Gaslighting vs. Reality distortion field and Karpman Drama Triangle

When it comes to the understanding of emotional abuse and manipulation, some people (including therapists) talk about the technique of “Gaslighting.” Gaslighting is more of a colloquial term originated from a play/movie, in which the male protagonist manipulated the gas light and other things, so he can deliberately convince his wife to doubt herself and to believe that she is mentally ill.

Later, some people started to refer to such emotional manipulation of making victims losing a sense of their own reality as gaslighting. For me, the original gas lighting strategies in the play/movie could be roughly divided into 3 categories:

(i) isolating the victim so the perpetrator gains more control of information (especially, this allows the perpetrator to devalue the victim),

(ii) designing events to weaken the victim; showing the victim’s incompetence (and labeling it as pathological),

(iii) building allies to engage in bullying group dynamics. (If you are interested, this therapist, Chrsitine Canonville, provides a detailed description of the movie; also, she tries to use this concept to analyze one possible abuse between people with narcissistic traits and people who suffered from what she called the narcissistic victim syndromes).

As a therapist, I found the concept of gaslighting both helpful and problematic.

On the one hand, this concept helps people to become aware of the possibility and consequences of mental manipulation. On the other hand, the original story from the play/movie, for the dramatic effect, simply divided the dynamic to (i) a purposeful perpetrator who is very intentional in plotting again the victim; (ii) a victim who is very powerless and requires another male “hero” to rescue her.

Also, the original story is a criminal case. It’s about a perpetrator who does not have have any love/attachment toward the victim, and his goal is very simple – to institutionalize his wife so he can get the jewels and leave.

However, in real life, what most of us (unless you are a criminal psychologist) are dealing with is much more complicated. For most couples, parent-child, & boss-employee dyads, it’s probably not about the total destruction of the less powerful one in the relationships.

One interesting comparison I would like to share is the Reality Distortion Field. I am not a huge Steve Job fan, so I would not dare to analyze him. Yet, you may have heard of how Steve Job’s colleagues described Job’s extraordinary capacity to “persuade” his employers  to “deny” their own sense of reality (regarding the difficulty level of the tasks) and to completely “embrace” Job’s sense of reality (e.g., how fast and how perfect the product could be designed and produced). Is this pathological or abusive? (This will require people who have more information to engage in analysis and discussion.) My main point here is to highlight the complexity of interpersonal dynamics around mental manipulation.

If you have heard of Transactional Analysis (TA), a psychotherapy theory, you may be familiar with the Karpman Drama Triangle – The Rescuer over-simplifies the dynamic between perpetrator and victim; then, the rescuer rushes into “save” the victim by perpetrating the perpetrator.

The challenge of being in any helping profession as well as being in the process of recovery is how to validate the trauma without creating a linear, dichotomous narrative.

Hence, it is important to see the whole system as well as each individual in the system (whether it’s being labeled as perpetrator or victim) with the highest level of empathy. This is very challenging; it requires not only a strong sense of integrity but also a deep practice of compassion.

In my own humble effort to continue cultivating these qualities, I will continue to write more about “dissociation,” disconnection among body-mind-spirit, system dynamics, attachment theory. Then, I will try to use these concepts to further explore “gaslighting” and “Reality Distortion Field”.


Note: This website does not intend to provide any specific individually-tailored psychological advice/services to replace any medical and/or psychological treatment. If the readers are in need of medical or psychological attention, please seek appropriate services in your area.

Copyright © 2018 Chia-Chi (Alicia) Hu; 版權所有:胡嘉琪


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