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Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight

By now, you’ve probably heard of gaslighting. It’s a hot term these days, mentioned and discussed in blog articles and on internet forums like sociopathy was two years ago, and narcissism two years before that. It describes a set of disturbing behaviors and a way of communicating with loved ones that’s extremely damaging and troublesome. And since October is communication month, it made sense to talk about it here.

So, what is gaslighting anyway?

Google offers up this definition:

“To manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”

Here’s a more complete definition from Wikipedia:

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term owes its origin to a 1938 play Gas Light and its 1944 film adaptation. The term has been used in clinical and research literature, as well as in political commentary.

Gaslighting is commonly used by abusers, narcissists, and sociopaths in an attempt to control others and to exert power over them. The more they can make their victims feel confused and worthless and even crazy, the more control they have.

For example, your wife punches you multiple times in the face. It gets so ugly that you call the cops. When the police arrive, your wife denies it ever happened and tells the cops you’re a drama queen and she barely slapped you once in the face. She’s so convincing you begin to wonder if she DID only slap you.

Another example is when an abusive partner wants to control you, so he hides your car keys that you left on the kitchen table, so when you go looking for them, they’re nowhere to be found. He taunts you about not even remembering where you put your keys, making you doubt your memory and even your sanity.

As you can see, this is some fucked up shit. People who do this kind of thing are emotionally corrupted and have no clue what love is.

However, a problem I’ve seen is that like with sociopathy and narcissism, the definition of gaslighting has become diluted to include a whole host of conflict behaviors. For example, you’re arguing with your boyfriend about a previous argument, and you disagree about what was said. He tries to tell you you’re crazy and that that’s NOT what happened. You accuse him of gaslighting.

I’ve seen people use the word “gaslighting” to describe anyone who tries to convince you your perspective is wrong. I’ve seen articles on major websites broaden the definition of gaslighting for this purpose. And this is a problem because it diminishes just how damaging gaslighting is. It also throws a pathological label on something rather than working through it. And that’s important because you can’t work through anything with a true gaslighter; you can only get the fuck out and get some therapy. However, you can often work through a conflict with some who’s trying to talk you out of your beliefs, your memories, or your perspective.

Does it piss you off when your partner tries to talk you out of your point of view? Tries to tell you you’re crazy? Tries to say you have a shitty or selective memory? Doesn’t respect your perspective? Good. It should piss you off because it’s disrespectful. But it isn’t gaslighting, not if he or she really believes what they’re saying. That’s the key difference — abusive gaslighters gaslight intentionally in order to manipulate and control you. Pseudo-gaslighters may be manipulative a-holes, but if they really believe what they’re saying, they aren’t gaslighting.

If you find yourself in a situation where your partner is trying to tell you any of the things I mentioned above (tell you you’re crazy, etc), tell them to stop. Tell them that’s how you remember it. Tell them that’s how you feel and he/she doesn’t have to agree. Trying to talk someone into seeing things how you see them is usually a giant waste of time. People perceive situations differently, and that’s even truer with conflict situations. In fact, research shows that memory is very, very fallible, and studies have shown again and again that someone can be UTTERLY CONVINCED that they said X, when they actually said Y. Tell your partner you don’t want to be talked out of what you believe or be made to feel like there’s something wrong with you. You don’t want to be called oversensitive or irrational. That isn’t how healthy partners talk to each other. They’ll either learn to communicate more effectively or they won’t. If they don’t, maybe it’s time to find a better partner.

Likewise, if you’re the pseudo-gaslighter harping on your partner for his/her ridiculous ideas, trying to talk them out of their feelings or beliefs, or telling them they’re overreacting over nothing, knock it the fuck off. You’re sliding into dangerous territory by shitting on someone else’s feelings or perspective. If you want to act this way to strangers online, that’s one thing. But at home with your loved ones? No. Just, no. Instead, just say you don’t agree with their perspective. You see it differently. You remember it differently. You think differently. And why wouldn’t you? You’re a different person. Get over yourself and learn to be more understanding.

If you want a healthy connection with someone, learn to stand by your own beliefs and perspectives while allowing your partner to have theirs. You won’t agree all the time, even on things that to you seem obvious. Maybe you’re right, or maybe you’re wrong, but in the end, learning to see or at least show respect for your partner’s point of view is what makes relationships work.

 

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