‘Gaslighting’ is a term that has recently entered popular diction. While it is helpful for victims of manipulation in identifying and labelling the maltreatment met to them, ill-use of the term contributes to the belittling of abuse in society.
You’ve probably heard of the term ‘gaslighting‘ before. The word became popular through social media and eventually found its way into memes and tiktok videos. What does it actually mean? A quick Google search tells us that ‘gaslighting’ is defined as ‘manipulating (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.’ It characterises toxic relationships with an imbalance of power and involvement of manipulation. The term is used by victims who realise that they have been manipulated into questioning their own sanity by someone close to them. While earlier its implications were more serious (such as driving someone insane by manipulation, in hopes of committing them to mental institutions), it is now used in vague sense as making someone question their own truth. The term is used a lot in the clinical sense but has not been considered a formal literary expression by the American Psychological Association. It has more popular usage among self–help and amateur psychology circles.
The term ‘gaslighting’ comes from a 1938 play called ‘Gas Light‘ by Patrick Hamilton. The play became popular and, in 1944, was turned into a movie titled ‘Gaslight‘, which made it into a single word. The story surrounds a man who hides his identity from his wife and eventually drives her insane, by manipulating their gas powered lights into flickering, and thus convincing her that she’s going crazy. The success of this movie made the title-word a popular term to describe abusive relationships involving manipulation, which make a person question their sanity. Since then, the word has seen some usage around the 1990s, mostly in political situations, but stayed out of mainstream conversations. It finally rose to popularity around the 2016 US Election when presidential candidate Donald Trump was accused of gaslighting the population by negating obvious facts.
While the term is not a part of the clinical jargon, it has more serious implications than the internet may lead one to believe. Gaslighting is not easily recognisable since it has no specific, rigid ‘symptoms‘. Usually, the perpetrator is someone who uses their charm to get away with manipulation. Sociopathic or narcissistic people may use gaslighting as one of their methods to turn situations to their advantage. Victims of gaslighting can suffer from PTSD and depression. Psychologist Dr George Simon says, “There is a scale to gaslighting, from lying and exaggerating, to controlling and domination”. Gaslighting is done covertly, but it’s up to debate if the perpetrator is always doing it deliberately. This is where the lines start to blur as people accuse their partners, parents, or friends of gaslighting in arguments where the other person defend themselves.
Social media has made the term popular enough for people to start using it lightly. Contestants on reality TV shows have been accused of gaslighting. Anybody who is caught lying is said to be gaslighting. The usage of the term in political contexts, too, is a slippery slope, as politicians from opposing factions accuse their counterparts of gaslighting the public, when they’re just lying. It is used interchangeably with ‘being untruthful’ and may soon become a synonym for fabricating. Barbara Ellen of The Guardian says, “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.” It is important to remember that all gaslighters may be liars, but not all liars are gaslighters. Usage of the word in daily conversations needs to be checked since everyday instances of disagreements don’t necessarily mean someone is questioning one’s reality. It may simply mean they have different beliefs. Gaslighting is a form of abuse – not just rude behaviour.
So, when does one know they’re being gaslit? Gaslighting is a form of long term abuse in close relationships. One or two instances may not be able to decide if a person is gaslighting someone. A victim of gaslighting may feel powerless or may feel the need to hold on to the abusive, manipulative relationship. Gaslighting may involve withholding details, negating information provided by the victim, verbally abusing the victim in covert ways (such as through jokes that diminish their confidence and self worth), trivialising the victim’s emotions and undermining them, weakening their thought processes to make them question their own sanity. The abuser convinces the victim that their ideas are wrong, and that the abuser’s ideas are more ‘logical‘ or ‘sane‘. Cognitive dissonance is induced in the victim where they begin to question their own thoughts and perceptions, eventually leading to them having low self esteem and increased dependence on the abuser. The perpetrator thus gains control over the victim and has more power in the relationship. The perpetrator may also use the illusory truth effect where something is repeated so often that the person starts to believe it’s the truth.
Gaslighting has specific intentions – mostly to gain power over the victim and to control them. It isn’t restricted to romantic relations and has been observed a lot in parent–child relationships. While social media has helped a lot of people understand instances of gaslighting in their own lives, overuse of the term has started to blur its meaning and implications.
Sulmaaz Siddiqui is a student pursuing Psychology from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Umar Farooque Shaikh