When we heard that “gaslighting” was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, our first thought was, What took them so long? Yes, we know that the dictionary came to this conclusion based on the number of times the definition of a word was searched on its site. Reportedly, searches for “gaslighting” rose by 1,740 percent in the last 12 months. It seems that thanks to political misinformation and misdirection on the Internet, the rest of the world is catching up with the psychological crap that women have endured over centuries. Because, let’s face it, gaslighting has mainly been directed at women, until now.
The rest of the world is catching up with the psychological crap that women have endured over centuries.
Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.” But that’s kind of general, and it doesn’t fully capture the true sinister nature of gaslighting and the fact that the term originated from a story of a man intentionally trying to make a woman crazy.
A better definition is this one from the Cleveland Clinic’s website. Gaslighting is the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
Political and Personal Gaslighting
As gaslighting has spread to the wider world, it’s come to stand for the way truth is manipulated. Remember Kelly Conway’s infamous statement about “alternative facts?” In this general sense, gaslighting is a synonym for spin or misinformation. So, all of those people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6th, 2021 and claim it wasn’t violent or pundits who say that Trump shouldn’t be charges with treason or sedition because the attempt to overthrow the election didn’t succeed (forgetting there are heavy penalties for just making the attempt at murder, robbery and other lesser crimes.)
But it’s in personal relationships that we have traditionally seen this kind of abuse in action. Gaslighting got its name from the title of a 1938 play and the movie based on that play, the plot of which involves a man attempting to make his wife believe that she is going insane. His mysterious activities in the attic cause the house’s gas lights to dim, but he insists to his wife that the lights are not dimming and that she can’t trust her own perceptions.
Gaslighters minimize your feelings by saying you’re being crazy, overly sensitive, or using the classic male line, “too emotional.”
Gaslighting plays out in big and small ways in romantic relationships. Maybe your spouse tells you things that never really happened. For instance, he says that last week he told you he was going to go to the bar with his buddies on Monday night, but you never remember him telling you that. Or they minimize your feelings by saying you’re being crazy, overly sensitive, or using the classic male line, “too emotional.”
The Cleveland Clinic provides an extended example of how gaslighting can unfold and unhinge: Let’s say you and your significant other are at a social gathering with friends. At some point, your significant other makes a passing comment on how attractive someone else is at the party. They do this right in front of you. Of course, this puts a dampener on your evening — after all, why would your significant other say that in your presence? And what does that mean for your own relationship?
As the night goes on, you get quiet because you’re having anxiety about what’s been said. On the way home, you try to bring up what’s happened by asking what your significant other meant by the comment they made. That’s when they cut you off by saying you misunderstood what they were trying to say. Suddenly, the script has been flipped, and they’re telling you that you ruined the evening because you were moping around all night.
“Why would you act like that in front of all my friends,” they say. “Why are you being so dramatic?” And when you try to argue your perspective, they cut you off again by shutting the conversation down. Now, you’re feeling guilty for ever bringing it up in the first place and you feel like you’ve made a mistake. “You start to question your self-worth, your self-esteem and your own mental capacity.”
What woman hasn’t been in this quagmire.
How to Respond
The way to respond to political gaslighting is to vote out any sucker who practices it. Or just have Pete Buttigieg take on the gaslighter.
Gaslighting is death by a thousand cuts.
Personal gaslighting is another matter because it is so caustic to your sense of self. “Gaslighting is death by a thousand cuts. It’s the slow corrosion of your confidence. And if you let it continue too long, you will doubt more than just your reality. You will second guess every aspect of yourself,” writes Carlyn Bessia.
We’ve compiled some good advice for dealing with gaslighting:
- Speak up. Call out the gaslighting behavior whenever it comes up. Instead of digging in your heels, tell the gaslighter that while you hear them, what they’re saying is not your experience.
- Stop the conversation. Walk away, telling the gaslighter if they’re ready to hear how you feel you’d be open to talking at a later date.
- Talk to others. If you’re second-guessing what you know deep down is reality, check in with a friend who can back you up. This will help ground your reality.
- Get help. If your significant other has a pattern of gaslighting, your relationship will benefit from a professional counselor, who can document what is being said and expressed and removing the kind of vagueness that gaslighters thrive on.
- Leave. Gaslighters are often narcissists who are master manipulators. There may be no better option than removing yourself from their power. “Your relationship should be a shared experience,” Chivonna Childs of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Adult Behavioral Health. “How can you be in a relationship when you’re never right, when your emotions are never valid and your experiences, your thoughts and your moods are never OK? That’s not a shared space.”