The recent interest in ‘gaslighting’ has motivated me to post a section on that topic from my book: Emotional Incest in Group Psychotherapy–A Conspiracy of Silence published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2014. While the focus of this section is gaslighting as it occurs in psychotherapy groups, the principle applies to other social interactions in which a group attempts to undermine a member’s perception of reality. Here it is.
As I have noted in an earlier paper (Pepper, 1997), the art of psychotherapy is also a business. And with any business, abuses exist. The art of group psychotherapy is no exception. Among the issues that can lead to group member abuse is that of : ‘whose needs come first—the leader’s or the group’s?’
Observers of the practice of individual psychotherapy have described a fascinating defense employed by some therapists who protect their own emotional stability at the expense of their patients. “Gaslighting”, as it is known, refers to an unconscious process whereby the therapist invalidates a patient’s perception of reality and thereby undermines the patient’s emotional strength (Dorpat, 1985 ; Calef and Weinshel,1981). This term comes from the classic movie of the 1940’s,Gaslight, where the husband (Charles Boyer) attempts to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) mad by denying her perception of reality. The couple’s home, set in Victorian London, is lit by gaslight.
Each night when the husband goes out the lights mysteriously dim. When she asks him to confirm her perception, he tells her that she is imagining things, hence the title. Through a series of related events, the wife comes to question her own sanity. The husband, who has separated her from all outside social contact, becomes her sole source of substantiation. The motive for his insidious scheme is greed. The husband wants her out of the way, in a mental hospital, so that he can claim sole possession of her large inheritance. She is saved from being driven completely mad by a handsome stranger who has been witnessing her slow deterioration from a distance and steps in just at nick of time to show her that her perceptions of the husband’s nefarious plan for her are valid. At the end of the movie, the wife is spared being driven crazy. She is saved by someone who provides her with the opportunity to talk about her experience and to observe the pattern of her husband’s behavior. Once her perception of reality had been validated, she then had the emotional strength to break free of his control.
In an analogous way, perhaps, when a patient in individual treatment is gaslighted by their therapist then a consultation with someone other than the therapist can help to resolve a treatment impasse. Dorpat (2006) has noted that sometimes patients don’t realize they have been gaslighted until they enter treatment with someone who treats them differently. While this may also apply to gaslighting in group, the dynamics are not quite the same. In fact, the matter is generally more complicated.
The danger in group is two-fold: 1.that the member’s negative reaction gets interpreted as transference, a distorted view of reality based on their history, when in fact it isn’t distortion at all but a realistic response to a contaminated treatment environment, such as the case of Sonny in Chapter 2 who was told that his symptoms of anxiety and depression were related to his conflicted relationship with his father rather than because his group leader was using him as a servant or the woman whose jealousy over being excluded from the leader’s inner circle was interpreted as sibling rivalry from her family of origin transferred to the present, or the woman in who demurred sharing personal information with others in group that she knew socially but was told that her reluctance to share was an indication of her inability to be emotionally intimate.
- there is a double-whammy effect to gaslighting in group that doesn’t exist in individual psychotherapy because the shared culture of members, which protects the leader from too close scrutiny ( the “emperor’s new clothes effect” to be discussed next), coupled with the leader’s power derived by virtue of the role, skews the perception of reality toward the leader’s view, leaving the gaslighted member without validation of his or her view. This is crazy making.
While the villainous plan concocted by the husband in the movie was conscious and deliberate, the gaslighting that occurs in psychotherapy groups may not be. Nonetheless, the underlying motive of greed may be the driving force in both instances with the same potential for disaster.
The question of : “whose needs come first?” poses–a moral dilemma for many individual therapists but the dilemma is thornier in group where the leader’s character is on display in front of an audience.
Many view their profession as a calling rather than as a vocation. There are some who recoil at the thought of psychotherapy as a business. Their guilt influences their perception of working for money. Some have actually said that psychotherapists should not great rich as a result of their practice and have set their fees accordingly. They believe that doing otherwise is exploitative and potentially abusive. However, there may be confusion as to the difference between taking care of oneself in money matters, and greed (Pepper, 2001). The fact that many practitioners accept the cultural belief that mental health workers shouldn’t be avaricious reflects the profession’s conflict. Since the general public and some group leaders assume that mental health care practitioners should aspire to a high moral calling, many wrestle with the impulse to act on feelings of oral greed in the treatment. We should be above it all. The cultural myth of the warm, caring and selfless clinician runs counter to any notion of the therapist as a greedy businessperson.
The issue of whose needs come first in treatment applies to more than money. It also relates to other treatment frame issues. It is my impression that group leaders who unconsciously make frame of treatment decisions such as setting and raising fees, overfilling groups with too many members, tacitly or blatantly discouraging terminations after many years of treatment, engaging in dual relationships with group members and making referrals to practitioners who are simultaneously their group patients, and on the basis of greed, may be doing harm to their groups (Pepper, 2001, p.41) This harm may come in the form of gaslighting.
In his article entitled, “ Group dynamics”, Elliot Schuman states:” the objectives of group psychotherapy are awareness of ‘what is going on’” (Schuman, 1999). Schuman describes how the leader facilitates the choice of preferable alternative behavior by transforming communications from the unspoken to the spoken. Assumedly, the clinician’s motives are benign. But as I pointed out in Chapter 3, this assumption isn’t always valid. In fact, there are circumstances where the leader’s unconscious motive is to obfuscate what is really going on and to exploit the groups’ dependency on her or him. Further, the group may be used as an unwitting co-conspirator in undermining a member’s or the entire group’s accurate perception of reality, in an effort to foster an environment in which the leader’s greed and narcissism are gratified as the expense of others.
Writers on the subject of gaslighting in individual psychotherapy such as Dorpat (1985) and Calef and Weinshel (1981) were the first to connect the storyline of Gaslight with the unconsciously driven behavior of some therapists. They describe how the wish to incorporate the object can lead some clinicians to undermine their patient’s perceptions of reality. These practitioners unwittingly jeopardize their patient’s treatment, and hence psychological well-being in order to control the interactional environment (Calef&Weinsel, 1981).
In his book Defense and Denial in the Psychotherapy Situation, Dorpat describes how the clinician’s greed is unconsciously denied. The patient’s accurate perception of the clinician is disavowed so as to avoid the emotional experience associated with the acting out of the therapist’s oral hunger. (Dorpat,1985). The gaslighting that occurs in group therapy can be magnified in its toxicity by a phenomenon that I will address more fully in the section, “the emperor’s new clothes effect”. Since a group, by definition, consists of more than two members, there is the added dimension of a group culture, a shared reality, that obviously doesn’t exist in individual psychotherapy.
Here is another paradox: The group culture gives this modality its power, on the one hand, and its potential for harm, on the other. While in the grip of a shared group reality, it is virtually impossible for member to sustain an alternative, conflicting and negative view of what is going on in a compromised group environment. Like the wife in the movie, there needs to be an outside source of perceptual validation, one that is highly cathected (where there is a strong emotional attachment), to break the hold of a gaslighted treatment environment. The next vignette is a case in point; one that I personally witnessed.
VIGNETTE: MELVIN’S STORY
One day, the leader of a training group in which I was a member, presented a problem that she was having with one of the group members. She wanted the group’s advice on how to handle the situation. Here’s some background information about this episode.
Melvin, an experienced group therapist had approached the group leader with a business deal. Melvin wanted to edit a collection of the leader’s articles and publish them as a book. When the book was published, however, instead of the leader’s name appearing on the book’s spine, it was Melvin’s. The leader was furious and asked the group for help.
She told us that she was having a countertransference reaction to Melvin and it was interfering with her work with him as his supervisor and group therapist. The leader said that she was in a rage toward Melvin and felt betrayed. She told the group that Melvin’s competitive feelings toward his parents have infiltrated the treatment process. Tearfully, Melvin responded by saying that he loved her as a therapist but he hated her ‘persona’. He felt terribly hurt that the leader could be so cold. In his mind, this was a misunderstanding on the part of the publisher. A group member, Jojo, was furious that the leader had breached Melvin’s confidentiality by revealing his status as a patient.
I was asked my opinion. I said that the writing of a book could be seen as a symbolic creation of a child and that the leader and Melvin had made a ‘love child’ together. I didn’t say but thought that, Melvin had symbolically cuckolded the leader’s husband, who was also a therapist, by writing the book with his wife. In blurring the boundaries, the transference and countertransference had become hopelessly contaminated. For the leader to interpret Melvin’s behavior as an acting out of competitive feelings toward his parents was gaslighting. The leader had taken control of reality by labeling Melvin’s behavior as transference. At the same time, Melvin could not risk feeling anger toward the leader lest she reject him and withhold the unconscious gratification that was built into their relationship. Melvin had bested her husband and all other competitors by being so close to her. For her part, the leader had lost the right to interpret Melvin’s behavior as transference. He had seen too much of her nether side for his reaction to be purely distortion.
It may seem unfathomable to the layman that professional group therapists could create and remain in such contaminated treatment environments. Clearly, a collective blind spot existed in that group. The leader’s narcissism and self-interest were preserved at the cost of awareness and perhaps, the emotional stability of group members. This is also an example of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ effect in group, which will be explored later in this chapter. The group and the leader unconsciously agree to avoid the obvious reality. One might wonder what otherwise bright and perceptive people get out of not seeing what is right in front of them.
It is my impression that group therapists, as group patients themselves, are no different than other group patients. Consequently, they experience the same regressive forces in treatment.  The unconscious wish to be cared for by the group leader and to be a part of his therapy ‘family’ exists independently of education, training and psychological sophistication. However, in a boundary less environment the line between reality and distortion can become blurred. Since the leader allows treatment decisions to be made on the basis of narcissistic gratification, then the impulse toward unconscious gratification can be strong for the patient/therapists as well, so strong in fact that they may be all too willing to overlook behavior on the senior leader’s part that is foolish, treatment destructive or worse.
As with emotional incest, this constitutes an abuse of power. R.D. Laing (1970) has noted that the fastest way to drive someone crazy is to deny their view of reality. The group leader can not always trusted to represent the group’s best interest. It may be necessary for someone outside the system to provide it, although it does not have to be a stranger, as was the case in the movie.
An organic and authentic resolution to the problem of what Slater (1974) has called ‘inner circuitry’ thinking is through group process. Just as the leader of a group resolves a group resistance by identifying it, studying its function and talking about it, similarly the profession of group therapists can resolve the resistance to understand the phenomena of gaslighting . This is the very same operation the profession can perform. Professional organizations like the American Group Psychotherapy Association and the American Psychological Association can include workshops and sponsor conferences on the effects of gaslighting , greed and dual relationships in group psychotherapy , and in this way raise the consciousness of practitioners. This would help to alert the professional community to its potential harm.
It should be noted, however, that the resistance to change can be quite formidable. The investment in the status quo is so strong that even those group members who are directly affected by gaslighting are reluctant to modify their own behavior. For example, several years ago a colleague and friend of mine joined a group where the members were socially involved with her and with each other. Within a few sessions , she became irritated with the lack of vitality in the group. Sometimes in these incestuous groups, where members are in dual relationships with each other, there is a quality of deadness that is related to members’ unwillingness to engender negative feelings towards themselves, other members or the leader. As noted earlier, under these conditions members are reluctant to ‘make waves’ and thereby jeopardize their positions in the system.
Not long thereafter, I told my friend that I had been invited to present a paper on the topic of dual relationships in group psychotherapy at a professional conference. It was unsettling when she asked me: ”What are dual relationships?” Since we had had a recent discussion about the iatrogenic treatment reactions to dual relationships, I wondered to myself:” how could this bright, perceptive, successful professional have forgotten all that we talked about over the last few months?” The answer was obvious but a bit disconcerting– she simply didn’t want to take it in. It was too threatening to consider, and so it was all denied. This is a chilling example of the extent to which a group member will go to avoid experiencing the anxiety attendant to the separation from a system that they, themselves, have identified as toxic.
However, there can be a positive side to all this, as the next vignette reveals. In fact a group can serve as an anti-gaslighting agent. It occurred in a group that I ran where I almost gaslighted a group member.
There was a woman in that group who reminded of a former girlfriend. They looked quite similar and came from the same ethnic and religious background; and both had a history of ambivalent feelings about romantic relationships, pushing and pulling men in and out of their lives.
After the relationship with my girlfriend ended –badly, I began taking out my frustrations on my patient in group. Technically speaking, I was displacing negative feelings onto her. I was openly critical of her choices of men that she dated, made sarcastic comments about her habitually coming late to group, picked on her when I thought she wasn’t active enough in group. One night I made what I thought was a brilliant intervention and told her that;” she confused a man’s strength with his sadism”. She said that she had had enough of my belligerence and proceeded to “read me the riot act”. She said that she sick and tired of being mistreated by me, and didn’t appreciate my off the cuff analysis; she wasn’t going to take it anymore. She demanded to know what was up with me. As I was about to interpret her negative reaction as transference, one member said that I was analyzing her in the service of my aggression. The group too, demanded to know what was up. I was immediately reminded of the writing of Karen Maroda (1999) who talked about therapist transparency. She said that there was a distinction between a therapist’s judicious and timely use of feelings and the revelation of facts of their lives. I decided in that instant to tell the truth about my feelings. I told her I was confusing her with my old girlfriend. Unwittingly, I saw them as one and had taken out my frustrations on her. Her reaction, and the group’s, astounded me. There was an immediate release of tension in the room. I could actually see her face soften. I had validated her feeling that it was me that was inappropriate here and not her. She, with the group’s support, had disrupted a potential gaslighting scenario. I could have tried to undermine her perception through the inherent power that the role of therapist provides. But the group wouldn’t let it happen. My subjective countertransference stood out so clearly that even I could see it.
 For a further discussion of the regressive power of group See Spotnitz (!976) .