The 'Gas-Lighting' Gambit
In recent months the term ‘gas-lighting’ has come back into use thanks to the behaviour of ex-president Trump. His continual claims of a rigged election, and his ‘overwhelming victory’ has resulted in a fatal attack at the very heart of America’s democracy. Despite repeated denials, the presentation of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the failed courtroom appeals, numerous people have chosen to believe his lies and still refuse to accept that this whole outrageous event is based on a lie! The question is how does this tactic of lying apply to dealing with dysfunctional students?
The purpose of these Newsletters is to help teachers deal with student’s dysfunctional and destructive behaviour. The use of gas-lighting is not obvious but if you haven’t already experienced a version of this practice to avoid responsibility, sooner or later you will.
The name ‘gas-lighting’ came from a 1938 play of Patrick Hamilton called Gas Light which told the story of a husband who manipulated his wife though lies and deception until she was convinced she was going mad. This is a form of coercive, psychological manipulation to undermine another’s perception of truth allowing them to be deceived. Kids often use this technique when they are caught doing something inappropriate and their ‘defence’ goes something like ‘No I didn’t’, ‘It wasn’t me’; even when you have personally witnessed their behaviour they will continue to deny it was them. I remember working with conduct disordered adolescent students who were frequently in trouble with the police. Their advice to each other was always the same - ‘just deny it, never own-up’ and unfortunately this often worked.
So, why does this tactic work? First, they project an air of confidence, being certain about their story. Then, when you protest they may attack you both personally implying you don’t know what you’re talking about or they will accuse you of picking on them. They will stick to their story rarely conceding the validity of any evidence you present. On those rare occasions they do concede they will acknowledge a part of your evidence but this is rarely decisive, it never alters the basis of their lie. However, when they do this, they will use their concession as proof they are telling the truth – ‘see I’ll admit when I’m wrong’! Their whole motivation is to get you to doubt your version of events!
This doubt is a natural response when we are challenged; it works because healthy adults understand that everyone sees the world through our own eyes. We appreciate we all focus on different things in the environment so we must interpret events differently. It is well known that, if you ask four different people to describe a road accident you will get four different stories, in fact if the stories are identical the statements will be suspected as being colluded.
Not only do we perceive things differently we indorse what we see with our memories of similar events confirming our truth. But these memories are as personal, just as what we perceive is personal, both sides of the perception of an event is highly influenced by our history. You need to realise that everyone’s judgement about any event takes place in their brain and it is impossible to verify what you see any other way. The result is we should have some doubt about our point of view and be prepared to change it when faced with evidence! This is what mentally healthy people do. This mature approach to life is exactly why ‘gas-lighting’ works!
The student’s use of this deceitful form of ‘gas-lighting’ is primarily to avoid the consequences of their behaviour. If students realise you are vulnerable to self-doubt they will keep on using this tactic. This continued doubting leads to a fall in your confidence you can become isolated, confused and depressed. The other kids in your class can see what is going on and your status as leader in the room will be threatened. You need to take control of the situation.
First of all, trust yourself, if you are reading this I am confident you are the sort of person that wants the best for all the kids, particularly those we focus on in our work, those abused and neglected kids who have never had a real chance until they get to a good school. Counter their monopoly on the conversation and control over what is the truth. Be like a broken record (for those younger readers, a record is a plastic disc that has grooves and a needle that move around to produce music – a broken record gets caught in one track and repeats the line of music over and over until you stop the record) just keep repeating what you know and what is going to happen. When they complain acknowledge their complaint, maybe say we will talk about that later and repeat what you know and what is going to happen.
One tip is to trust your emotions, even if you have good intentions and a clear understanding of what happened when the students attack you, you will feel threatened. Take this as a sign that you need to put on your psychological boundaries (see Newsletters Boundary Considerations - 22nd October 2018 and Respecting Other’s Boundaries – 26th November 2018) to protect yourself. Ask the ‘boundary questions’:
- What is really going on?
- Who is responsible?
- What do you want to happen in the future?
Addressing these questions helps you keep grounded.
The ‘boundary questions’ will also make you confront the evidence and unless there is a very strong case stick with your beliefs. You may be wrong on rare occasions but what you lose by making a mistake is not as significant as the loss of authority if you change just to avoid a difficult situation. Another thing about evidence, it will never convince another when emotions run high – you will be wasting your time. At these times the importance of your relationship is paramount because it will be this that will allow you both to move on.
Until recently, kids learned to use the technique of ‘gas-lighting’ from their parents. They watch their mother or father lie to get their way and if it works of course they will do it. Other kids turn to lying as a survival mechanism. If their parents dish out severe punishments, physically or psychologically children will lie to protect themselves. Unfortunately, lying has become part of our daily life almost celebrated in newspapers and television. Why would we expect our children to respect truth when we see lack of consequences for poor behaviour on a daily basis.
This is why your work is so important, not only will you teach the importance of truth you will teach them to recognise ‘gas-lighting’ when that technique is used against them.