Insights into Psychology

Is the Term Gaslighting Overused?

Gaslighting: an overused term? Image of the poster for the movie Gaslight

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.

Gas Light

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.

Pop psychology

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.

Politics

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.

Racism

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?

68 thoughts on “Is the Term Gaslighting Overused?”

  1. I don’t know how much ‘gaslighting’ gets used online, but reading George Orwell has made me deeply suspicious of stock phrases and cliches. They are, as Orwell said, a way of letting other people do your thinking for you.

  2. I tend to view ‘gaslighting’ as an extreme form of psychological abuse. It is totally intentional and used entirely to manipulate and control another person and/or situation. Often used by people with narcissistic personality types. Within my relationships I have met people who are dishonest, flaky, controlling, inconsistent, game playing, critical and sometimes just a bit mean … I wouldn’t say they were ‘gaslighting’ … they just have some not very nice human qualities. We can all be guilty of that from time to time.

    The absolute mental torture that gaslighting abuse leads to is ongoing, insidious and very, very difficult to identify and even harder to get away from. Personally I believe it is a specific description for a type of abuse and should not be ‘watered’ down or used as an umbrella term. I would imagine those on the receiving end of it may require specific counselling strategies and interventions to recover from it.

  3. I had heard of gaslighting but didn’t understand it until after my autism spectrum disorder was diagnosed and I started reading everything I could get my hands on to learn about neurological differences. In my understanding there are a couple of past relationships where I feel I was gaslighted but that is within my autistic thinking and how people took advantage of my lack of social understanding and inability to read expressions etc. If I was neurotypical I don’t know that I would refer to my experience as being gaslighted. The two relationships referred to really screwed with my brain and making me feel I was lacking, unintelligent, and that I shouldn’t have been born. But that can often be a female experience anyway…
    I’m not sure that I’m being very clear, sorry. I guess what I’m trying to say is that gaslighting is a term that defines my own experience pretty well but it is something I keep in my head rather than use it in conversation.

    1. That’s definitely one of the reasons why I think gaslighting is something that happens one-on-one rather than within large groups. It’s those kinds of one on one relationships where an abusive partner can really undermine someone’s entire sense of self.

  4. I’ve seen the term, and it’s probably a bit overused. It’s not the same as lying, which almost everyone does to some degree. It’s about deliberately taking steps to try to alter someone else’s perception of reality.

    For example, I was starting a relationship with a guy who encouraged me to tell him my life story. He bombarded me with questions and followup questions. Then suddenly he said I talk too much about myself and didn’t care about him. That was a mild form of gaslighting because I wondered if I misunderstood him when he seemed to want to hear all about me. I began to think I was in the wrong… but then he pulled this same crap in other areas. “Do this thing”… then “why did you do the thing?”

    Narcissist is overused too, imo. It’s not simply being selfish…

  5. Fascinating! I picture gaslighting as being when (for example) two people are in a romantic relationship and one wants out, but he wants the other one to break up with him. So instead of being honest and saying, “Things aren’t working for me,” or whatever, that person starts deliberately antagonizing his partner in order to agitate them into initiating a breakup. I actually had something like that happen to me once. I should blog about it. But anyway, I picture gaslighting as deliberate manipulation intended to project what you want onto making the other person think they want it. Like saying, “I feel like you’re emotionally distant and unavailable,” to someone who’s nurturing and always present within a relationship. The person is crushed and doubts their emotional availability, but it’s all intended to get what the other person wants: a breakup. AAUGH!

    I’d say that if people are using the term for anything at all, then it’s definitely being overused!!

  6. We’ve heard gaslighting used a lot in the past year to refer to denying an objective reality (denying you were there and said that Ava then a video surfaced). We agree with you, Ash, that this is just lying, not trying to make someone insane.

    However, wonder what term to call it when the repeated denying by a spouse does cause psychological harm unintentionally. Different intent could have same result.

    For us, we forget (amnesia) pretty regularly about lots of stuff (usually minor stuff, like who took out the trash?, but occasionally setting rules and then claiming we didn’t). This causes distress for us because we don’t remember the things we do quite often. And maybe it causes distress for our loved ones who have to question their own reality. Usually, though, everyone is pretty adamant that we are the ones who are inaccurate. It feels awful. We feel defenseless because we do forget so even our recollections can be seen as suspect. Not gaslighting. But not having a shared reality is an unmet need for sure.

    1. I really relate to this. The amnesia means we could easily be “gaslit” should someone want to do that. We are continually doubting our own realities because it’s so easy for others to lie to us and let us blame inconsistencies on the DID.

      1. Wow, hadn’t really considered how vulnerable we are. We stopped arguing with our family and just accept that we probably did do whatever they’re saying. Fortunately, we trust them and their motives and it’s not usually a lot of stuff or major stuff.

      2. Yes! Before I realised I’m part of a DID system, I was fortunate to realise I’ve an incredibly poor memory, and that my Dad had long picked up on it, and so would claim he never said xyz.

        Only realised when I remembered one instance and called him out and he explicitly said he said no such thing even though a witness corroborated.

        Started secretly audio recording verbal abuse incidents and…well… it doesn’t matter if it’s gaslighting or not, he was exploiting my self doubt and daily life amnesia.

    2. I can imagine. Dissociation would certainly pose challenges, but it seems rather unlikely that no one else is also bringing their own stuff to the table.

      1. We found another POC system-friend who wrote about being “created” (unconsciously or not) by their perpetrators to be “overt” and it was both really sad and also a sense of being less alone. We have similar experiences, and it’s incredibly dangerous to have obvious dissociation. Plus share some cultural components (family honour type of patriarchal society) too, so it helped me understand some of the factors which resulted in is being overt.

  7. I think I’ve kind of lost track of what the term actually means, so it was interesting to read this and get a clear picture of how it all started! 🙂

  8. I’m glad you talked about this and thanks for sharing the origin of the term.

    Gaslighting is definitely overused without clear understanding, just like words toxic etc.

    To me gaslighting is a clever and calculated way of manipulating someone to believe what they are seeing hearing and thinking is wrong.
    let’s say A does something horrible to B, and along with that horrible behaviour/action they continuously keep telling B that their judgement is wrong, they are stupid and misunderstands things.

    Gaslighting isn’t an event, it’s a well-planned long-term strategy. nobody can even spot it in early stage. And by the time they realize, A already has made B look mentally unstable to everyone, including B.

      1. Would you say the planning and execution is ever carried out on an unconscious level, a bit like, perhaps, being manipulate without having the insight you are being that way? (Is that even possible, either?) I actually don’t know! Maybe it’s always intentional and calculating with no exceptions.

        1. I don’t see any reason why manipulation couldn’t be carried out unconsciously, but to me that sounds like a different thing from gaslighting. It’s also bad, but figuring out what to do about it is probably going to look different than deciding how to handle someone who’s being intentional about it. I would guess that if someone was being unconsciously manipulative, and they could somehow develop insight into the fact they’re acting that way, there’s a possibility for positive change, whereas if someone’s being manipulative by choice, positive change seems pretty unlikely.

          1. Yea, it’s a good distinction to make. I wonder how easy it is to establish though! I realise manipulation isn’t the same as gaslighting, but I wasn’t sure whether, if unintentional manipulation can occur, maybe unintentional gaslighting can too.

            1. That’s part of why I don’t think the term gaslighting is very useful, because it doesn’t have a clear definition, so it means whatever people think it means.

            2. 😁

              In the end, I think labels matter less than behaviours and the beliefs that are driving them. We all try to influence the people around us; that’s just human. If husband is trying to discredit your reality to manipulate things to his benefit, and he’s telling you the kleenex box is orange when he knows full well it’s green, that’s a pretty tough thing to overcome, because if he wanted to change that, he would have done it already. But if he actually thinks the kleenex box is orange and a therapist can help him see that it’s green at least some of the time, then that’s a pathway to move forward.

            3. Yes, I see what yours saying. Telling the difference between deliberate and not, I guess maybe comes with time🤞 Thanks for explaining this.

  9. Yes, yes, yes!!! Exactly. Thank you for speaking up about this, I’ve been frustrated by the over use of the term for years. I listen to a psychology podcast (psychology in Seattle) and they’ve talked about this a few times, a recent remark was that there are now so many people using the term incorrectly that perhaps we’ll have to accept that socially its definition is changing – a bit like how the word ‘literally’ used to MEAN literally!

  10. This is an awesome post! I often get confused as to what gaslighting truly means because I hear it so often. I agree with your point that it can generally refer to an invalidation of one’s emotions and/or experiences. But so many different cases of “gaslighting” could probably be examined more to determine what’s at play/what’s happening

    1. It kind of reminds me a bit of so many people saying they get depressed, they have anxiety, etc., when using those words to talk about emotions is very different from using them to talk about illness.

  11. I sometimes wonder if we come across a new definition and read it, and we find things we can relate to….but then we sometimes overuse our new “term” to explain all sorts of behaviour from people.
    I have sometimes read things, and although it gave me some insights into the inner workings of my mind, but I have to be careful not to view it to the answer to everything.
    Sorry – it is late here – is that making any sense?

  12. It’s slang that I’ve never even heard of until recently. The slang seems to come from some corner of the internet, and I would like to know where exactly it comes from. Like who invented the term gaslighting anyways? And fleek? And lit? Seriously.

      1. Me too! Maybe we’re just too old to understand 😂 I remember in elementary school everyone used the saying, “that’s so bomb” and “Oh snap!” (A true reflection of my age haha) Now people look at me like I’m crazy. I think “bomb” is the equivalent as “lit.” And some just use emojis.

        ⛽️🔥💣 = gas-lit bombs

  13. Pop psychology seems to be a system by which a certain type of person continually tries to find ways to classify themselves as a victim when what they’re actually talking about is normal human behavior that we all experience regularly. One of the more prevalent criticisms of psychology is that it fragments behavior so much in an attempt to classify everything as a mental illness that nothing is a mental illness because we’re all insane. If we’re all insane, then insanity is normal, and normal can’t be insane.

    You (maybe unintentionally) hinted at something I’ve been thinking about: that there are really two “psychology” fields. There’s the hard-sci psychology that most people are completely uneducated on because reading its documentation requires that one have quasi-doctorates in statistics and biology on top of having read everything written on psychology in the past 100 years. The other psychology, the psychology of Psychology Today, is bullshit (bullshit in the technical sense). A lot of words that don’t really describe anything important. Do you feel tired all the time? Are you unhappy with your life? Do you find no joy in things you used to enjoy? Well that’s because you’re genetically predisposed to be depressed and need to swallow a handful of non-FDA approved and unregulated supplements on top of your SSRI and Ritalin every morning so that you can be normal. It’s totally not because you eat too much, never exercise, and spend all your time on social media.

    El-oh-el.

    1. Pop psychology isn’t actually psychology at all; it’s essentially people talking psychobabble out of their asses. Actual psychology generally uses an empirical approach and there’s a lot of statistics and data crunching involved. It sounds like within the field of actual psychology, they cringe that Joe and Jane Doofus think pop psychology is even remotely connected to it.

      I suspect that people who get their graduate degrees off the back of a cereal box gravitate towards pop psychology because they can act like they know something and write in Psychology Today when they’re really just faking it all the way to the bank. Things like gaslighting and narcissistic abuse go ca-ching ca-ching, but are basically absent if you search a scholarly database.

      The over-pathologizing angle comes more from the field of psychiatry, because they’re the ones coming up with the diagnostic labels. Medicine in general tends to pretty biologically reductionist, so it’s not particularly surprising that psychiatry leans in that direction as well.

      1. Yeah, spot on lol. My friend is a doctoral student in neuropsychology and even when he tries to dumb down the things he is studying for me I have a hard time following

        1. Then you’ve got the law of attraction folks who think they’re quantum physics experts but wouldn’t know an equation if it bit them in the ass…

      1. I think l am times more astonished at some of the terminology today … l was speaking to aged retirees today when volunteering and they were talking about various things – most of them [l was the youngest at 58] were in their mid 70’s and a few were in their late 60’s.

        A small discussion was raised about Woke and Cancel Cultures and l remained silent, because it took me until recently to fully understand Woke … so some of these terms l just look at in confusion.

    1. I think recognizing what’s actually abusive also has implications for the type of help that’s most appropriate to seek out, such as a qualified mental health professional rather than helpers without that level of training.

  14. Really good points! I’ve noticed increasing use of the term in recent times, too, along with other things. Narcissist is another. I actually had no idea the term derived from a film. If this were a modern day film, it wouldn’t be gas lights being dimmed, it would be Alexa remotely dimming the lightbulb. Lightbulbing?

    There’s a part of me that’s glad there’s more acknowledgement around how this happens and what is it, especially as its often the case that ‘victims’, for lack of a better word, are often unaware that what’s going on is a big deal. It happens in the medical world, too, but it depends on your definition of it and what severity you’d glass as ‘gaslighting’. I think there’s the risk, as you say with calling every little thing gaslighting (and in doing so also missing other potential issues), in a similar way that I think ‘anxiety’ is overused and applied in inappropriate situations because it seriously dilutes the very real, very debilitating experiences of those with diagnosable anxiety. xx

    1. For sure. And I would love to see a unique term for the headfucking that the medical world does to patients. Actually, medical headfucking would probably do quite nicely.

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