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What is Gaslighting? | Little Gay Book

What is Gaslighting?

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Navigating dating, sex and relationships has, in recent years, meant learning a lot of new vocab words. From “avoidant” to “trauma-bonding,” a lot of the pop psych we use to talk about how people form romantic relationships have bled into our broader collective life. Perhaps no term has taken off so decisively as “gaslighting” — something that’s now used to describe everything from political discourse to a restaurant menu in an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But what does gaslighting actually mean — and why is it important to know about in the context of its original meaning, interpersonal relationships?

Why is it called “gaslighting”?

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To understand what the term gaslighting means and how we use it today, it helps to understand its origin. In the 1944 film Gaslight, a young woman’s, played by Ingrid Bergman, new husband begins calling her experiences and memories into question. He says he thinks she’s suffering from kleptomania, and that she’s stolen items from friends and from him — later, she finds those items in her own possession, though she can’t remember taking them. He tells her that events or items she does remember — like a cryptic letter — never existed. Her perception of reality is altered. 

Crucially, as the young wife notices the gas-powered lighting in their home flickering on and off, her husband tells her she’s imagining it; he doesn’t see any problem with the lights. He tells her that her late mother actually had a mental illness she was institutionalized for, and the woman begins to believe she is in fact crazy and not a reliable narrator of reality.

In fact, the new husband is a criminal and a murderer — he’s only married the woman to get access to her house, because he believes there’s treasure hidden inside it. All of the preceding events of the film have been a concerted effort to make his wife believe she’s insane in order to disempower her as a potential threat, to isolate her from others, and to make sure any accusations she makes against him aren’t taken seriously.

What does gaslighting look like?

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Looking at the source text, we can see that gaslighting refers to when someone intentionally and systematically calls into question someone’s real experiences, with the express purpose of making them doubt their own sense of reality and/or make them appear unreliable to others. This psychological manipulation is a sign of a toxic relationship. 

This dynamic crops up most frequently in domestic abuse relationships or dynamics, whether in a family context or a romantic one. It might look like an abusive partner consistently hiding your car keys or wallet, and then telling you “you always forget where you put it;” it could be a family member telling you you’ve said or done things that you don’t remember and that are contrary to your values, and then feigning concern about your mental health or memory when you disagree with their account. In these circumstances, gaslighting is 1) repeated and persistent, 2) does not offer any immediate gain to the person perpetrating it, and 3) has the primary goal of calling your reliability into question.

Examples of gaslighting include your partner saying things like:

  • “I think you’re overreacting.”
  • “Don’t you think that’s a little dramatic?”
  • “Come on, you know that’s not what happened.”

What is gaslighting not?

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It’s important to note gaslighting is different than simply lying (although that’s still bad!). Gaslighting extends beyond simply telling someone something you know to be untrue; it’s a form of manipulation that often involves lying about something with no obvious benefit, systematically and consistently over a period of time, while suggesting tacitly or explicitly that the core of the issue is the target’s ability to correctly make sense of things. 

The goal of gaslighting is less to get away with a specific lie or pass off a specific untruth, but to psychologically destabilize the other person. Gaslighting also doesn’t usually accomplish an immediate aim — it’s a long-term strategy to discredit another person as a corollary to a bigger project. 

Thus, a politician claiming they reduced violent crime when data shows the opposite, or even backtracking on a statement everyone heard them make, isn’t gaslighting — it’s just lying. And although it can be very frustrating and even toxic, your partner telling you they didn’t do or say something that you know they did usually isn’t gaslighting either. However, it could be a precursor to gaslighting or other toxic, manipulative forms of abuse.

What should you do if you recognize signs of gaslighting in your life?

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The core of the experience of being gaslit is not feeling like you can trust your own perceptions or experiences — it can be crucial to bring in a new perspective you trust to help you stay connected to reality. If you feel unsure of your reality or the relationships in your life, working with a trusted therapist is key. A professional counselor can help you make sense of what’s happening and give you an expert view on the real dynamics at play in your relationship.

If you’re in a dynamic with a risk of gaslighting that you can’t easily remove yourself from, it can be helpful to begin documenting things: take screenshots of text or email conversations, write things down as they happen or as they’re said, tell others about even difficult experiences or conversations so that they can serve as an objective record if these experiences are later called into question.

If this dynamic is ongoing and shows no sign of abating, it’s time to think about whether you need to stay in relationship with this person. If it’s a relationship that’s harder to ‘end,’ like an immediate family member, it’s crucial to start thinking about what boundaries you can maintain for yourself to limit the harm this person may cause.

For More Articles Check Out These Recent Posts:

Domestic Violence and Abuse in Lesbian Relationships

How to Set Boundaries that Actually Work

Is My Partner Clingy, or Do I Just Have Avoidant Attachment

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