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Gaslighting and Ambient Abuse

Uploaded 8/6/2010, approx. 5 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Ambient abuse, also known as gaslighting, is the stealth, subtle, underground current of maltreatment that sometimes goes unnoticed even by the victim herself until it is too late.

Ambient abuse penetrates and permeates everything, but it is difficult to pinpoint and identify.

Gaslighting is ambiguous, equivocal, atmospheric, diffuse, hence its insidious and pernicious effects. It is by far the most dangerous kind of abuse there is.

Ambient abuse or gaslighting, they are the outcomes of fear, fear of violence, fear of the unknown, fear of the unpredictable, the capricious, the arbitrary, the pending.

Ambient abuse is perpetrated by dropping subtle hints, by disorienting, by constant and unnecessary lying, by persistent doubting and demeaning, and by inspiring an air of unmitigated gloom and doom.

Ambient abuse therefore is the fostering, the propagation and the enhancement of an atmosphere of fear, of intimidation, of instability, unpredictability and irritation.

There are no acts of traceable, explicit abuse. There are no visible, manipulative settings of control. Yet ambient abuse yields an irksome feeling, a kind of disagreeable foregoading, a premonition, a bad omen. It is in the air. In the long term such an environment erodes the victim's sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

Self-confidence is shaken badly. Often the victim adopts a paranoid or schizoid stance, keeps away from society and thus renders herself exposed even more to criticism and judgment.

In ambient abuse the roles are reversed. The victim is considered by everyone to be mentally deranged and unstable and the abuser is universally acclaimed as the suffering soul and victim.


There are five categories of ambient abuse and they are often combined in the conduct of the same abuser.

First of all there is inducing disorientation. The abuser causes the victim to lose faith in her ability to manage and to cope with the world and with its demands. She no longer trusts her own senses. Her skills, she doubts her skills, she doubts her strengths, she doubts her family, doubts her friends. She doubts fundamentally the predictability and benevolence of her environment.

The abuser subverts the target's focus by disagreeing with her way of perceiving the world, by arguing with her judgment, by disputing the facts of her existence, by criticizing her incessantly and by offering plausible but specious, wrong, fallacious alternatives.

The abuser constantly lies and by constantly lying he blurs the line between reality and nightmare. By recurrently disapproving of her choices and actions the abuser shreds the victim's self-confidence and shutters her self-esteem. By reacting disproportionately to the slightest mistake she makes, he intimidates her to the point of paralysis.

Second type of gaslighting is incapacitating. The abuser gradually and surreptitiously takes over functions and chores previously, adequately and skilfully performed by the victim.

The victim finds herself isolated from the outer world, a hostage to the goodwill or more often the ill will of the abuser, of her captor. She is crippled by his encroachment and by the inexorable dissolution of her boundaries and she ends up totally dependent on her tormentous whims and desires, plans and strategies. She needs his permission to go out to the world and to interact with anyone.

Moreover, the abuser engineers impossible, dangerous and unpredictable situations that are unprecedented or highly specific and in these situations he makes sure that he is sorely needed. The abuser leverages his knowledge, his skill, his connections or his traits as the only applicable and the most useful ones in the situations that he himself has engineered. The abuser generates thus his own indispensability and fosters in the victim growing dependence.

The third type of ambient abuse is what is known as shared psychosis or previously it was called folie deux in French.

The abuser creates a fantasy world and in this fantasy world is inhabited by himself and by his victim and it is besieged by imaginary enemies invented by the abuser. He allocates to the abuse to the victim the role of defending this invented and surreal universe.

She must swear to secrecy, she must stand by her abuser no matter what, she must lie, fight, pretend, obfuscate and do whatever it takes to preserve this oasis of inanity and insanity.

Her membership in the abuser's kingdom is cast as a privilege and a prize but it is not to be taken for granted. She has to work hard to earn her continued affiliation in his world. She is constantly being tested and evaluated by the abuser.

Inevitably this interminable stress reduces the victim's resistance and her ability to see straight.


The fourth type of ambient abuse involves the abuse or misuse of information.

From the first moment of an encounter with another person, the abuser is on the prowl. He collects information. The more he knows about his potential victim, the better able he is to coerce, to manipulate, to charm, to extort, to convert the victim.

The abuser does not hesitate to misuse the information he had gleaned regardless of its intimate nature or the circumstances in which he had obtained the information.

This is a powerful tool.

Finally, there is control by proxy. If all the previous tactics fail, the abuser recruits friends, colleagues, mates, family members, the authorities, institutions, neighbours, the media, teachers, anyone, any third party to do his bidding. He uses these people and institutions to cajole, to coerce, to threaten, to stalk, to offer, to retreat, to tempt, to convince, to harass, to communicate, in other words to manipulate his target.

He controls his unaware people and instruments exactly as he plans to control his ultimate prey.

He employs the same mechanisms and devices to move his third parties and proxies around as he does later to order the victim around, and he dumps his props unceremoniously when the job is done.

Another form of control by proxy is to engineer situations in which the victim is forced to abuse a third party. Such carefully crafted scenarios of embarrassment and humiliation provoke inevitably social sanctions.

So the victim is condemned or even physically punished. Society or a social group thus become the instruments of the abuser.

He first provokes the victim into socially unacceptable behavior and then uses society to punish the victim.

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