Ep. 16: Dr. Stephanie Sarkis — How to Spot, Manage, and Avoid Gaslighters in Your Life

Last year I kept seeing posts on PsychologyToday.com about gaslighting. They were often among the most popular posts, and I kept wondering, What the heck is “gaslighting”? Finally I Googled it and found a succinct definition: “to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”

The most popular post is the first hit in a Google search for “gaslighting,” and it was written by my guest for this week, Dr. Stephanie Sarkis: 

I was really happy to have the chance to dive into this topic with Stephanie, since she’s clearly an authority on the subject. I read her new book entitled Gaslighting, and explored questions including:

  • Where does the concept of gaslighting come from?
  • What’s the value in having a label for this pattern of behavior?
  • Are gaslighters aware of what they’re doing?
  • How can we distinguish gaslighting from ordinary manipulation?
  • How common are gaslighters?
  • Why is it so hard to get away from a gaslighter?
  • How can we avoid attracting gaslighters, such as on the dating scene?
  • How can we recognize gaslighting before getting drawn into it?
  • How can we manage the gaslighters in our families?

If you’re having a hard time picturing what gaslighting looks like, Stephanie provided an example in this Star Trek episode in which the bad guy tries to manipulate Patrick Stewart’s character into denying what he sees. You can also check out the movie that gave the concept its name: 1944 movie “Gaslight.”

Image by Fred the Oyster

In this episode I brought up a classic psychology study on conformity but blanked on the name of the researcher who did it during my conversation with Stephanie; it was done by psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950s.

Groups of participants were asked to judge the length of various lines. What each participant didn’t realize was that they were the only real participant, and the rest of the people in the room were “confederates,” meaning they were working with the experimenters.

The study was designed to test how much people would go along with the other people in the room when they were giving answers that were clearly wrong. For example, for this example image all the confederates would say that line “B” was the same length as the single line on the left, when obviously line “A” is the correct match. Just kidding, line “C” is the correct answer. A surprising percentage of participants went along with the group, even though it meant denying what was right in front of them. I referenced the study because of the obvious distress it causes when others make us question our own reality. You can read the original study here: A Minority of One.

I also referenced a recent podcast called “Dr. Death.” I thought it was well done, but I would caution that it’s a bit horrifying at times (as the title suggests…). Here’s a link for more information about “Dr. Death” from Wondery.

Dr. Stephanie Sarkis completed her PhD, MEd, and EdS in Mental Health Counseling from the University of Florida. She is a bestselling author of seven books, including her latest, Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. Dr. Sarkis is an American Mental Health Counselors Association Diplomate and one of only twenty Clinical Mental Health Specialists in Child and Adolescent Counseling in the US.

She is also a Florida Supreme Court Certified Family and Circuit Civil Mediator, as well as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a National Certified Counselor. She maintains a private practice in Tampa, FL, where she specializes in gaslighting, anxiety disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Gaslighting is available for purchase from Amazon. (Please note this is an affiliate link, meaning a percentage of sales that come through this link will be used to support the Think Act Be podcast, at no additional charge to you.)

You can find Stephanie online at her website and on her blogs at Psychology Today and Huffington Post.

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