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Gaslighting - what it is and what it isn't

It's a word that's in the news every week; almost every day. It is used as shorthand to condemn behaviour that people disapprove of, be they allegedly abusive celebrities or politicians, internet trolls or even Holly Willoughby! But what is it and where did it come from...

If you were to Google the word ‘Gaslighting’ you would find somewhere approaching 8 million results. Try it for the past 7 days and there will still be thousands. The term has become ubiquitous. Just as with other terms, such as narcissism, it has been used to signal inappropriate political, professional and personal behaviour. As with narcissism, however, the overuse of the term has somewhat taken away from its impact and both confused and over-simplified it’s true meaning.

In 1938 a young Englishman, Patrick Hamilton* wrote a play called ‘Gas Light’. It is about a Victorian woman who is manipulated by her murderous husband into doubting her own memory and senses. The husband goes so far as to convince her that the nightly dimming of the gas lights in their home is a product of her imagination. The play was made into a British film in the early 1940s and then remade in Hollywood in 1944. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar playing the woman. Although many details of the play and characters were changed, the central, abusive relationship remained. In one scene, Bergman’s character asks her husband, “Are you trying to tell me I’m insane?” to which he replies “Now, perhaps you will understand why I cannot let you meet people.”

The film was a critical and box office success, and gradually the term ‘Gaslighting’ became synonymous with the kind of psychological abuse in which a person is made to question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. But it didn’t become a commonplace term in the 1940s. It gained popularity as a colloquial term in the more ‘aware’ 1960s and in the 1970s psychoanalysts and psychologists started to reference it more in their academic works. It gradually seeped back into everyday language with the added credibility which came from its professional use and some high profile ‘crossover’ works on abuse.

So, now we know where it came from, what does it describe?

Fundamentally, one party in a relationship uses their position to create confusion, uncertainty and anxiety in the mind of the other. They manipulate situations in a way that leaves them unable to trust themselves and therefore ever more reliant on the touchstone which is their abuser. The more a person is victim to gaslighting, the more vulnerable they are to its effects, as ‘reality’ becomes more and more uncertain. Gaslighting therefore often develops gradually, making it difficult for a person to detect. Classic techniques employed (intentionally or unintentionally – it is possible to do this without malice, particularly if you yourself have a condition which limits your awareness of your impact on others) include:

  • Denying events occurred or pretending to forget them. This may lead to the person feeling that they are making things up ‘in their head.’

  • Countering someone’s memories or experience. This can be done with comments such as ‘are you sure?’ or ‘you know you have a bad memory’ or ‘that’s not the way I remember it.’

  • Diverting the focus of a discussion. Here, the person being abused becomes the one under scrutiny, as the focus is shifted onto the reliability of their interpretation. ‘Where did you get that crazy idea from?’, ‘You’ve been reading too many psychology books’ etc.

  • Withholding and refusing to engage in a serious conversation. By pretending not to understand what the other person is ‘getting at’, the need to explain or justify or even respond civilly is avoided. The abuser does not have to address concerns. For example, they might say, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about!’ Another approach might be to turn-the-tables with a line such as ‘you are just trying to confuse me.’

  • Belittling, disregarding or trivializing feelings. Here, the abuser may accuse the abused of being too sensitive or of overreacting. Their concerns and feelings may be valid, but they are not addressed and dismissed as ‘silly’ or ‘irrational’ or even ‘hysterical’. (At this point it is worth recognising that there is often more than an element of prejudice in these exchanges – women behave hysterically, gay people are weak, black people are volatile etc. This sort of behaviour is very often associated with an imbalance of power.)

What sort of situations is it seen in?

Broadly speaking, this is a problem between people who are intimately involved; such as people in romantic relationships or within in family and caregiving relationships. It isn’t hard to imagine intimate relationships where one person manipulates another in order to control them.

Similarly, people can (and often do) gaslight children and vulnerable people by belittling feelings and experiences and accusing them of being too ‘sensitive’ or ‘highly strung’ – of misremembering. This is, sadly, a common way of covering up abuse and neglect. It also adds to the traumatising effect of the abusive experience, as not being believed or understood is a key aspect of the traumatic experience for many people.

Finally, I think we are now much more aware as a society of the potential for mistreatment of older people. It doesn’t take much to see how the list I’ve given above can be applied to older people without many others in society taking notice.

So, what isn’t gaslighting?

This really depends on your viewpoint. Mine is that we overuse phrases as shorthand and they lose their impact. It’s inarguable that the following situations are very similar in terms of techniques applied and impact to the ones I’ve listed above, but I think broadening the term dilutes it.

‘Medical gaslighting’ is a situation where a doctor ascribes symptoms to a pre-exiting or unrelated condition because they believe the issues being described are ‘in your head’. An example of this may be a trauma survivor who has their symptoms of tiredness and lack of focus ascribed to depression, despite their own experience telling them otherwise. This is not malicious, but it could be argued it is the result of someone in an unbalanced relationship deciding what is best for another and ignoring their input.

Political gaslighting is said to occur when a political figure or group uses lies, denials, or manipulation information to control people. I personally can’t think of any recent examples on either side of the pond! Again, there is an obvious power and information imbalance and the ‘victims’ are being encouraged not to believe their own eyes, so it is easy to see why this has been such a common headline.

There are others, but I think this gives a flavour. Importantly, most people who gaslight might be considered as manipulative liars who we shouldn’t trust or spend time with, but that doesn’t mean that all liars and manipulators are ‘gaslighting’. In a piece in The Guardian, Barbara Ellen pointed out:

“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,”

If we misuse and overuse the term, we can prevent the people who need help most from getting it. When a word becomes too ‘fashionable’ it loses its potency. As a result we are in danger of trivialising the pain of people who need our understanding and support.

Before I finish, I think it is important to flag up what to look for to spot if this kind of relationship is developing. This is particularly true because people who are experiencing it often don’t realise what is happening to them. They don’t think to challenge the more powerful, maybe healthier and confident person in the relationship. They may be reliant on them. According to the US National domestic Violence Hotline, some signs that gaslighting is happening include when you:

  • feel confused and constantly second-guess themselves

  • find it difficult to make simple decisions

  • frequently question if they are too sensitive

  • become withdrawn or unsociable

  • constantly apologize to the abusive person

  • defend the abusive person’s behaviour

  • lie to family and friends to avoid having to make excuses for them

  • feel hopeless, joyless, worthless, or incompetent

Gaslighting is first and foremost a term which describes the emotional and psychological manipulation of an individual, and the statistics are shocking. In terms of partner-abuse alone, it’s worth remembering that one in five children has lived with someone who was abusing their parent and although physical abuse can tend to be more high profile, emotional abuse is far more common. Having said that, in the UK, more than 100 women a year are killed by their partner or ex-partner. Many of these have been subject to emotional mistreatment such as gaslighting, which made them dependent upon their abuser long before the tragic final act.

Gaslighting! It’s an important and powerful word. Use it wisely.

Useful links:

Refuge – UK national charity supporting victims of domestic abuse

Barbara Ellen’s article about overuse of ‘gaslighting’ from The Guardian

Washington Post on ‘political gaslighting’

Unintentional gaslighting

*I suspect most people haven’t heard of Patrick Hamilton, but he also wrote ‘Rope’, which became a classic, influential, Hitchcock thriller about ‘killing for pleasure’. The films and his writing are well worth checking out. He has had a much greater impact on our culture than many more famous writers.

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