This guest column was written by Peter J. Vinton, Jr., aka The Prince.
Lily innocuously asks a favor of you one day. Say, a quick phone call asking you to pick up her friend Orlando in front of the hardware store, and then to drop him off at the grocery store, where he works. Both stops are on the way to your work, so it won’t be any extra time or mileage out of your way. She gives you a pickup time of 6:30. This is perhaps ten minutes earlier than you normally pass by the hardware store, but you figure it’s no real problem and you agree.
The next day you swing by the hardware store at 6:30. Orlando is there, along with his friend Shnerf who also works at the grocery store, and he asks if this individual can also ride along. You don’t want to leave this person stranded and make him late for work, so you agree. The ride is uneventful; both of these strangers are polite and cordial. You drop off both Orlando and Shnerf at the grocery store, they express their thanks, and you’re on your way.
That evening you get a text (not a call) from Lily, asking if you wouldn’t mind showing up at the hardware store at 6:15 tomorrow. You’re a little puzzled; you didn’t explicitly agree to more than one day, but Lily insists that you did. Since you don’t have anything in writing (a text or an email), you’re not able to effectively argue the point. The next morning you swing by the hardware store at 6:15 and sure enough, Orlando is waiting, but Shnerf is running a few minutes late. After some delay, the three of you are on your way by 6:30 and you drop them off at the grocery store at the same time as yesterday. Again, since you yourself aren’t being made to arrive late to work, it’s not really an issue. Your day passes normally. Nobody calls or texts you that evening and you figure this 2-day run of weirdness is over.
The next morning, you proceed to work at your normal time. As you pass the hardware store at 6:40, Orlando and Shnerf are standing out in front, wildly waving and trying to get your attention. They’re both upset and flustered because “you’re more than 25 minutes late.” On the way Shnerf apologizes for being a bother, but that he needs to swing past the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for his mother. This takes you a few streets (and about 10 minutes) out of your way. You don’t want to make your passengers later for work than they already are, and you also don’t want to penalize Shnerf’s poor uninvolved mother, so you agree. You drop off Orlando and Shnerf at the grocery store 15 minutes late for their shift. As Orlando steps out of the car he asks if you can swing by the hardware store 15 minutes earlier tomorrow “to make up for the shortfall.” Adding to the confusion is the fact that you now don’t know if he means 15 minutes earlier than yesterday, or 15 minutes earlier than the first day, when all this began.
See what’s started happening here? Graphing things out from this point, it’s easy to envision that over time you’re somehow leaving your house earlier and earlier every morning, and yet at the same time arriving to work later and later. An element of chaos has been injected into your life, and you wonder how it got this way. Even more disconcerting, when you try to do a mental recap, you discover to your great discomfort that you can’t even pinpoint exactly when it started becoming this big of a hassle. Worst of all, in the absence of any hard facts or clearly-communicated agreements or intentions, you start questioning your own memory, a worry which piles itself on top of all the other difficulties.
Everyone must accept some share of the blame here: 1) Lily for not decisively explaining the exact need; 2) Orlando for failing to give you a heads-up about a second rider; 3) Shnerf for just assuming you’ll accommodate him; and of course 4) the person pictured on your driver’s license for not putting your foot down at… well, at some point. You’re not sure when.
Some Working Definitions
Gaslighting is an expression that refers to a deliberate act of psychological manipulation; while it doesn’t necessarily imply malevolent intent, it certainly lends itself to malevolence. The term comes from the Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light, in which the character Jack uses a variety of tricks, including incrementally turning the gas lamps lower and lower over time, to convince his wife Bella that she is consistently misremembering facts and is therefore crazy. One example of gaslighting in literature is in Roald Dahl’s humorous story The Twits, in which every night the husband surreptitiously glues a penny-sized sliver of wood to his wife’s walking stick, making it appear to grow ever longer over time, to the effect of ultimately convincing his wife that she is in fact shrinking. Another telling example of gaslighting in literature appears in Frank Tashlin’s The Bear That Wasn’t, in which an unsuspecting bear is consistently told by ever higher and higher-ranking individuals that he is not really a bear but
“a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat;” to the point where the bear himself begins insisting –to other bears– that he is in fact just “a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.” The 2005 film Flightplan revolves around a systematic attempt to convince Jodie Foster’s character that that she is entirely mistaken about her daughter’s disappearance, and the conflict between what she remembers versus what she is being told, drives her very nearly insane. It might even be argued that the 2010 science-fiction film Inception represents a complex, drawn-out act of deliberate gaslighting; a team of professional swindlers manipulates the “mark” below three layers of subconscious, making him believe that a deliberately planted falsehood is in fact an idea he came up with entirely on his own.
Convincing a person that their memory is not in accord with the facts ultimately leads to a distorted view of reality and an inability to trust one’s own judgment. The desired end result is usually to foster a sense of extreme dependence (often on the part of a spouse or significant other); that the victim desperately needs the gaslighter to help him/her remember facts correctly. The abuser may, for example, move objects from their original locations and then insist that the victim in fact misplaced them. The abuser may consistently deny ever having said a thing (that was in fact said), or may repeatedly insist that their victim did in fact a say a thing (that was in fact never said). The victim eventually comes to believe the gaslighter’s definitions of “what really happened” and accept this false projection as truth.
Creeping concessions is an expression coined by The Polyamorous Misanthrope and it refers to any situation in which a friend, romantic partner, or an employer (or even a government), incrementally expects more and more out of a person –a little extra time, a little more money, a little extra help, a teensy indulgence, a few more “other duties as assigned.” Since the requests for “something extra” never amount to much on their own merits (after all, what’s one more dollar or just five more minutes?), it might seem selfish or unreasonable to refuse. Next thing you know, you’ve lost large amounts of money and/or huge chunks of time to something you’re pretty sure you didn’t explicitly agree.
Again it would appear that childrens’ literature may provide one of the best illustrative examples: the entire plot of Laura Numeroff’s If You Give A Mouse A Cookie may be safely said to be an ever-escalating string of creeping concessions.
Taken together, creeping concessions and gaslighting can be a formidable obstacle. Both are very slippery to pin down, very hard to detect. At a surface level, the gaslighters almost always come across as affable (even charming) and entirely reasonable. By the same token, the creeping concession almost always begins as an entirely reasonable request; a trifle, certainly nothing worth worrying about.
Even the example given at the beginning of this essay is hard to decisively attribute to a deliberate act of gaslighting or a deliberate act of creeping concessions; indeed there may be no malevolent intent at all (not on Orlando or Shnerf’s part, and perhaps not even consciously on Lily’s part), yet events have still snowballed into something unmanageable.
Okay, I Get It, It’s Hard to Define. So: How Do I Guard Against It?
Gaslighting and creeping concessions, particularly when taken together, can be especially brutal on relationships. These twin forms of psychological abuse can destroy self-esteem, alienate, and lead to depression (potentially even suicide). Both acts ultimately lead to a loss of control over one’s own perceptions and priorities. Psychologically defined as forms of ambient abuse, they can be employed to trick the victim into staying in an abusive relationship (or employment situation), induce an ever-present sense of disorientation, or to erode the victim’s own confidence in themselves, to the point of even seeing themselves as the antagonist and their abuser as the one who must endure the suffering.
Perceptions aren’t easy to refute –after all, the truism “You see the world from where you sit” applies to everyone regardless of their station in life. This includes people who are being systematically and deliberately lied to. Whether you are a bear or just a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat, it is perception that drives everything else about you.
So how do we reconcile actual truth with what we are being told?
First and perhaps foremost, gut instincts often go a long way toward unraveling the gaslighter’s plans. If your boss or your friend or your significant other seems to repeat phrases like “no, we talked about this already, don’t you remember?” a little too often, this might well be a warning sign –particularly if the “don’t you remember?” applies to your own preferences (i.e., what you like versus what you dislike) more so than actual events –when your memory is openly challenged, doubted, or outright refuted, it is time to pay attention.
While nobody’s gut instinct is infallible, there’s a lot to be said for following a hunch. Your intuition is there for a reason –make a habit of listening to it. Admittedly sometimes it may be in error, just as surely as your other five senses might occasionally misidentify a smell or a taste or a sound, but the simple fact is: they’re not usually wrong. Neither is your intuition.
Second, write that stuff down.
Lily may or may not have been the instigator in the opening scenario, but she certainly didn’t help matters by asking the original favor over the phone and not via text or by e-mail. Whether it’s just jotting a quick reminder in a calendar or archiving every email ever sent or received, a little documentation goes a long way towards establishing where perceptions diverged from reality. Pay particular attention if the individual is actively discouraging you from making any kind of written record (i.e., “Oh, you can remember that. You don’t need to write that down.”) Again, the direct challenge to your memory could be a sign of something deeper. Ignore the slight and write it down anyway.
Finally, how’s your personal account balance? Not just your bank account, but your own personal time bank? Does it seem to be diminishing, and not just for the usual reasons (you’re a parent, you devote a lot of time to a particular hobby or enthusiasm, you work a lot of hours)? Does it ever seem as though, far from being able to plan things out in any kind of long-term, that you’re instead hopping from one emergency to the next, and that there’s never quite enough time to satisfactorily resolve Problem No. 81 before Problem No. 82 crash-lands on you? Does it feel as though there’s a consistent pattern of never-quite-resolved turmoil, and that brief moments of relative calm are just that: brief? A state of constant crisis is not healthy, be it a friendship, a romantic relationship, a term of employment, or a government in relation to its own citizens. Conduct periodic audits of your time bank (and be just as ruthless about it as an IRS agent). There could well be some creeping concessions lurking just out of view; somewhere back in the fogginess of your own memory, the mouse may have demanded more than just a cookie. Repeated patterns of sleep deprivation and never-ending financial shortfalls could conceivably also serve as a heads-up.  Again, see what your gut instinct has to say about it.
Your memory is one of the very few possessions that you get to keep with you for your entire lifetime, and anything that threatens its integrity is by definition paralyzingly fearful. People far wiser than I have generated a great deal of informative literature on the dual subjects of gaslighting and creeping concessions, and I would recommend them heartily, starting with the various footnotes in this essay. They are excellent building blocks and I sincerely hope the knowledge contained in them might offer some hope to anyone who might find themselves at the wrong end of this kind of ambient abuse.
Taverniers, Karen. “Gaslighting in Controlling Relationships.”
 http://www.polyamorousmisanthrope.com/2007/07/15/being-used/ (ed note: I used the expresion, but doubt I coined it)
King, Jeanne, www.preventabusiverelationships.com
Stern, Robin. “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.”
A Message From Men To Women: You Are Not “Crazy.” www.thehiddenconscience.com
Peter Vinton Jr. lives in northern New England where he not only finally got around to graduating college at the age of 35 but also figured out how to put his creepy-ass deep voice to work as a computer instructor, mostly by scaring his students (even the 65 year-old ones with multiple doctorates) into making it to class on time. He still teaches, draws/paints scantily-clad superhero-babes as a sideline, and wears his hair long even when he doesn’t have to. He has recently solved the Great Vermont Corn Maze. Vinton remains a Cancer but wants to “keep his options open” and hasn’t ruled out being a Libra or perhaps even a Pisces someday.