It seems like everyone’s talking about gaslighting these days. But if everyone and their dog seems to be gaslighting (or being gaslit by) everyone else and their cat (or if cat and dog are both accusing the other of gaslighting them), is it really a meaningful descriptor of emotional abuse? Or does the meaning just get diluted to the point that it no longer even has a clear meaning?
When I Google gaslighting, it tells me there are 9.76 million results. Those search result numbers are far from exact, but they do give a decent ballpark. This is clearly something the internet is talking about. A lot.
The term gaslighting came from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, which was followed by two film versions. The male lead wanted to get his wife committed to a mental institution for his own benefit, so he tried to convince her she was going insane by denying things that were actually happening when she asked about them. For example, he denied having dimmed the gas lights and having made various noises while doing his nefarious activities.
As is often the case for pop psychology terms with no universally agreed-upon definition, the Wikipedia page for the term gaslighting is absolute garbage. Wikipedia pages are supposed to be written with a neutral point of view and use high quality references. The gaslighting page doesn’t meet either of those standards.
A major downside of pop psychology terms is that they’re generally not clearly defined the way that terms that actually come from the field of psychology or other clinical/academic fields are. Because there isn’t a clear way of differentiating what is a certain phenomenon versus what is not, it becomes entirely subjective. There’s a risk that everyone’s using their own definition, whatever that might happen to be, and a lot of things are being labelled a certain way despite being entirely different phenomena. And the internet is labelling a whole lotta stuff as gaslighting.
As an example of the lack of clarity, let’s consider an emotionally abusive situation where the abuser doesn’t think that the abused person even has a reality other than the abuser’s. That’s emotional abuse, but it’s a different scenario than in Gas Light, where the abuser was deliberately trying to make the abused think she was psychiatrically unwell. So is it gaslighting, or is it another form of emotional abuse? There isn’t a clear definition of gaslighting, which means there isn’t a clear answer to that question.
What get mislabelled as gaslighting?
It seems like gaslighting is often used in a very broad sense to mean invalidating people’s experiences of reality. I suspect very few of us are mature enough to be able to fight with people close to us without throwing some invalidation in along the way. But if we’re conflating invalidation and emotional abuse, that ends up minimizing the experience of people who are actually being abused. It’s also a pretty big leap from what happened in Gaslight where hubby was trying to get wifey hauled off to the loony bin. People invalidate others all the time. Telling someone with mental illness to just choose happiness invalidates their reality. Invalidation feels shitty, and it can certainly be a part of emotional abuse, but that doesn’t automatically make it abusive in and of itself.
Not believing the same thing as someone isn’t the same as gaslighting. Someone fanatically religious who’s trying to convince me I’m crazy for being an atheist probably isn’t trying to gaslight me; they probably think I truly am fucked in the head for denying God.
People also lie, either outright or by omission, often with the purpose of avoiding negative consequences. Many of us lie on a regular basis, both to ourselves and to others. If lying in and of itself was emotionally abusive, that would cast a massive net that most of us would be caught in.
Issues of infidelity
As a modern example to mirror Gaslight, let’s say wifey thought hubby was cheating because he seemed distant, and she asked him and he denied it. Is that Gaslight-worthy? If he is in fact cheating, couldn’t he just be trying to cover his ass and avoid trouble? He’s not trying to convince her she’s insane, he’s trying to get away with having his bit on the side without having to give up his easy life at home.
I would think Gaslight-worthy would be more like if she saw racy sexts, then he deleted them and denied that they were ever there, because he wants a divorce and wants to convince a judge to give him a better settlement because wifey’s accusations are crazy talk, or something along those lines.
And if he’s lying to himself and thinks that having drinks after work with his hot coworker is totally fine, and the racy sexts are just teasing and totally fine since he’s not acting on them, he’s not trying to gaslight wifey when denying he’s having an affair. He could just be as dumb as a load of bricks, or more likely, he’s choosing to be in denial (which is generally a pretty popular place to be). He may also truly believe cheating is defined by intercourse, and therefore, he thinks he’s telling wifey the absolute truth about not cheating, because it doesn’t fit within his definition. And as George Costanza said in Seinfeld, it’s not a lie if you believe it…
Calling all of these different things gaslighting may seem convenient, but using the same name for different phenomena can get in the way of understanding (or even trying to understand) the specifics of what’s really going on. It also makes it easier for the person who’s being an ass to accuse their partner of gaslighting. If hubby truly believes he’s not cheating, but wifey keeps accusing him of it, he could claim that, by doing so, she was gaslighting him. That may be absurd, but that’s what happens with an overly loose definition.
Individual vs. collective gaslighting
The emotional abuse in Gas Light happened on a one-on-one basis. However, the Gaslight Express has expanded the term to apply to various broader social contexts.
Sometimes gaslighting is used in the context of politics. Why? Sometimes it seems like it’s because it’s popular and everyone wants to join the party. Why aren’t we talking about propaganda, which has been around probably as long as there have been governments? The only thing that’s changed is the medium.
We could call Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” bit gaslighting, or we could recognize that denial and lying are go-to responses for politicians trying to cover their asses. Politicians want our votes, so they tell us what they think we want to hear or should hear. I highly doubt there is an elected official anywhere in the world who hasn’t lied/denied/minimized multiple times in relation to that role. That’s not the same as an emotionally abusive relationship.
Then there’s racial gaslighting, which to me seems like an unnecessary detour from the actual problem of racism. If a police force is denying accusations that they’re racist, or that systemic racism exists, which is more likely:
a) they’re trying to convince Black people that they’re crazy because they want an excuse to haul them off to the psych ward whenever there’s a problem, or
b) they’re sufficiently racist that either they don’t think they’re racist, or even worse, they don’t care whether they are, and they’re only shooting Black people because they think Black people aren’t behaving themselves properly and therefore deserve it?
My vote is for b), in which case, getting caught up in gaslighting is a distraction from the real issue. Something doesn’t have to get labelled as gaslighting to be a serious problem; I would see b) as a bigger problem than a).
Gaslighting in the movie sense is a one-on-one version of emotional abuse. Racism and political propaganda are both social phenomena with social causes, social manifestations, and a need for social solutions. One-on-one and broader society are very different contexts requiring very different approaches.
Emotional abuse is an extremely serious problem that can destroy people’s lives. Perhaps one way to respect those people and what they’ve been through is to get off the pop psychology Gaslight Express and stop calling any little thing gaslighting. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, though; if calling something gaslighting seems like the best way to get one’s problems recognized, that’s a lot of incentive to slap the label on.
Do you think the term gaslighting is useful, or does it get overused?