If you Google the word “gaslighting,” here is what comes out as its definition: manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
Unfortunately, gaslighting (or in other words, crazymaking), is not an uncommon occurrence in therapy. Damaging, as it would be in any relationship, gaslighting may cause tenfold harm when it is taken place in therapy, as the client is usually under the significant psychological pressure to accept the therapist’s suggestions, since the therapist is in the expert’s role in this relationship.When you are a client, your therapy work is largely about understanding yourself better, which means that your inner processes such as your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, opinions and even your bodily sensations are major objects of exploration in therapy. While self-exploration is one of the tasks of psychotherapy, it often gets misused as an excuse for the therapist not to take responsibility for the client’s lack of progress. Under the guise of exploring the client’s processes, the therapist can simply blame the client for anything that goes wrong, for any therapy impasses. This is a manipulative tactic commonly justified and explained by the phrase “this is not my therapy, this is your therapy.”
In those situations, the client’s complaints and concerns are blamed on “transference” and “projections” of the client’s unresolved issues onto the therapist. This type of manipulation wouldn’t “fly” in all other social interactions, but it “flies” well in therapy because the role of an expert assigned to a therapist by the society puts the huge pressure on the client to accept whatever the therapist says as truth.
One of the most common reasons many people seek therapy in the first place is the emotional trauma caused by harsh, excessive and unfair criticism from those who refused to take responsibility for their own behavior. Experiencing a similar attitude from a therapist is the last thing a person with that kind of history needs.
Gaslighting in therapy, like in any other relationship, should be recognized for what it is. It is abuse. There is no other way to put it. Therapists who gaslight their clients shouldn’t be able to get away with it through misrepresenting self-exploration in therapy. Exploring clients’ emotional issues should not be used as an excuse for therapists’ not to take responsibility for their contributions into the therapy process. While it is possible that some clients may want to shift attention from their own issues onto the therapist in order to avoid doing their work, it should not be automatically assumed that every complaint coming from the client, every concern the client voices and every question the client asks about the therapist’s methods is an indication that they want to avoid doing the work. In many cases, clients’ concerns are not groundless, as they point out to some of the therapists’ methods that are objectively not helpful. When people voice those legitimate concerns they don’t do it for the purpose of exploring the therapist’s personal issues but for the purpose of making their own therapy work. Therefore, the statement “this is your therapy, not my therapy” is a manipulative tool used by irresponsible professionals and should be excluded from therapists’ lexicon.