Understanding a tactic that keeps a toxic person in the driver’s seat
Gaslighting versus blame-shifting
To be clear, both tactics are verbally abusive and depend on an imbalance of power in the relationship between the person using them and the person on the receiving end; the powerless intended target is usually very invested in the relationship, most likely loves or cares deeply about the abuser, and is often dependent on him or her. The person doing the gaslighting or blame-shifting is actually more interested in feeling powerful or in control (and the buzz that comes with it) than they are emotionally connected to their target.
What is gaslighting precisely? It takes its name from a play and then a 1944 movie called Gaslight starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In it, Boyer manipulates Bergman and distracts her from his criminality by trying to convince her that she is going insane. And that’s what gaslighters do: They make the target believe that his or her grip on reality is tenuous at best and non-existent at worst. The most common tactics are insisting that something that happened didn’t, dismissing a claim by saying it was simply imagined, or telling the person flat out that she or he is losing it or crazy. Gaslighters exploit their target’s fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities, and neediness to their own ends.
While it takes some concerted effort to gaslight another adult—even a needy or insecure one—gaslighting a child is remarkably easy because of the enormous power and authority a parent has by definition. What child can stand up to the words “You’re imagining it because it never happened” when uttered by her or his mother or father, each of whom is the ruler of the very small universe in which the child lives?
Blame-shifting also exploits whatever disparity in power exists in the relationship and, again, is remarkably easy in a parent-child relationship. But, between adults, it has certain subtleties that gaslighting does not and, as a net, it catches more fish. This behavior is always about power and the sad truth is that the victim tends to be the one who loves, needs, and depends on her or his abuser in ways that are significantly different from the motivations of the person shifting blame.