So, this is inspired by my favourite podcast (besides my own!)- Ladies and Tangents, plus a few discussions with those around me who didn’t know what this word meant but once they understood, finally had a word for a thing that had 100% been done to them.
TW: Discussions of abuse
Let’s start with some definitions
Good old Wikipedia defines it as:
Gaslighting is a colloquialism that is defined as making someone question their reality.
The term is also used informally to describe someone (a “gaslighter”) who persistently puts forth a false narrative which leads another person (or a group of people) to doubt their own perceptions to the extent that they become disorientated and distressed. This dynamic is generally only possible when the audience is vulnerable such as in unequal power relationships or when the audience is fearful of the losses associated with challenging the false narrative. Gaslighting is not necessarily malicious or intentional, although in some cases it is
Then, this definition from health line is top of the google search on the topic:
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that’s seen in abusive relationships. It’s the act of manipulating a person by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them. A victim of gaslighting can be pushed so far that they question their own sanity.
The term “gaslighting” comes from a play and subsequent movie called “Gaslight.” In the movie, the devious husband, played by Charles Boyer, manipulates and torments his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, to convince her she’s going mad.
Gaslighting, whether intentional or not, is a form of manipulation. Gaslighting can happen in many types of relationships, including those with bosses, friends, and parents. But one of the most devastating forms of gaslighting is when it occurs in a relationship between a couple.
I could have googled that but I still don’t get what it means…
So, let me give the most innocuous example I can think of, that’s not weighted with the extra implications of abuse.
“You left the milk out fo the fridge last night.”
“No, I didn’t, I definitely remember putting it away.”
“Well I was first down this morning and you definitely didn’t.”
“No because I remember almost forgetting and I came back down to do it.”
“Maybe you meant to and got distracted and forgot?”
“I don’t think I did…”
“Well you must have done because how else would the milk be on the side, did it walk out of the fridge?”
So, there’s no obvious power dynamic in the speakers here but can you see how person one (italics) contradicts person two’s perception of the reality to the point where they question their own memories, until they eventually concede that their own version of events could be entirely made up. Even though they have distinct memory of coming back downstairs, person one has over written that reality, making person two doubt their own memories and accept person two as correct, despite the dissonance this creates.
That is gaslighting its simplest form, without getting too heavy on the toxic elements.
Gaslighting can be found in the workplace, in education, in family relationships, friendships and romantic relationships. Additionally, entire groups of people can be gaslit. An example of this can be found in the BLM protests last year, where an entire group of people were speaking out on a universal experience (police brutality) and yet their reality is questioned and undermined with statements such as ‘one bad apple’, ‘I’ve never seen a cop do that’ and ‘I know a cop and he and his colleagues are disgusted by what that guy did, they would never”.
Essentially, any situation where there is a power imbalance, can be vulnerable to gaslighting behaviour.
For most, gaslighting is either a prelude to further abuse, or it goes hand in hand with other types of abuse. A great example of this can be seen in the new Netflix series ‘Maid’, a quote from which I think has the greatest relevance here is ‘before they bite, they bark‘.
Gaslighting when it turns abusive can be used to pick apart a person from the inside. Destabilising their sense of self and their own sense of reality, until they are entirely reliant on their abuser for guidance and ‘fact checking’ of what is true and what isn’t. This can be used to trapped the abused person and isolate them from family and friends.
The thing is, that all sounds incredibly shocking and you might be asking yourself, how can someone allow that to be done to them and not know it is happening? But, you have to understand it is psychological manipulation and it doesn’t start out with ‘you aren’t remembering that right, I didn’t hit you, you fell’.
It starts out with innocent lesser things:
‘When we’re having a discussion about something, please don’t shout, I don’t like it and I don’t want the neighbours to hear‘
‘I wasn’t shouting.”
‘Yes, you were.’
‘I wasn’t shouting, you’re always so dramatic. If we’re arguing my voice is going to be raised.”
‘You weren’t ‘raising your voice’, you were yelling.’
‘No. I wasn’t. Anyway, it’s your fault if the neighbours heard something, if you don’t want me to shout don’t do shit that makes me mad, we talked about it and you did it anyway. So if you don’t like me shouting, don’t do stuff like that.’
‘So, you’re admitting that you were yelling?”
‘No. I’m admitting that you’re being dramatic and pissing me off again, for no reason. Who doesn’t care about the fucking neighbours now, eh?’
etc etc. I’m not going to write out the whole thing, I’m just trying to demonstrate how it can be used to make someone question their reality. Not only is person two in this scenario telling person one (italics) that their memory is false, they are also telling them that their emotional reaction is false and that if they had received a negative reaction that it was their fault anyway and so they have no right to their reaction.
It’s destabilising person one’s reality on several fronts, so that they will be left thinking after this fight: ‘I shouldn’t have bought it up, we just had another fight that was my fault, maybe they weren’t really yelling and I’m being dramatic, I always ruin perfectly good evenings, I just shouldn’t have said anything.’ Thus begins the cycle of accepting behaviour they would otherwise find unacceptable.
But can you imagine how that could escalate over time? I’m super not ready to talk about my experience of this in a relationship to strangers on the internet but I can promise you that it causes extreme dissonance between your sense of self and reality vs the one you’re coerced into adopting as your own.
The Workplace- this is where it’s a little more nuanced
Now let’s talk about the workplace. Gaslighting in this form can be used manipulate an employee into poor working conditions, convincing them to be over worked and underpaid. I think it’s easy to imagine yourself in the position of needing to ask for a raise and being told you didn’t deserve it, didn’t have ‘enough experience’ or that you weren’t capable of doing it. Which you accept, despite knowing it’s false, otherwise you most likely wouldn’t have asked.
The way this escalates from harmless to dangerous, is when an employee is manipulated into accepting unsafe, uncomfortable or inconvenient situations. I.e. ‘everyone does extra shifts without overtime, it doesn’t matter that it’s not in your contract, if you don’t do it your hours get cut, everyone else does it so why can’t you cope with it?’, or ‘no-one takes their breaks because it’s seen as a sign of slacking off, creating a misery competition, where the most burnt-out person = the most dedicated’.
I’m not able to go in depth with my experience of this because I don’t want it to get back to the workplace in question but you must understand how dangerous gaslighting can be in any type of relationship, whether person or professional.
A conclusion of sorts
I realise I’ve given very few in-depth examples on the different ways it presents, as I didn’t want to speak on something like I understood it from the inside when I didn’t because that would be disingenuous, or, I am simply not willing to discuss that online just yet. If anyone wants to/ feels safe to comment examples from the other types I listed at the start, however, please do. I just wanted to begin a conversation.
I’ve found that the google definitions and articles don’t give it enough depth. It implies the manipulator set out to do this with conscious thought but often, gaslighting is an unconscious behaviour that we are all guilty of at some point in our lives. Please listen to The Ladies and Tangents Episode on either Gaslighting, or the Trauma Bonding part one and part two, they explain it much better than I do.
Finally, if anything you’ve read here has struck a cord with you, please do what you can to remove or distance yourself from that situation if you’re able to and be safe. I am not a mental health professional or anything like that, so please seek the proper resources for help if you need it. I just know that having a word for something that you have experienced is powerful and felt it was important to talk about.
p.s. I have done a few more serious, slightly more informative style rants now, which I don’t think fit the ‘sarcasm diaries category’, so I’ve created a brand new one called serious thoughts that I will be moving some of the older ones into as well.