Gaslighting: What It Is and What It Isn’t

When I was still living with my parents, just before I got married and made my escape from the cult, I almost had a nervous breakdown. I was under tremendous stress, and that on its own was probably enough to drive me a bit batty. But I had more than a little bit of help in reaching a point of actively questioning whether I was going insane.

It started subtly at first, with my parents denying things that had happened years ago—long enough ago that it made sense that we might remember those situations very differently. But then it increased to more and more recent events with my parents painting very different pictures of what had happened than what I remembered. At first, I didn’t think anything malicious was involved, even as I increasingly began to question my ability to remember something accurately even a few hours after it happened.

Then one night, the veil was lifted, and I saw clearly the terrifying reality that my parents were trying to destabilize my sense of reality. The night before, I’d heard the sounds of Pete’s Dragon wafting from the living room to my bedroom. I barely took note of it as I went about doing whatever I was doing. But then the next night, as I walked through the living room, I noticed they were watching it again.

I paused and asked, “Didn’t you just watch this?”

I didn’t need them to tell me that they had. I knew they did. It was more a question of why—why watch the same movie twice in a row?

But they looked at me and feigned confusion, so I clarified, “You watched this last night. I heard you watching it last night. Now you’re watching it again tonight.”

Without missing a beat, they told me, “No, we didn’t watch this last night.” Their faces were calm and direct.

I felt the familiar stirrings of the paranoia I had increasingly been experiencing rising up in me, but I was confident enough in my hearing, if not other aspects of my memory, that I reasserted I had heard the movie playing last night.

They denied it again…and again…and again. I lost count of how many times they told me they hadn’t seen the movie the night before. I knew it was impossible that they wouldn’t remember watching the movie twice in a row, but I never dreamed they would lie to me. The only other explanation was that my mind had officially broken.

I was on the verge of a panic attack and actively wondering if this was the moment I would go insane when their façade broke and they began to giggle, admitting that they had indeed watched the movie the night before. “We’re just playing with you!”

It was that moment that I realized they were actively enjoying my distress. I didn’t know what to call it at the time. It would be years later that I would discover the concept of gaslighting. But I could tell that it was intentional in that moment and that it was designed to unsettle me.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had the “but this happened”/”no it didn’t” argument with them. It wasn’t even the most serious incident because, honestly, them watching a movie twice in two nights had no bearing on my life. But it was the first time they had slipped up enough to lose the mask, their mirth leaking through.

I went back to my room, sick with the knowledge that for sport and control my parents were willing to actively fuck with my sense of sanity, that they were willing to lie to my face about my own experiences…and that they were damned good at it.

They never admitted to doing it again, but I recognized the signs from then on. I could not shake the paranoia they had instilled. Each time it happened again, I felt like my brain was going to snap. I resorted to transcribing conversations in my journal or on my computer immediately after they happened so that I had a record of what was said–and that it had even happened. Eventually I began refusing to have conversations with them without another person to witness, usually my fiancé phoning in over the phone, because I couldn’t trust them and had lost my trust in myself.

To this day, I get sick thinking about how close they came to causing a psychotic break in me. There are no words to describe the horror of feeling like your mind is someone else’s play thing.

Today, I see so many social justice activists tossing around the word “gaslighting” for anything and everything, and it concerns me to see how watered down the word has become.

Gaslighting is a terrifying and extreme experience. It’s a very serious form of abuse. But it isn’t what many people are using the word for.

Samantha Field has also spoken out on this issue, and I want to acknowledge that she has some great things to say but I want to expand on what gaslighting is and is not because I think it’s vital that social justice and the left stop using this word as a catch-all.

Gaslighting is not disagreeing with someone. It’s not disagreeing with their worldview, holding a different perspective from them on sensitive issues, or actively disagreeing with their interpretation of politics and society.

If someone thinks something is a result of sexism, it’s not gaslighting for another person to disagree with that and think that they’re misinterpreting what they experienced. That might feel silencing, demeaning, infantilizing, minimizing, and a whole lot of other things, but it’s not gaslighting.

It isn’t gaslighting someone to disagree with their interpretation of yours or someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions. None of us are mind-readers and none of us can know the internal experience of someone else. There is room to disagree when someone else is purporting to know what a person who isn’t themselves is thinking, feeling, or intending.

It isn’t even gaslighting to remember the same situation in different ways. People’s memories are made of what their brains perceived as salient at the time; therefore, it isn’t uncommon for two people to have been in the same situation and have different memories of that situation.

In a similar vein, gaslighting isn’t forgetting details of a conversation, encounter, or event that another person seems to remember well. (This is where it took me some time to recognize it happening to me because there was a genuine chance that my parents didn’t remember something from five years ago the way I did. There’s also a chance I could have encoded my interpretation as opposed to the actual words that were said).

It’s not gaslighting trying to persuade or influence someone to agree with you using emotionally persuasive or manipulative tactics. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, but not all manipulation is gaslighting.

I’ll even go so far as to say that denial and lying aren’t inherently gaslighting because gaslighting is a far more sinister technique that goes beyond merely trying to escape accountability.

Gaslighting is a campaign to undermine a person’s sense of sanity by making them actively question their ability to trust their memories and sensory perceptions (e.g. what they hear, see, smell, etc.). And it requires a relationship where the gaslighting person is in a position of trust and uses that trust to break down a person’s own ability to reality check themselves.

The term comes from a movie in which a husband actively drives his wife to the brink of insanity by insidious toying with her environment such as removing things from his wife’s purse and pretending she removed the thing and doesn’t remember doing so or causing noises and sputtering lights but then pretending that his wife isn’t seeing what she saw or hearing what she heard.

It’s part of what makes Shutter Island so terrifying, wondering if DiCaprio’s character has just been insane the whole time or if it’s all an elaborate plot to convince him he is because he knows too much. Once they can convince him he’s insane, they can control him.

This is not a tool in the average person’s tool box. It’s calculated and deliberately orchestrated. It’s not something a stranger can implement. It requires time…first to build up the victim’s trust in the perpetrator and then to erode the trust of the victim in themselves. I believe that’s important for people to understand.

As Samantha points out, misusing the term “gaslighting” whenever a discussion becomes uncomfortable and triggering waters down the meaning, but I’d also say that it discredits the word as well. People will remember being accused of “gaslighting” unjustly or seeing someone else unjustly accused of it, and it will influence how seriously they’ll take the concept.

Abuse survivors have a hard enough time as it is being believed when they disclose that they’ve been abused in various ways. False accusations, though comprising a small percentage of accusations, manage to undermine the credibility of all accusations.

In other words, those who cry wolf don’t just damage their own credibility, they damage the credibility of everyone who is watching out for wolves.

Which means we have to be careful about how we use terms that connote abuse like “gaslighting” (or “violence,” which could be a whole post on its own). We cannot allow these terms to come to mean merely that someone has made us uncomfortable by disagreeing, has stimulated difficult emotions, or has inadvertently triggered past trauma.

Those of us who know what it is have a responsibility to speak out when we see it being misused or misapplied. Otherwise, we assist the wolves. People will get so used to hearing “wolf!” that they’ll stop paying attention. They won’t see that someone is being psychologically eaten.

EDIT: my partner pointed out a caveat in which trust may not be present but extreme dependency is. I think it’s fair to say that in instances in which someone has power over defining someone else’s environment, as in the case of captivity, that gaslighting can happen in the absence of trust. The captive may not trust the captor but may not have another source of reality testing and validation available. For most people, that is not a circumstance they will encounter.

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