Psychoanalysis as Gaslighting


‘Gaslighting’ is a psychological term that originated from the 1938 play Gas Light. In its initial definition, gaslighting is a manipulation into doubting one’s perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.[i] Gaslighters impose their own or fake reality, convincing a victim that they are mentally unfit or delusional. Intentionally or unintentionally, they make victims question their views and progressively make them depend on a gaslighter as a source of reason. As a result, victims adopt and operate within the gaslighter’s modified version of reality and develop an inability to conceive a world other than the one the gaslighter imposes on them.

In recent years the term ‘gaslighting’ has been ubiquitously misused, labelling an increasing range of behaviors we simply dislike. One can say that using the term gaslighting has itself turned into a gaslighting practice. Whenever any latent clash in the perception of reality causes slight discomfort or misunderstanding in communication, or whenever someone ventures to question our perception of reality and instead insists on her own perception — viola, a new gaslighter is detected. As fixing this problem seems impossible, the term seems to become entirely detached from the limits of its original definition and now has a life of its own, I would rather further ‘misuse’ it to my advantage (or disadvantage). I will start ‘misusing’ it by first analyzing through its lens the psychotherapeutic industry as a whole, preliminary classifying psychoanalysis as a consistent and unproblematic part of it. And later, I will examine how psychoanalysis can be differentiated from the psychotherapeutic whole.

Well, the very mission of the psychotherapeutic industry — all the psychiatrists, psychologists, and counsellors — is to question their patients’ reality and determine whether they are mentally unfit. The framework of a professional setting puts therapists into a position where their own lens of reality (or the lens of their professional knowledge that they act on behalf of) is not questioned. The reality of the therapist is, by default, the ‘real’ reality, while the reality of the patient is the reality in question. It’s not necessarily that psychotherapists are more normal and mentally healthier than other people. It is well known that they suffer from depression and anxiety even more than their patients.[ii] Rather the framework of their profession, so we believe, acts as a safety net against the insanity of the rest of the world, including their own insanity. Furthermore, the term ‘gaslighting’ belongs to psychology. Psychologists are in a privileged position since, in the end, it is up to them to define what is gaslighting and what is not. They are better protected than the rest of us from the danger of this term being used against them.

While structurally gaslighting can be easily detected here, this is not so much to imply that psychotherapists are manipulative villains imposing their interpretation of reality under the pretext of it being professional. Maybe this is true in some ways, but it is also true that psychotherapists are under pressure to act as gaslighters, that is, to pretend to be sane, to know, and to impose their knowledge (maybe this is one of the reasons why they get so depressed). Booking an appointment with a psychotherapist is a demand to be gaslighted, if you are not gaslighted well enough, you qualify for a refund. This is also not to blame the high demand for psychotherapeutic gaslighting. Each one’s head is a mess, any point of even illusionary stability outside of it is a blessing.

Criticism of the psychotherapeutic industry from both conservative and progressive standpoints can roughly be summed up as either an accusation of gaslighting or of ​​the facilitation of gaslighting. In other words, the psychotherapeutic industry is critically considered to be trapping us within its harmful version of reality or is believed to collaborate in a more extensive than itself deception of society.

As an example of a conservative critique, one can recall Philip Rieff’s assessment of therapeutic society. Rieff was among the first to expose what he called a general therapeutic turn in culture and the forthcoming omnipresence of psychologization of society. According to Rieff, a therapeutic turn produced a new type of human being — a psychological human subject who came to replace a religious one. A psychological human being has switched to her inner world and no longer cares about moral issues and the salvation of her soul. She is only concerned with how she feels and her psychological well-being.

With omnipresent psychologization we fell into dependence on all sorts of psychological experts. They are now consideredthe main experts of life, those who possess unconditional authority in distinguishing what is right from wrong, that is, psychologically healthy from psychologically unhealthy. Our relationship with psychotherapists has pushed out or got parasitically attached to our relationship with family, partners, friends, and ourselves. We go to psychotherapists to care for ourselves, fix ourselves and our relationships, get to know ourselves, clarify the situation, and find out if anything is wrong with us.

Psychological knowledge is not just an external instance of expertise on what is right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, it has become internalized. Psychological discourse has almost absolute power over our everyday thinking. We automatically reduce comprehension of our life, who we are, and our relationships with others to psychological categories. The ordinary thinking and vocabulary of today’s person are a set of, at best, critically rethought or accepted uncritically psychological knowledge. Modern society lives under a psychological regime, psychologization is now so pervasive that it is barely possible to articulate anything outside of the framework of the psychological regime. In his book Ole Jacob Madsen claims in agreement with Rieff that “Psychologisation […] has evolved into a monotheistic ontology of late modernity.”[iii]

Rieff was conservative in his tone and perhaps would have preferred to rehabilitate some features of a religious man, who is even easier to consider a victim of religious gaslighting. Although his critique of psychologization can be summed up as a critique of therapeutic gaslighting, one could say that it is not the very fact of gaslighting that bothered him most but rather its specific psychological form. Although Rieff blames Freud for being the prime-mover of a therapeutic turn, it is reasonable to say that other versions of talking cures that branched out of it are even worse in terms of having a quality of gaslighting technics. In fact, what psychoanalysis is accused of today from the standpoint of more popular psychotherapeutic trends — of being unscientific, charlatanry, mystifying, ineffective, too complicating, too negative — can be taken as precisely the assertion that it is not gaslighting enough, that is, as lagging behind in terms of lacking efficient tools used for effective psychotherapeutic gaslighting.

From a critical theory standpoint, the psychotherapeutic industry is approached for being conformist. According to Adorno, it is aimed at adapting patients and helping them to come to terms with the injustice. By this, the psychotherapeutic industry collaborates and supports the dominating ideology. By adapting patients to the unjust social reality, psychotherapists are, shall we say, aiding in the gaslighting of the capitalist ideology. Mental suffering that we feel is an adequate reaction to the unjust conditions of our social order. Therefore it is not the mental health of the patients that must be adjusted but the condition of the unjust society they live in. By diagnosing their patient with burnout, depression, or anxiety, psychotherapists redirect attention from real problems in society that require to be fixed and instead deceive patients into believing that they themselves are the problem. Adorno claims that “In adjusting to the mad whole the cured patient becomes really sick.” For this reason, he adds that “[…] all psychotherapy is promoted to be objectively untrue and therapists are frauds.”[iv]

The critique of conformist psychology also concerns psychoanalysis, especially the post-Freudian revisions of it. Critical theorists favor psychoanalytic theory but are merciless to psychoanalytic practice. According to Adorno’s interpretation, like any other therapies psychoanalysis, as individual therapy aims to adapt patients to the existing social circumstances without changing them. Summarizing Adorno’s and other critical theorists’ positions Russell Jacoby claims, “Psychoanalysis as’ individual therapy necessarily participates within the realm of social unfreedom, while psychoanalysis as theory is free to transcend and criticize this same realm. To take up only the first moment, psycho­analysis as therapy is to blunt psychoanalysis as a critique of civilization, turning it into an instrument of individual adjustment and resignation.”[v]

Monique Wittig offered even more sharp criticism of both psychoanalytic theory and practice seeing them as functioning in a coherent tandem. According to her, knowledge of psychoanalysis is an “over-mythification” and imposition of a particular oppressive morality. She dares to ask, “Who gave the psychoanalysis their knowledge? How do Freud and Lacan themselves become conscious of the structures of the Unconscious?”. Wittig reveals the repressive moralizing function of psychoanalytical knowledge and practice, suggesting that under the pretext of therapy it imposes a certain interpretation of a human being. Psychoanalysts impose their understanding of human beings on the psychoanalyzed — herein lies an “Unrelenting tyranny that they exert upon our physical and mental lives”. Psychoanalytic sessions place a psychoanalyzed into a position that deprives her of a choice but to interpret herself in a same way as she is interpreted by the psychoanalyst. In Wittig’s words, “In the analytical experience there is an oppressed person, the psychoanalyzed, whose need for communication is exploited […] They say that this canlast for a lifetime — a cruel contract which constrains a human being to display her/his misery to an oppressor who is directly responsible for it, who exploits her/him economically, politically, ideologically and whose interpretation reduces this misery to a few figures of speech”.[vi]

To conclude, along with other psychotherapies, and everything else that exists in the world (including the theory of the therapeutic turn, critical theory and even Monique Wittig) psychoanalysis can be described as gaslighting, one could say that each psychotherapy differs from the other by its own style of gaslighting.

Psychoanalysis does impose its strange semi-mystical interpretations (despite Freud telling it not to), it operates from a position of knowledge and truth (despite Lacan telling it not to). It categorizes everyone into neurotics, psychotics and perverts and acts like it clarifies something. In fact, it does give a feeling of clarity, much like knowing your zodiac sign.

Psychoanalytic societies resemble a parody of secret societies and religious cults, they share their own mystical language that makes no sense not only to outsiders but barely to themselves too, its stages of initiation into the psychoanalytic path, an inner circle of the elect, with all the heartbreaking drama of not being included into it, its sacred scripture study groups.

But still, with all its insanity, I prefer psychoanalysis to any other type of scientifically rigorous psychologies and their therapeutic practices. In case of psychoanalysis, the insanity and pathetic quality are so obvious that it’s much harder to conceal them. The attempts to hide are even more obviously pathetic than psychoanalysis itself.

Freud got disillusioned in psychoanalysis quite early in his career. It is even questionable if he ever was serious in his initial therapeutic intention and to what extend the idea to start his practice was dictated by necessity and not by intention to genuinely help someone. Psychoanalysis began as a failure, it won’t ever cease being one. It is an everything failure.

Psychoanalysis constitutionally falls out of the standards of competition among ‘serious’ therapies In relation to them it is the odd one out. This mismatch, the disadvantage of the impossibility to be a consistent part of the psychotherapeutic industry makes psychoanalysis less dangerous in terms of gaslighting.

Not only this makes psychoanalysis safer gaslighting-wise, but also closer to every human soul. It is just as clueless, confused, insane, goofy, in a word, constitutively fucked up, as each of us.

You can see an interview with Julie Reshe on Psy-Fi here.

[i] 1 “Gaslighting”, APA Dictionary of Psychology

[ii] 2 Rosemary Bennett, Chances are your NHS psychologist is depressed too, February 03 2016,

[iii] 3 Ole Jacob Madsen, The Psychologization of Society: On the Unfolding of the Therapeutic in Norway. (London: Routledge, 2018).

[iv] 4. Theodor W Adorno, ‘Sociology and Psychology’ (Part 1) New Left Review I/46 (1967 [1955]), 78.

[v] 5. Russel Jacoby Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology from Adler to Laing. (Boston: Beacon, 1975), 120.

[vi] 6. Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind”, Feminist Issues. Summer Issue (1980), 107–111,105.