Gaslighting and Addiction

The 2022 word of the year has a particular meaning in addiction

Every year, the Merriam-Webster dictionary selects a word of the year. For 2022, it’s “gaslighting.” The dictionary publisher noted that look ups for the word increased by 1,740% over the course of the year. Gaslighting and addiction are intertwined. Read on to learn more about how addicts gaslight others as well as themselves, and what can be done about gaslighting and addiction to find a healthy and happy life free of drugs and alcohol.

What does gaslighting mean?

The word has an interesting origin: it comes from the title of a 1938 play which was made into a movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The plot centers around how a husband who slowly manipulates his young wife into believing she is going insane. One of the methods involves him dimming the house’s gaslights, and then insisting to her that it is just her imagination and she can’t trust her perceptions.

Merriam-Webster’s definition for gaslighting is:

  1. psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator
  2. the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage

The American Psychological Association defines gaslighting as “to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.”

What is gaslighting in psychology?

Gaslighting is an insidious form of mental abuse, manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately given false information that leads them to question and disbelieve what they know to be true and it can create serious damage and require therapy to recover from trauma. Gaslighting is a core component of the Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse where people with narcissistic personality disorder will gaslight their victims to control them. These can be in many kinds of relationships including romantic relationships, or between parents and children, and in addicts.

How does gaslighting relate to addiction?

Gaslighting is used to maintain addictive behavior. Bluntly, addicts lie about their addictions. They lie to their loved ones and they lie to themselves. They can lie so convincingly, it becomes their reality. Substances alter peoples’ perceptions, feelings, and perspectives.

Addicts will intentionally employ manipulative tactics to convince spouses, family, friends, their employers and colleagues, or anyone who raises a concern or questions their use and consumption that they are fine and don’t have a problem. They’ll conceal their use, misreport how much they’d consumed, say that they are just like everyone else. When challenged, they can become aggressive and abusive like gaslighters with personality disorders and devastate relationships with loved ones in repeated cycles.

Treatment professionals will talk about how someone with a substance use disorder is in active denial of their condition and the level of its severity. Denial is a coping mechanism people will use to justify or rationalize their addiction. It can be considered at times as an involuntary process which is used to avoid unpleasant emotions or ease anxiety.

When someone with a substance use disorder is in denial, rationalization or mental bargaining, it keeps them from getting the help they need. As they continue to try to gaslight people, those close to them will have to start setting boundaries to protect themselves.

Hope and healing from gaslighting in addiction

The great news is that substance use disorders aren’t like personality disorders. The gaslighting goes away when people embark on a recovery journey and gain control over their lives. People discover a powerful level of honesty along their recovery journey and live a life that they no longer need to apologize for.

A recovery community who knows and understands the lying and gaslighting that comes with addiction can help someone in recovery learn to deal with the pain and shame of coming to grips with the truth, bear the weight of realizing the damage, and get support and guidance to start rebuilding from experience.

People who learn to manage their substance use disorders into remission come out of the gaslight into the strong and powerful light of a new life that doesn’t need lies to be lived.