In 2022, gaslighting has become a familiar part of too many of our day-to-day interactions. Maybe you’re supporting a friend being gaslighted by their partner, or you quit your job because your supervisor’s constant criticism left you questioning your skills. Maybe you’ve even seen a political candidate undermine the integrity of their opponent…over and over.
Unlike 20 years ago, the term gaslighting is now used widely. My 2007 book, The Gaslight Effect, popularized the term and helped people in emotionally unhealthy and manipulative relationships name what was happening to them. But as the word “gaslighting” gained currency, it began to lose meaning: People often tell me that someone gaslighted them when in fact, what they are describing is mere disagreement.
It’s worth revisiting what gaslighting is and what it isn’t.
What is gaslighting?
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.
It’s important to distinguish gaslighting from disagreeing and to understand when conflict veers into gaslighting. Below is a composite of characters and conflicts I’ve heard recently in my private practice.
Is gaslighting present?
Two sisters, Leslie and Shoshana, grew up in the same home and now are married with children. Before the pandemic, their families met for weekly dinners at their favorite childhood restaurant to stay connected and catch up. When the pandemic started, they switched their gatherings to Zoom meetings.
But two years into the pandemic, a difference emerged that had strained their relationship. As businesses reopened and mask mandates loosened, Shoshanna started traveling again, eating indoors, and shedding a mask. Leslie is only comfortable with Zoom meetings, meets with others outdoors, and remains vigilant about masking. The sisters don’t see eye-to-eye on pandemic safety measures and have failed to reach mutual accommodation. They’ve become judgmental of one another.
Their once-supportive relationship has devolved into name-calling and insults. Leslie accuses her sister of being selfish, irresponsible, and a terrible person, while Shoshana accuses Leslie of being sensitive, weak, and gullible to catastrophic news.
Both sisters feel strongly about their position and are equally engaged in the debate. Sometimes, feelings get hurt, as when Shoshana says to Leslie, “You’re wrong, and you don’t care about my family or me.” The sisters disagree, but Shoshana is not gaslighting her sister.
When Leslie expresses her strong and, at times, hurtful opinions, she too is not gaslighting. This is true even though they are expressing alternate interpretations of the same set of facts and even though they want the other person to adopt their perspective. 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.
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.
Let’s say Leslie is the older sister, and, growing up, there was a power dynamic in which Leslie set the rules and pushed Shoshana around. Shoshana then might be vulnerable to Leslie gaslighting her in adulthood. If Shoshana starts to believe that she really is a selfish person, second-guesses herself, and begins to withdraw from the relationship, then the sisters are dancing the gaslight tango. If she stays up night wondering whether she is an awful sister and there’s an unconscious reason she wants people to get sick, as Leslie claims, then Shoshana is questioning her own character and the integrity of her relationships. At this point, gaslighting is present.
It Takes Two to Tango
Gaslighting exists when a power dynamic within a relationship causes the person being gaslighted to question themselves and their own sense of reality. Often the gaslighter is unyielding and verbally aggressive. 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 – early memory loss,” and “OMG – fantasy land as usual. Can’t you remember anything????”
On the receiving end of this behavior, the gaslightee is left feeling worn out, unsure of themself, wondering whether they are crazy, and may even avoid future discussions in fear of disagreements escalating in a disorienting way. The gaslightee is resigned and questions their reality. They may even accept the gaslighter’s view of reality instead of their own. These are defining elements of gaslighting.
It’s also important to know that it takes two to tango when it comes to gaslighting. The power dynamic and the psychological abuse of gaslighting only can exist if the gaslightee allows it.
You can help keep yourself from ending up in a gaslighting relationship by being aware of the language used in an argument, recognizing how it makes you feel, and noticing how you react to it. Helpful phrases to keep yourself from engaging in a power struggle or verbal loop can include: “Let’s agree to disagree,” “You’re distorting what I said. Let’s take a break and talk later,” and “What you said hurt my feelings, and I’m too upset to talk about this at the moment.”
As people hear the word “gaslighting” more and more in our culture, it’s important to clearly understand what the word really means. So the next time you hear someone in a disagreement, snap back, “Don’t gaslight me. That’s not what I said!” remember that sometimes a disagreement is j a disagreement and not gaslighting at all.
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