A 3-Part Guide to Recognizing, Understanding and Stopping Psychological ‘Gaslighting’
“You’re gaslighting me!”
Does this phrase sound familiar? It seems likely that it would, as within the last 5 years, “gaslighting” has been selected the “most useful word of the year” by the American Dialect Society, as well as one of the “most popular new words” by Oxford University Press. Despite this popularity, many still struggle to grasp its meaning, especially with the increased usage of the phrase in the midst of recent cultural and political tensions. Who was gaslighting whom? The information needed to understand gaslighting, both as a term and as an interpersonal problem one can become entangled in, is rarely presented to the public with the same ferocity as the word itself. In other words, you are far more likely to hear that you are “gaslighting” someone than to hear a definitive explanation concerning the actions you are taking that constitute “being gaslit.” At its most basic: the term comes from a 1938 play and, more famously, a 1944 Oscar-winning movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the film, a woman is made to question her reality and feel as if she is “going insane” by her husband, whose tactics include flickering the home’s gaslights on and off and then insisting to his wife that she is imagining things. Captivating stuff (the movie is free on YouTube for those interested in old Hollywood), though not exactly the most straightforward definition for a word so widely used and accepted almost 80 years later. Since the release of the film, the term has been used sparingly in psychological literature since the late 1980s and early 1990s, and is now used more colloquially to describe trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions.
Ironically, the confusion surrounding the word itself is not unlike the confusion one may experience while being gaslit—most notably, thoughts of “Am I missing something?” or “Have I done something wrong?” The guide below will analyze gaslighting in three parts: identifying and understanding gaslighting; thoughts and feelings related to be gaslit; and, finally, what to do if you think you or a loved one may be experiencing gaslighting in one of your close relationships. It is my hope that by demystifying the term, it can help one to not only be aware of the danger it implies, but also understand the dynamics at play on the part of the gaslighter and the gaslightee.
Part 1: Identifying the Gas Leak
Understanding the history behind the term is one thing, but being able to identify when you are being gaslit (or gaslighting someone yourself) is a bit more complex. According to Medical News Today, gaslighting can be separated into a number of techniques, including: countering, withholding, trivializing, denying, and diverting. To simplify these techniques, one can say that countering and diverting involve directly challenging another’s feelings or point of view, while those who use withholding, trivializing and denying are more likely to attempt to invalidate these feelings or make someone feel as though they are over-reacting. Let’s take a look at each technique, and provide a common example you may be able to recognize.
For the more direct forms of gaslighting, one may use “countering.” Countering describes directly challenging someone’s memories. Simply stating “I don’t think you are remembering things correctly” or “You’re always so forgetful” can be examples of countering. The other form of active gaslighting, “diverting” would involve challenging the person’s credibility as oppose to just their memory. A common example may be “You’re always imagining things…” or “Don’t you think you’re being paranoid?”
More indirect forms of gaslighting may stem from techniques such as withholding, trivializing and denying. Each of these forms share the similar pattern of invalidating the other person, either by denying what they said is true (e.g., “That never happened…”), trivializing the other person’s feelings (e.g., “You’re just being sensitive”), or simply withholding and refusing to engage in conversation at all.
I’d like to make note here, that the phrases I’ve used as examples are not necessarily “bad” or purposefully hurtful. You may find yourself saying some of these at times, and it is important to begin to understand that “gaslighting” is not inherently evil or malicious. Here are some additional examples of phrases that could be considered “gaslighting”:
“You shouldn’t get so worked up over things!”
“I’m just worried about your mental health…”
These two phrases could make a loved one feel like their feelings are being minimized or that they are over-reacting to something that hurt them deeply. They could also be used to genuinely tell your friend that they should try to be easier on themselves or that you are worried about them. The problem I have found inherent in the current conversation around gaslighting is the idea that “gaslighters” are a specific category of people: narcissistic abusers that should be cut out of your life at any cost. In the following parts of this guide, I will make a concerted effort to differentiate between “purposeful and abusive gaslighting” and “unconscious, accidental gaslighting.” While the potential for abuse through gaslighting should not be minimized, it is also important that we do not categorize everyone who may utilize some of these gaslighting techniques as bad people. As we continue to discuss gaslighting in all its forms, I will ask that you keep this excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection in mind:
“One of the commonest and most generally accepted delusions is that every man can be qualified in some particular way – said to be kind, wicked, stupid, energetic, apathetic, and so on. People are not like that. We may say of a man that he is more often kind than cruel, more often wise than stupid, more often energetic than apathetic or vice versa; but it could never be true to say of one man that he is kind or wise, and of another that he is wicked or stupid. Yet we are always classifying mankind in this way. And it is wrong. Human beings are like rivers; the water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy or warm. It is the same with men. Every man bears within him the germs of every human quality, and now manifests one, now another, and frequently is quite unlike himself, while still remaining the same man…”