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emotional abuse

Health

Psychologists set the record straight on what gaslighting is (and what it's not)

"People often tell me that someone gaslighted them when in fact, what they are describing is mere disagreement."

Arguments and disagreements do not automatically equal gaslighting.

Unless we were in therapy to deal with an emotionally abusive relationship, most of us weren't familiar with the term "gaslighting" until the past decade. Now, it's everywhere, and there always seems to be someone talking to people and gaslighting them. In fact, it's used so much that in 2022, it was named a word of the year by the dictionary giant Merriam-Webster.

"Gaslighting" has become a common part of our vocabulary—unfortunately, it also comes with some common misunderstandings.

Merriam-Webster currently defines gaslighting as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage,” but that definition merely reflects how the clinical term has been broadened and oversimplified. As psychologists explain, specific factors make a behavior gaslighting instead of disagreeing, correcting, or trying to persuade someone that they're right.



Where the term "gaslighting" comes from

The word "gaslighting" is derived from a 1938 play called "Gas Light," which was subsequently adapted as the film "Gaslight" in 1944. In that story, a young woman's new husband—who had, unbeknownst to her, murdered her aunt 10 years prior—tries to make her think she's losing her mind. He manipulates her environment (for instance, by repeatedly dimming the gas lights) but denies that anything odd is happening, making her question her reality. His deception was deliberate—he hoped to drive her mad so he could institutionalize her and steal a cache of jewels that were hidden in her aunt's house.

That storyline, the husband's tactics and the reason for them provide helpful context for what gaslighting is and isn't.

What is "gaslighting"?

Psychology Today defines gaslighting as "an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth."

Robin Stern, Ph.D., wrote the 2007 book "The Gaslight Effect," which helped popularize the term that she says is now losing its meaning. "People often tell me that someone gaslighted them when, in fact, what they are describing is mere disagreement," she writes in Psychology Today.

Here's how she describes it:

"Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where one person’s psychological manipulation causes another person to question their reality. Gaslighting can happen between two people in any relationship. A gaslighter preserves his or her sense of self and power over the gaslightee, who adopts the gaslighter’s version of reality over their own."

Ahona Guha D.Psych offers a definition that includes some key factors:

"Gaslighting is a pattern of behaviour, usually intentional, designed to make someone question their own reality, memories, or experiences. The lesson is simple: When identifying gaslighting, look for a pattern (i.e., one time is not enough), and for behaviour that seems intentional or malicious (think 'No, you are over-reacting because you are too sensitive, it didn’t happen that way')."

When is it not really gaslighting?

If we define gaslighting as simply misleading or confusing someone, it becomes easy to mislabel all kinds of normal, imperfect human interactions as such. Disagreements, remembering events differently, and even trying to convince someone of your viewpoint are not gaslighting unless they involve some specific elements.

"It’s important to remember that gaslighting is not present every time there is a conflict, and someone feels strongly about their point of view and rejects another’s," explains Stern. "Conflicts can veer into gaslighting if one person is so insistent that the other person starts to doubt themselves. A power imbalance in the relationship usually allows the gaslighter to undermine the gaslightee’s sense of self. The need to control, the act of manipulating, and the leveraging of power are essential components of gaslighting—not hurt feelings or challenged viewpoints."

"Often, the gaslighter is unyielding and verbally aggressive," Stern adds. "The gaslighter likely turns a back-and-forth discussion into blaming the other person and may even lie outright about what took place. They may use statements such as, 'Are you crazy? I never said that—must be early memory loss,' and 'OMG—fantasy land as usual. Can’t you remember anything?!'"

Guha emphasizes that gaslighting is not a one-off behavior but a pattern. "Most people will say things that might be insensitive, exasperated, or callous on occasion. It would not count as gaslighting unless there was a repeated pattern over time — a pattern based on a desire to deny recognition of the other’s experience."

Why does it matter if we call something gaslighting when it's not?

“Gaslighting is often used in an accusatory way when somebody may just be insistent on something, or somebody may be trying to influence you," Dr. Stern told Well + Good. "That’s not what gaslighting is.” She shared that accusing someone of gaslighting when they are really just insistent on a strongly held opinion, or belief shuts down a conversation in an unhealthy way.

Stern and her colleague Marc Barnett at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence wrote in the Washington Post, "Today, many people use 'gaslighting' when someone merely disagrees with them. Well-meaning partners, co-workers, or family members may not be skilled in resolving conflict in a relationship, but that doesn’t mean they’re gaslighting — or being gaslighted. Mislabeling and name-calling can break down communication. It can also lead you to think you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship when you’re not."

Gaslighting is "an extreme form of emotional abuse," according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, so if you wonder if you may be the victim of a gaslighter, get advice from a professional therapist who has the knowledge and experience to help.