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 it 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. He did so 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.
An academic perspective on gaslighting
According to a paper in the journal Philosophical Perspectives, Kate Abramson explained that gaslighting is directed at “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.”
Gaslighting typically serves multiple aims for the perpetrator. 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, 2014).
Abramson identified 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.
As is often the case for pop psychology terms, the Wikipedia page for the term gaslighting is absolute garbage. Wikipedia pages should use a neutral point of view and 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? Because there isn’t a clear definition of gaslighting, there isn’t a clear answer to that question.
Mislabelling as gaslighting
One of the main reason I think the term gaslighting is overused is that it seems to be used often 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.
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 loony tunes 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. 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. Perhaps he wants a divorce and hopes 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; 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…
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, people talk about gaslighting in the context of politics. Why? It seems to me that it’s a matter of it being 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 different 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 a problem, but it’s not the same issue 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:
- 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
- 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 #2, in which case, getting caught up in gaslighting is a distraction from the real issue. Something doesn’t have to be gaslighting to be a serious problem; I would see #2 as a bigger problem than #1.
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.
Not everything is gaslighting
Calling all of these different things gaslighting may seem convenient; however, 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 with the problematic behaviour, like the husband getting busy on the side, to claim that they’re being gaslighted. After all, they’re being accused of something that, from their place of oblivion or denial, they don’t believe is accurate.
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 overused, or do you think it’s useful to use it to refer to such a wide range of behaviours?