts of bs repeated, given legs, and ensuring tbad info will live on another generation, such as “you must go to a meeting everyday! or you will get drunk!” (easy to say for the retired folks referenced)

    or “the only thing recovery ever promised you was a day without a drink!!1! everything else is treatment center psycho-babble!!1!” (in direct contradiction of the literature. lol)

    here’s my take away: humanity is pretty broken.  drunks simply have a more obvious symptom of our collective brokenness. they show up doing and saying all sorts of broken ideas and behaviours, generally including during their recovered years.

    I can’t fix anyone. I can practice an examined life, and watch for my own gas lighting. when I find it, and I surely will, often, if I’m serious about examining myself, then make amends, and do my best, to eliminate that trait. Model the fruits of an examined life. and maybe, 1 or 2 will be attracted to that. as for the rest, not my circus, not my monkeys.

    good luck, and thanks for the essay!

    • David B Bohl February 10, 2019 at 2:53 pm Reply

      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.

      • Don February 11, 2019 at 7:00 am Reply

        I source from Boston. now in FL. my sweet bride tells me Im brutally blunt. I like to imagine, I’ve made great strides considering context, and muting myself as required politically.

        my blunt nature is to tell people they are full of s… , they are parroting incorrect and psychologically damaging crap, and frickin stop it! (short of that is the context for my choice of the adjective muted)

        I hope, brother, you didn’t read my comment as platitudes. if so, I apologize, and state clearly, it was not my intention!

        • David B. Bohl February 11, 2019 at 7:30 am Reply

          Don, I absolutely was not speaking to you when I referred to “platitudes.”  Keep telling it straight!

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