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“Gaslighting,” the Invisible Bruising of Psychological Violence

Violence is not always visible and does not happen only within home. The daily exposure to a toxic relationship can lead to permanent damage

Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight" (1944)

Harsh words, insults, criticisms, accusations, the absence of expressions such as “sorry” and “thanks”. These are just some of the forms that the most devious and devastating mental abuse can take for a human being. It’s psychological violence. The whole mechanism can even be hidden under affectionate outward behavior that confuses the victim until his or her personality is totally obliterated.

There is a kind of psychic violence that is much more insidious than the physical one, not easily identifiable and even more hard to prove: a kind of stalking, bullying and mobbing in a unique and cruel mechanism of oppression, that doesn’t leave bruises on the skin but leads to illness and often to death.

Harsh words, insults, criticisms,  accusations, the  absence of expressions such as “sorry” and “thanks”, a lack of respect, devaluation through sarcasm, sexual pressure, silence, indifference, lies, emotional threats and blackmail, oppression and control of personal freedom, betrayal of trust, defamation, slander, gossip; these are just some of the forms that the most devious and devastating mental abuse can take for a human being. It’s psychological violence. The whole  mechanism can even be hidden under affectionate outward behavior that confuses the victim until his or her personality is totally obliterated.

These common abusive tactics may exist in sick relationships; in conflictual relations between partners; disturbed families; narcissistic people; subjects who need to dominate fragile people in their circle in order to fight their own inferiority; individuals who need to overwhelm the other until they destroy them in order to overcome their personal dissatisfaction; and also in serious cases of parental alienation syndrome, when one of the separated parents manipulates and controls the son or daughter in order to take them away from the ex-partner.

This kind of manipulation can occur equally in conjugal relationships, between brothers and sisters, parents and children, friends or colleagues. Among acquaintances in a small provincial community, and in the virtual interactions on social media as well. The daily exposure of the victim to such a toxic relationship can lead to prolonged emotional stress, causing an allostatic overload that degenerates into skin diseases, cardiovascular and respiratory problems, behavioral disorders and even cancer. Even quarantine-enforced cohabitation has become extremely dangerous.

‘Gaslighting’ falls within this context. A phenomenon that is still not very well known and still too underestimated, it refers to the destabilization of the victim through the denial of actual events. The term comes from ‘Gas Light’, the classic 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant and directed by George Cukor. In Italy this was released as ‘Angoscia’.

These are subtle recurring mistreatments that include denigration and insults made even in the presence of others: “Excuse her, my wife is a moron” – “You are nobody without me” – “You are dumb like your father” – “You don’t understand anything“. These are a few of the most common, their purpose being to undermine the self-esteem of the victim who’ll lose any decision-making and any problem-solving ability, and will do anything to satisfy the torturer from continuing the abuse.

(Courtesy Global Humanitaria)

Gaslighters, for their part, will alternate moments of affection to outbursts of anger, will tend to victimhood, will accuse the manipulated person of being the cause of their unhappiness and job failures, confusing the victims who will initially try to defend themselves, to assert their reasons, but in time will avoid any discussion and will nullify their judgment. This alternation of affection and its absence in an emotional relationship is often followed by threats of abandonment, mistreatment of pets, economic deprivation, estrangement from children, isolation from friends and family, loss of a status and dismissal in the case of an employment relationship.

All this is done with the specific purpose of maintaining the control of the manipulated person who’ll seek the recognition of his executioner, becoming  increasingly dependent and ready to idealize him, whether they may be the boss, the parent, the brother or the friend. A kind of brainwashing or rather, of mental emptying that day after day resets the identity of the person being manipulated, until it may end up as social isolation. The victims will eventually lock themselves in the home and distance themselves from affections and friendships, becoming more vulnerable, deeply insecure and dependent on the executioner whose every behavior they will attempt to justify.

“It’s been scientifically proven that a person placed in an interference-free environment that could reestablish her or his identity and to her or his experience, is easily influenced. It is not by chance that detainees in camps are identified by a number and not by a name.”

Because of repeated psychological trauma, numerous people  develop the so-called ‘broken heart syndrome’, a myocardial disease that manifests itself with sudden chest pain, typical of a heart attack, which isn’t lethal but in most cases deeply interferes with the quality of life.

There is no specific legislation dealing now with the crime of psychological violence, because it is difficult to detect, because there are no complaints, because the victims themselves are unable to recognize the manipulation that is going on. Italian law punishes “anyone who, through violence or threat, forces others to do, tolerate or omit something” with imprisonment.

Art. 610 of the Penal Code and Art. 612 bis are aimed at protecting the individual’s mental welfare. However, there is evidence that after the psychological abuse, when the will of the victim is now deprived of autonomy, and its security is finally demolished, the damage becomes visible. Therefore, when you have the first signs of psychological manipulation, the first thing to do is to ask for help from an abuse prevention center.

It has been said that, “No one can force you to feel inferior without your consent“. Never forget it, not even a second. 

Cover image of Global Humanitaria Italia Onlus, non-profit organization and social utility in Milan (Italy), which offers support to victims of psychological violence and with which collaborates with Doctor Cinzia Mammoliti, expert in violence and author of the video “Psychological violence kills. Let’s stop it now”.

To contact Global Humanitaria send an email to:

Ask for help:

In United States the Office on Violence Against Women helps victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

1-800-799-7233 (Domestic Violence Hotline)

1-800-656-4673 (Sexual Assault Hotline)

1-866-331-9474 (Teen Dating Abuse Helpline)

1-855-484-2846 (Victim Hotline)

In Italy call 1522. It’s open 24 hours a day and is accessible free of charge throughout the country. The service is available in Italian, English, French, Spanish and Arabic and provides information about first contact.

A similar version of this article, in Italian, appeared originally Il Faro24. 


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