Are We Using The Term ‘Gaslighting’ Wrong?

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
A woman holding hands on her face and crying because of her husband's gaslighting

I probably come across the term several times per day, often in the context of failed or troubled relationships. One member of the couple will accuse the other of “gaslighting” or “being a gaslighter.” We understand this accusation to mean that the other person is being deliberately manipulative, even to the point of causing the accuser to question their perception of reality. The term “gaslighter” came about after the 1944 Movie “Gaslight,” in which a man slowly and deliberately convinces his wife she’s losing her mind, in part by telling her, when she questions why their gas-powered lights are dimming, that she’s imagining things.

“Gaslighting” is a buzzword these days for sure, but are we always using it correctly? Well, maybe sometimes not. In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Stephanie Sarkis explains that sometimes what may feel like gaslighting may in reality be manipulation, disagreement, or even someone just being a jerk. Gaslighting is decidedly jerky behavior, but jerky behavior does not always entail gaslighting.

It can be a fine line sometimes, but, according to Sarkis, who wrote the book “Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free,” there are two key elements in gaslighting: Getting a person to question their own reality, and doing so with intention.

Gaslighting is a type of manipulation, but manipulation is not necessarily gaslighting.

Harassment, criticism, and coercion are all types of manipulation, but none of them are gaslighting unless they contain an element of making the target question their reality or their sanity.

For example, if one partner tells another that they’re stupid or worthless with the intent to gain control over them, that is abusive criticism. It’s a good reason to leave a relationship, but it’s not gaslighting unless part of the criticism requires the accused partner to question what they think they know. Without that piece, it’s simply controlling, manipulative, abusive behavior — which obviously is bad enough on its own.

But gaslighting is more insidious than announcing, “You’re stupid!” It’s more like, “You got straight A’s in high school? But didn’t you go to a tiny, underfunded school in a bad neighborhood?” A gaslighter intentionally generates scenarios in which the target feels stupid so that they question every other instance where they felt confident about their intelligence. Eventually they begin to doubt what they think they know about reality and even themself. This puts them in a position of being easy to control, because they don’t trust their own decision-making ability.

Gaslighting is a type of disagreement, but disagreement is rarely gaslighting.

If you find that you and your partner sometimes remember things differently and then argue about it, that’s super normal — as long as it doesn’t lead to one partner degrading the other or someone beginning to question their sanity. It’s simply a disagreement. Memories are fallible and it’s incredibly common for two people to have disparate impressions of past events. Hell, it’s even common for two people to have disparate impressions of current events. Disagreeing about the state of things, even vehemently, is not gaslighting. If someone is telling you you’re wrong, you’re not necessarily being gaslit. You may simply be dealing with an extremely frustrating difference in perspective.

However, if your partner disagrees with you in a way that causes you to question your reality, or if they deny something happened even when you have evidence to prove that it did, you may be being gaslit. I once had a partner whom, whenever it was made clear to him that he’d done something rude or inappropriate, he would want to “review what happened.” Then he would retell the story in a way that absolved himself of guilt and threw doubt on my memory, even if I had a written record or other proof of what had occurred. Even if I showed him the proof. When faced with irrefutable proof, he would then alter the story further or claim that I had simply misunderstood him. The shifts in reality were so sudden and insistent that I would be shocked into speechlessness. How do you resolve conflicts with a person who is constantly shifting reality? You can’t — because it’s gaslighting.

Is Intent Always Part Of It?

I would argue, however, that one person can gaslight another without premeditated malicious intent. Dr. Sarkis, in her interview with Psychology Today, was emphatic that gaslighting must be done with knowing intent — a purposeful attempt to control the other person. Dr. Ahona Guha points out in another Psychology Today article that though it’s intentional and malicious, gaslighting can be done without the gaslighter’s conscious awareness. One person can try to control another in horrible, devious ways without having a clear awareness of the specific tactics they’re using.

I think this is important to note. Many years have passed, but I still don’t believe my former partner was intentionally gaslighting me. Nevertheless, he vehemently rearranged and retold events to the point that I began to doubt my own sanity. Truly, I started to believe I must be the irrational one. How could he be so sure all the time? Maybe I was the one who was too certain. Maybe I needed to start questioning myself more, not trust my own memory so much.

His motives at the time weren’t clear. It felt as though he simply needed to be right, all the time, and would do or say whatever it took to achieve that, even if it meant lying, and even if it meant I ended up wondering if I was “crazy.” He wasn’t trying to control me in a specific, malicious way — it was more of a rigid, overarching need to dictate the plot.

So, we may sometimes go overboard with our accusations of gaslighting. Sometimes, in our anger, it may be tempting to fling accusations that are a bit off the mark.

And yet I still think we should trust ourselves. If you’re with a person who makes you feel less-than, who makes you question your sense of reality or what you know to be true, listen to that gut instinct. Keep a circle of trusted friends near to help you see clearly in moments of self-doubt. You may be dealing with a gaslighter. You may just be dealing with an asshole. Either way, you deserve to be happy.

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