In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse.
Perhaps I was living under a rock, but I didn’t know what a gaslight was, or why anyone would care about it, before entering the blogging world. Let’s start off with a definition from Wikipedia:
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief.
Origins of the term
I wondered about the term’s origin, since I couldn’t see the connection was between a gas light and emotional abuse. Gaslight was the name of a 1938 stage play that was later made into a movie. When the lead female commented to her criminal husband about the gas lights dimming, he denied this had happened (although he himself had dimmed them) and insisted that she had imagined it.
It’s a term that has been used colloquially in pop psychology rather than one that stems from the field of psychology. The references cited on the Wikipedia page on gaslighting reflect this.
I found an article by Kate Abramson in the journal Philosophical Perspectives that had a lot to say about gaslighting, and she seemed to take a fairly objective view of the phenomenon. To gaslight is to “the target’s basic rational competence— her ability to get facts right, to deliberate, her basic evaluative competencies and ability to react appropriately: her independent standing as deliberator and moral agent.” The author likened gaslighting to torture, as it aims to destroy the target’s sense of self.
Abramson writes that while there’s nothing inherently sexist about gaslighting, men are most often the perpetrators and women are most often the targets, and successful gaslighting can reinforce sexist norms. From a psychoanalytical perspective, gaslighting is seen to be a form of projective identification. The gaslighter projects things about himself that he is uncomfortable with onto the target, and then needs that target to identify with what has been projected.
Gaslighting typically serves multiple aims for the perpetrator. Those who gaslight are unwilling to tolerate any possibility of challenge to the way they view things. There’s an interpersonal aim to gaslighting in this sense, as the perpetrator requires the target to respond in a certain way. The abuser “aims to destroy the possibility of disagreement by so radically undermining another person that she has nowhere left to stand from which to disagree, no standpoint from which her words might constitute genuine disagreement” (Abramson).
Abramson identifies several strategies used by those who gaslight: love, empathy, self-doubt, authority, leveraging practical consequences of resisting, and sexism. These strategies serve the primary aim of destroying any possibility of resistance.
Much of what’s written online about gaslighting is quite emotionally charged, understandably so, and often linked with narcissists. It’s a devastating type of emotional abuse, but like any pop psychology online trend, I wonder if the genuine destruction of this form of emotional abuse is being diluted by overuse of the term. I have nothing to back that up and it may not be the case at all; it’s just something I’m curious about.
What are your thoughts?
- Abramson, K. (2014). Turning up the Lights on Gaslighting. Philosophical Perspectives, 28(1), 1-30.
- Wikipedia: Gaslighting
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.