The word "gaslighting" has become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly in the realm of relationships and communication. “Gaslighting” was named as the word of the year in 2022 by Merriam-Webster. You have undoubtedly heard the term and likely also used it, but do you understand what it actually means… and why it can be harmful?
Let’s dig in!
Gaslighting: psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator
Gaslighting is a term describing one person manipulating another person using psychological methods and getting them to question their own sanity or powers of reasoning. In 2022 the number of internet searches on the term exploded. The term actually originated in 1944, from a movie called Gaslight in which the lovely Ingrid Bergman marries a man who is controlling and convinces her that she is physically and mentally ill. Part of the way he does this is to adjust the flow of gas to the house lights, resulting in the light flickering eerily at night, and then he tells her that she is seeing things.
Language evolves and words take on new meanings as they are used. Sometimes that results in a word being over-used and applied in situations that are not relevant to the original use of the work, effectively rendering the word meaningless. That is happening now with the term “gaslighting”. That saddens and frustrates me personally, as well as professionally.
Recently, people are using the term gaslighting to describe anything that they find objectionable. Humans gravitate toward pleasure and demonize anything uncomfortable. This leads to overuse of terms like "gaslighting" and is an early step toward what we now know as “cancel culture”.
So how has the word "gaslighting" become problematic as its use has exploded?
1. It can minimize the experiences of those who have genuinely been subjected to gaslighting abuse.
At its core, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory and perception. This can have serious and long-lasting effects on the victim, leading to feelings of confusion, anxiety, and intense self-doubt.However, when the word "gaslighting" is overused or misused as a catch-all term for any type of manipulation, it can dilute the true severity of the term and minimize the experiences of those who have genuinely been subjected to gaslighting abuse. Not all instances of manipulation or persuasion qualify as gaslighting.
2. It can deflect responsibility and shut down the conversation.
It's easy to point the finger at someone else and accuse them of gaslighting, but it's much harder to take a hard look at one's own behavior and acknowledge how it may be impacting others. Using the label of "gaslighting" can be a way to deflect responsibility and avoid difficult conversations. It also shuts down the opportunity for accountability.
3. It can create division and conflict.
Accusing someone of gaslighting can be a serious and inflammatory statement, and it can create division and conflict in relationships and conversations. It's important to approach communication with an open and non-judgmental mindset and to avoid using language that is loaded and divisive.
4. It's not always accurate or helpful.
When people use the label of "gaslighting" to describe a situation that doesn't fit the definition of the term, it can make it more difficult to have a productive conversation. Instead, using this term can shut down the conversation. Instead, lean in with curiousity and try to keep the conversation moving forward.
When communicating with another person, it's essential to create a safe and non-judgmental space if you want your message to be heard and respected. Instead of immediately jumping to a label such as "gaslighting," it can be more productive to have a curious, honest and open-minded approach to communication. This means being willing to listen to others and consider their perspectives, even if they differ from our own. It also means being willing to take responsibility for our own actions and being open to feedback. Once someone feels heard and respected, they will in turn be more able to listen to you and offer you respect as well.