It’s 8.30PM, you’re at your mate’s house hungover as sin and she’s trying to convince you that you’d rather eat a pizza over a Chinese takeaway. “Stop gaslighting me!” you exclaim and everyone in the room laughs. Anyone who has invested a part of themselves into being funny on the internet (AKA all of us) knows this joke. Exaggerating the meaning of gaslighting – a psychology term defined by therapist and behaviour analyst Laurie Singer as “when one person is trying to make another person question their own perceptions of reality” – has, for better or worse, become a funny bit. Advertisement
Kidding about this serious topic stems from a saturation of people misusing the term gaslighting online and in turn, meme-ifying a type of behaviour that is typically done intentionally and as part of a cycle of abuse. It follows a long and ignoble tradition of technical therapy terms being misused online (see: calling influencers clinical narcissists) and treads the line between raising awareness of the behaviour and causing confusion around what it actually entails. To clear matters up, here’s a deep dive into what gaslighting is, what gaslighting isn’t and how to deal with gaslighting if it happens.
What is gaslighting?
The term itself originates from a play titled Gas Light, premiered in 1938, which was adapted twice for the movies. (The more celebrated adaptation is the 1944 remake Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, for the pub quiz heads out there.) In each version, the husband is convincing his wife that she’s gone insane by telling her that she’s imagining things that are actually happening – the crucial one involving the dimming of their home’s gas lights.
As Singer put it earlier, gaslighting is a form of manipulation that tries to influence how another person sees the world around them. It’s done primarily through verbal communication, with the gaslighter making their victim doubt themselves and their memory. Advertisement
Over email, interpersonal relationship coach and psychologist John Kenny explains that it is, at its core, about control. “Gaslighting is a form of emotional or mental abuse and happens when someone is trying to make you question your own thoughts, actions and emotions in order to gain control over you and your relationship,” he says. “They want you to question yourself so that they can appear to be right all of the time and act as they want around you.”
Singer gives this example of gaslighting on a smaller scale: Picture a parent who feels their child eats too much and wants them to eat less. The child says that they’re hungry and the parent responds by saying “You can’t be hungry – you just ate” even though the last time they scoffed anything was three hours ago.
A parent might be doing this unconsciously, but it’s gaslighting nonetheless. In this situation, they’re not only controlling the food their kid is eating, but controlling how the child perceives their hunger as well as influencing their relationship with food.
What gaslighting isn’t
While gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, all emotional abuse doesn’t come under the category of gaslighting. Because gaslighting is a specific behaviour used by one person against another, it’s a little simplistic to call all forms of control gaslighting. It might be fun to laugh at chronic mis-diagnosers online, but we’re not helping abuse victims by continuing to confuse what this term does and doesn’t mean.
“Dismissing someone’s opinion, personal attacks like name calling, posturing in a threatening way or even physical abuse” do not count as gaslighting, Singer tells VICE. “Gaslighting is more about a sustained, systematic strategy to try and change someone’s perspective or feelings in a way where they become malleable and dependent. The gaslighter plays on someone’s sense of self-worth and perspectives.”Advertisement
Kenny adds: “It can be mistaken for gaslighting when someone is trying to get you to see their point of view, or wants you to act in a certain way and puts pressure on you to do so. This is not gaslighting unless they do this all of the time and go about it in an underhanded way.” He emphasizes the importance of recognising this kind of coercion as an individual moment or a pattern of behaviour – that’s the crucial difference between this kind of heavy-handed persuasion and gaslighting.
In short: Being gaslit isn’t a one-off. It’s a continual denial of your recollection of reality.
Five signs someone is gaslighting you
Kenny has a quick and comprehensive list of signs to look out for if you think you’re being gaslit:
- They never listen to your opinion
- They keep telling you that you’re wrong
- You’re always apologising
- You feel full of self-doubt
- You start relying on them to make your decisions
If these all add up, it is likely a indication that you are being gaslit.
When someone – your partner, a friend, a family member – is making you feel unsure of your memories, that’s also a key sign of gaslighting. Reframing the way we think about ourselves is the goal of the gaslighter, and making you see your thoughts and memories as somehow “wrong” is the main way they do this. It can be as simple as telling you that you were embarrassing yourself the night prior because you were blackout drunk, even though you remember being tipsy and having a good time, or deliberately misremembering an argument and accusing you of hurling insults that you never said. These small acts of misrepresentation build up to an assumption that they are usually right and you are usually wrong.
Another tactic to look out for is when someone consistently minimizes your feelings. Singer warns to keep an eye out for anyone who “constantly downplays or reframes your emotions”. He adds: “It can come in the form of ‘You’re too sensitive’ or ‘I was just kidding’ or “Relax. It’s not a big deal.” By making you feel like you’re overreacting, the gaslighter can control how you feel about them.
As a natural progression from controlling your emotions and memories, gaslighting also includes shifting the blame. Just like being told repeatedly that you overreact, the gaslighter may also accuse you of being harmful. This could be down to projecting their own fears of being an abuser – but it also reinforces your own self-doubt, which they can use to their own advantage.
What to do if you are being gaslit
Once you’ve recognized you are being gaslit, try to get space from the situation and speak to others about what is happening – if possible, cut the person out of your life. Singer and Kenny recommend reaching out to a professional mental health specialist for help with next steps