These days it seems the word “gaslighting” is everywhere. The term has grown in popularity over the past decade, given new life by political commentators And columnists and driven by social media, where it now attracts billions of views across instagram, ICT Tac And Twitter. In 2022, Miriam-Webster crowned her gas lighting word of the year.
But despite the term’s growing ubiquity in pop culture, it underscores a serious reality.
What is gas lighting?
In a general way, gas lighting is a form of psychological abuse or manipulation. This often happens in abusive relationships, where the abuser intentionally deceives their target – essentially, distorts reality to make it seem like what the victim is experiencing or feeling isn’t real.
“He’s trying to make someone look or feel ‘crazy,'” says Paige Sweet, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies gaslighting in relationships and in the workplace. “There are so many types of psychological abuse, but gaslighting has that added quality of either convincing someone that their reality isn’t shared by other people or trying to convince them that their understanding of what is happening is distorted or erroneous.”
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The rise of gas lighting
The term “gaslighting” made its debut in the 1938 British play, gas lamp, which has been adapted for the big screen twice – the most famous being the 1944 film gas lamp, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the film, Paula (Bergman) is isolated by her husband Gregory (Boyer), who agrees to trick her into thinking she’s going crazy. Notably, one of Gregory’s tactics is to dim the gas lamps in the house before insisting that it’s all in Paula’s head.
More recently, the term came to public attention again in 2016, when it was frequently used to describe former President Donald Trump’s strategy of creating false realities through repeated lies. An essay by journalist Lauren Duca, “How Donald Trump is Enlightening America” quickly went viral after it was posted in teen vogue this December.
Gaslighting has since been used to describe various manipulation tactics and distortions of reality – for example, patients who feel their symptoms are being unfairly dismissed by doctors may label their experiences as “medical gaslighting”, according to a 2022 article in The New York Times. According to Miriam-Webster, that same year saw a whopping 1740% increase in searches for “gaslighting” online.
Yet, while the term is admittedly trendy, the behavior it’s supposed to describe can be extremely toxic. — and potentially dangerous.
Examples of gas lighting
Gaslighting primarily occurs in romantic relationships, but it can also occur within friendships, between family members, and even between co-workers. In some cases, attackers can exploit their victim’s vulnerabilities or feed on stereotypes or imbalances linked to an individual’s gender, sexuality, race, nationality and class.
Below are some of the examples of gaslighting that Sweet documented during 12 months of intensive interviews with 43 heterosexual women who had survived domestic violence, published in a 2019 article in American Sociological Review.
Simone’s ex-husband hacked into her social media profiles during their divorce, writing messages that left her mentally unstable.
Jenn called her ex-boyfriend a “chameleon” who tried to confuse her and confuse her with subtle fabrications, such as lying about the color of the shirt she wore the night before.
If Brittany showed emotion or lost her temper during an argument, her abuser would repeatedly call her “crazy”, causing her to question her own mental well-being.
What does gaslighting look like in a relationship
These women often recalled how their abusers distorted reality and caused confusion to make them feel “crazy” or emotionally erratic, relying on the gendered idea that men are more “rational” than women.
“Femininity itself is kind of stigmatized as ‘irrational,'” Sweet says. “Men, or masculinity, are granted the power to [being] the arbiter of what is “rational”—the decider of what is authoritative or credible. This is one of the reasons why gaslighting is a gendered phenomenon.
Yet this does not mean that gaslighting only takes place when it is perpetrated by men against women. In her latest research, Sweet examines how parents, for example, might turn on their own teenage children when they talk about experiences of childhood abuse.
“It’s really important to pay attention to lines of authority and social power,” she adds.
Gas lighting signs
Victims of gaslighting may experience serious mental health consequences such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. As such, it’s crucial to look for signs that you – or someone you know – could experience gaslighting.
“People often talk about that moment when they know something’s wrong — if what someone says to you gives you that nasty feeling in your stomach,” Sweet says. “Thinking, ‘That’s not quite true, but I don’t know how to explain it.’ That’s kind of the heart of gaslighting and the power of having a name for it: it’s really hard to put it into words.
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Gas lighting can also elicit feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, or the pervasive feeling that everything is somehow the fault of the victim. It can even cause targets to question their own reality. A woman Sweet interviewed in her 2019 study describes how her abuser made her feel like she was living in the blurred area.
“Often, especially in intimate relationships, [gaslighting] goes hand in hand with other forms of control like isolation or name-calling,” says Sweet.
How to deal with gaslighting
If you suspect you are a victim of gaslighting, there is some steps you can take to protect you. To get started, reach out to other people in your support system who can help validate and verify your experiences.
“Being able to rely on other people is really helpful,” says Sweet. “Getting counter-narratives from others is the most reaffirming thing you can do to re-establish yourself as a believable interpreter of the world.”
One way to deal with gaslighting is to talk to other people about what’s going on in your relationship, even if it’s intimidating or uncomfortable. Beyond that, if you’re feeling isolated in your relationship, Sweet continues, reaching out to members of your support network is even more critical.
“This [isolation] is the thing you want to fight against; hang on to your existing relationships and rely on those people,” she adds.
Leverage existing resources and hotlines – such as the National Domestic Violence Helpline – related to abuse and domestic violence can also prove invaluable.
“These assist systems are really good for gaslighting,” says Sweet. “Members of these advocacy communities really speak this language.”
Additional support and resources:
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