After our recent class discussion concerning the role of advisors and mentors in academia, I decided to write about an interesting phenomenon that can occur in academia as well as many other social settings. This phenomenon is known as gaslighting, or the act of manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. It’s inspired by the 1940 and 1944 films “Gas Light,” in which a husband systematically manipulates his wife in order to make her feel crazy.

At its core, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that slowing eats away at a person’s ability to make judgement. It is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. It may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre vents by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. Even more, gaslighters have the ability spin their own negative, harmful and destructive words and/or actions in their favor, ultimately portraying themselves as the victim.

So, why do I bring this up and what does it have to do with academics? One of the primary relationships that we encounter in a graduate program is with our advisor and committee members. This type of relationship, no matter the department or social relationship that you may have with these people outside of an academic setting, is known for its uneven power structure, where the advisor has the power and the graduate student has little to none. Because of this uneven power structure, some graduate students are left at the mercy of their advisor and their outrageous whims.

Now that we know what gaslighting is and how it could easily be employed by someone in power, i.e. an advisor or committee member, what does it look like and how can someone who is the victim of gaslighting deal with this overwhelmingly difficult and confusing situation?

Academic Scenario: Lydia has been working in her department for the past seven years. She has asked her advisor many times when she will be ready to defend and graduate. Her advisor says she isn’t ready even though Lydia has confirmed with other students and committee members that her work is more than sufficient and that she has gone above and beyond in her lab duties and responsibilities. Lydia’s advisor also has a side business where he designs computer programs and has asked Lydia countless times to stay late running simulations and tests even though the project has nothing to do with her research and dissertation. He has also asked her several times to pick up his dry cleaning and to bring him lunch. Finally, as Lydia’s work piles up to an unbearable level, she tells her advisor that she needs time to focus on completing her dissertation work if she hopes to graduate in the Spring. Her advisor then begins to tell Lydia that at this pace she should expect not to graduate anytime soon and that she will have to log more lab time and prove her commitment to him as well as the department. When Lydia brings this point up in her committee meeting her advisor denies having said and done those things and blames Lydia for being too tired from partying all the time and accuses her of slacking due to an “alcohol dependence.” Lydia is dumbfounded, confused, belittled, and embarrassed. From then on Lydia accepts all extra demands and chores from her advisor, no matter how much work she has, or how demeaning the tasks are.

Almost all of us have experienced gaslighting in one form or another, at work, school, or even in your home life. If you feel as though your self-esteem, confidence and independence has suffered due to gaslighting, you are not alone. There are ways in which you can combat the situation and to ultimately come out on top.

  1. Get Professional Help – With the uneven power structure that occurs between advisors and advisees it is often difficult to deal with this problem on your own. Seek help from University Human Resources and if bad enough, seek out a meeting with the Dean of the Graduate school.
  2. Don’t engage with your gaslighting partner – Not saying anything is sometimes the best response and gives the person less fuel to use against you in the future.
  3. Keep a record – Often times HR personnel will use this information to form a formal case against a harasser. This will also help you, the victim, to see physical evidence of your emotional abuse and give courage and a voice to your struggle.
  4. Remove yourself from the situation and find a new advisor – Only under dire straights would I recommend someone leave their position and find a new advisor, however if other methods have failed this is usually the best choice.

So, are you experiencing gaslighting? Do you know someone else who is? Do you have any recommendations that would help others?