You're Probably Using The Term "Gaslighting" Wrong. Here's What It Actually Means.
Words hold of a lot of power, and can be used to make us feel inspired and creative, or tear us down. Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year is "gaslighting," a term which is used to describe manipulation that makes someone doubt themselves. It's vital that we talk about important issues like gaslighting, but we also need to make sure we're doing it the right way. That's why we spoke to Dr. Vanessa Kennedy, Director of Psychology at Driftwood Recovery, via email to figure out what the term actually means and why we need to be careful when we use it.
What Gaslighting Is
The term "gaslighting" comes from the Alfred Hitchcock film Gaslight (inspired by the play Angel Street), in which a husband convinces his wife that she's imagining that the gaslights on the first floor of their house are dimming. In reality, it's a result of his turning on the upstairs lights to search through and steal her possessions.
Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as the "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."
Wow. That's quite the mouthful! In short, gaslighting is when someone makes you doubt yourself by telling you an experience didn't actually happen the way that you remember. At its root, gaslighting is about manipulation, distorting the truth, and blame.
"[Gaslighters] may lead you to think that no one will believe your version of events, that you’re crazy for thinking things happened a certain way, or that you’re being dramatic and making things up," Dr. Kennedy says.
It's easy to define gaslighting, or to understand it in examples, but it can be more difficult to identify when it's actually happening in your own life. "It could look like your coworker taking credit for your idea in a meeting and later saying, 'Don’t you remember? I thought of that like months ago!', or your partner accusing you of being irrational, too sensitive, or overreacting."
Gaslighting can come from a variety of relationships in your life, whether it be romantic, platonic, or even professional, and is often a way for the gaslighter to deflect responsibility away from themselves. While some instances of this behavior can be on the more mild side, it can get very serious very quickly.
"More severe forms of gaslighting are patterns of behavior that affect your self-esteem and are meant to control and instill lingering self-doubt," Dr. Kennedy continues. "This may be considered psychological abuse."
Gaslighters can use both criticism and praise to confuse your relationship with yourself and with other people. "Gaslighting is, at its core, designed to leave you feeling confused and powerless and that maybe you really are irrational, forgetting, being overly sensitive, or being dramatic," Dr. Kennedy says. "It’s literally ‘crazy-making.’"
"They might say things like, 'You weren’t paying attention. I told you this,' or 'I was only joking. Don’t be so sensitive,' or 'Do you hear yourself? You’re being irrational,'" Dr. Kennedy says. "These gaslighting behaviors are usually directed at your insecurities." That way, Dr. Kennedy continues, you doubt yourself and are less likely to confront the gaslighter about their manipulative behavior.
What Gaslighting Is Not
Gaslighting has become a widely-talked about idea in recent years (in the last year alone, Merriam-Webster saw a 1740% increase in searches). It's amazing when conversations about unhealthy communication begin to happen, but it's important to figure out when those conversations begin misusing the term or turning it into a trend.
"People may incorrectly use the term 'gaslighting' when another person is pushing their agenda or perhaps insists on convincing others to see things their way," Dr. Kennedy says.
It is not appropriate to use gaslighting as a coverall for remembering something differently than someone or when you don't want to take responsibility for something you did wrong. "A person on the defensive may disagree with your perception but still respect that you see things that way," Dr. Kennedy says, "whereas a person gaslighting you will try to shame you for your flawed perception and attack your faculties, i.e., your memory, your sanity, and your emotional stability."
Misusing the term is much more than an incorrect definition — it can actually prevent the people who need help from receiving it. "Overusing the term 'gaslighting' can minimize the experience of victims of psychological abuse who endure severe gaslighting that affects their self-esteem, leaves them traumatized and struggling to trust others, and isolates them from supportive individuals in their lives," Dr. Kennedy says.
If you're experiencing gaslighting in an unsafe relationship, please reach out to The Hotline for more help.
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B+C Editorial Assistant, Swiftie | Chloe is originally from the Outer Banks (yes, like the Netflix show!). When she isn't writing or updating her blog Pastels and Pop Culture, Chloe enjoys watching Marvel movies or texting her sister about the latest celebrity news. Say hi at @thechloewilliams on Insta and @popculturechlo on Twitter!