What Makes People Susceptible to Gaslighting?
It’s so hard for me now to understand how I fell for my ex-husband’s BS. From where I stand now, his gaslighting and manipulation tactics seems transparent and absurd.
But that certainly wasn’t the case while I was living it.
In fact, I was more likely to accept that I was crazy than to accuse him of madness.
Why was that? What conditions existed in myself, my marriage and in my life that made me susceptible to gaslighting?
Psychology reassures me that I’m not alone. In 1951, the Asch Conformity Experiment sought to garner information on if people will begin to go along with the assertions of others even when that conclusion is contradicted by their own senses.
In the experiment, a group of people were seated around a table and asked to select the card that matched a given image – displaying either one or three lines. In the control group, all of the subjects were authentic participants and people easily selected the correct card.
In the experimental group, only one person at the table was an actual subject; the others were part of the experiment and were directed to chose the incorrect card. In this situation, the subject went along with the majority about one third of the time and selected the incorrect card. The pressure to be accepted was greater than the confidence in their own instinct.
When interviewed later, some admitted that they made the selection even though they knew it was wrong.
And some confided that they truly believed that they were seeing something that wasn’t there.
Why is it that some people are relatively impervious to this kind of influence and others are more easily influenced?
Opportunity in Vulnerability
The early years with my ex-husband were marked by tragedy as thirteen of my friends and mentors died over a few years. During that period, my then-boyfriend became my rock. My center. I anchored to him because it felt like everything was being washed away.
I was needy. Uncertain. I looked to him for guidance, not because he had any more wisdom, but because I was lost myself.
When we’re broken open, we are more susceptible to being controlled by outside forces. In times of increased vulnerability, we are more likely to look for guidance from people intent on misleading us down a path of their choosing.
Fear of Rejection
I went into the relationship with my ex-husband carrying a substantial fear of abandonment. Within this fear, I confused a rejection of my ideas as a rejection of me. And so I too-willingly agreed. Because to disagree meant risking that I would be discarded.
It somehow seemed better to abandon my truth than to be abandoned myself.
The fear of rejection is powerful. In our core selves, we understand that in terms of survival, rejection equals death. And sometimes we’re willing to do the unthinkable to stay alive.
Trusting and Kind-Hearted Nature
Before the discovery that I was married to con man, I had little exposure to people trying to harm me. In my experiences, people were generally kind with good intentions and so I assumed a default position of trust.
We all have a tendency to see people as we are. So those that are susceptible to gaslighting are likely to be trustworthy and trusting. They struggle to accept that somebody – especially somebody who claims to love them – would intentionally manipulate and destroy them from the inside.
As a curious and creative kid, I was always asking questions and considering possibilities. I learned to be wary of knee-jerk conclusions and long-carried assumptions. This open-mindedness served me well in academics. It didn’t prove so beneficial in relationships because I could be led into questioning my own conclusions. And that’s a problem when the one carrying the lead has nefarious intentions.
Open-mindedness is one of the key psychological traits that exist on a continuum. Those that exist on the more extreme end of the spectrum are likely more impressionable to outside influence.
Like many people, I sometimes struggle with an internal voice that questions my worth and my perceptions. My ex-husband knew this and would skillfully both reassure me and plant new seeds of doubt deep within the recesses of my mind.
Self-doubt is gold to a gaslighter; they’re drawn to it for the opportunity it provides and they are experts at utilizing it to their advantage. As a result, people are more vulnerable to gaslighting when they are in periods of transition that result in a greater self-doubt.
In real terms, I wasn’t isolated during my marriage. I had a full-time job as a teacher, I tutored on the side and I talked with friends and family on a frequent basis.
Yet the reality was that I was isolated when it came to my marriage. Not only did I have tendency to spend too much time within my own head, I also refrained from talking about my husband or my marriage in any real way to those around me.
I never gave myself the opportunity for a reality check.
Gaslighting proliferates when there are no other sources of light. When there are a multitude of external influences, it is more difficult to be persuaded by a single source.
It’s easy for me to beat myself up over falling for his manipulations. But mostly, when I look back with perspective, I feel compassion for the woman I was. Yes, she made the mistake of trusting too much and loving too easily. And in the mix, she forgot how to trust herself. But she also showed how strong she was and in the end, she found the courage to find her truth.