What is gaslighting, anyway?

It seems, lately, we are all being gaslit. Gaslighting is everywhere—from reality TV to our most intimate relationships—we now have a name for those interpersonal encounters that once left us speechless. Have we been victims of gaslighting all of our lives and just recently found the word to make sense of our experience? Or, are we overusing a word that we don’t completely understand?

I don’t know about you because I don’t know you and your life circumstances (and I’m not about to gaslight you). I do know that for me and many people in my life, the word is misunderstood. I think somewhere along the way we began to apply the term liberally to any encounter in which we feel unheard or unseen.

The only way to determine whether or not we are overusing a word is to gain a deep understanding of its origins and meaning. So, let’s go!

Where did gaslighting come from?

Let’s go back to the beginning.

Gaslighting was born in 1938 in a play by Patrick Hamilton called Gas Light. In 1944, it became a film called Gaslight. It features a manipulative and dangerous husband who tries to hide himself from his wife, Paula. Part of the husband’s efforts are screwing with the gas-powered lights so that they flicker. The husband convinces his wife she is imagining this, trying to drive her insane.

The husband is calculative and systematic in his efforts to manipulate his wife. In one scene she asks, “are you trying to drive me insane? […] That’s what you have been hinting and suggesting for months now.” Of course, he denies this in the same way he denies much of her reality.

In one scene she finds a letter that the husband does not want her to find. When Paula reflects back on this moment of finding and reading the letter, he tells her that he remembers her finding nothing, staring at nothing, that had nothing in her hands. Only, she did. She did find a letter and he later refuses to acknowledge this reality. A reality that is objectively true.

In the scene below, Paula discovers the truth about the letter and her husband with the help of someone outside of the marriage. She finds the letter and realizes that she is not insane. She is told that she is not going out of her mind, rather:

“You are slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.”

Clip from the movie Gas Light.

The definition of gaslighting

The Merriam-Webster definition of gaslighting is as follows:

Psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator

The National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines gaslighting techniques that abusive individuals might use to cause victims to question their feelings, instincts, and sanity. It is a breaking down of the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions and reality. Some examples of gaslighting from the National Domestic Violence Hotline are outlined below:

Withholding: pretending not to understand, refusing to listen

Countering: questioning someone’s memory of events that happened (i.e. finding the letter)

Blocking/diverting: changing the topic or questioning someone’s thoughts (e.g. “you’re imagining things”or “is that another crazy idea you got from your mother?”)

Trivializing: minimizing someone’s needs or feelings when they are valid (e.g. “you’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?”)

Forgetting/Denial: pretending to forget events that actually occured or denying promises

While many of us may do or experience these things in conversations with people in our lives, the important thing to note about gaslighting is that these are part of psychological manipulation that happens over time. We may all forget things our partners said or did because memory is falliable and that’s not abnormal. For those who are gaslighting, though, this forgetfulness is calculated and part of a larger goal to invalidate someone’s reality.

The problem with overusing the word

Barbara Ellen’s Guardian article “In accuing all creeps of gaslighting, we dishonour the real victims,” the term is being applied inappropriately to romantic, social, and political situations and there are consequences for this phenomenon that are worth talking about.

Ellen first acknowledges that gaslighting is very much real and dangerous. It can be an empowering term as it encourages people to trust their instincts in abusive situations where their sense of judgment has been picked apart and degraded. The term is not a buzzword, and has the power for people in abusive situations to recognize the abuse and have their experience validated.

Only, when the term is overused and used like a buzzword, it is at risk of losing its potency. Ellen reminds us what gaslighting is, and isn’t:

It serves us to remember that gaslighting is a specific form of structured abuse. It’s not a convenient umbrella term for all mendacious or unpleasant behaviour; it isn’t gaslighting every single time someone lies, or makes excuses. Put simply, all gaslighters are lying creeps, but not every lying creep is a gaslighter.

Gaslighting isn’t the first and won’t be the last psychological term to be overused or misused. These words have a way of making their way into the mainstream and like a game of telephone, end up becoming distorted and redefined. With this overuse and misuse, the power of the word can become diminished which can have implications for victims of abuse.

Perhaps this brings up a broader conversation about the power of language. I’ll leave you with a quote from George Orwell’s 1984 that seems fitting:

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Language is powerful and though gaslighting is just one word, it’s a powerful word. It has the power to shut down conversations prematurely, and it is a useful word to categorize a set of emotionally abusive behaviours and tendencies. I don’t know about you but after learning about gaslighting I’ll be less likely to use it nonchalantly, because nothing about gaslighting should be taken lightly.