On gaslighting

I hear the term “gaslighting” being bantered around when people disagree. Sadly, the meaning of the word isn’t so simple. The word definition doesn’t even have anything to do with either “gas” or “light.” Gaslighting someone is a subtle manipulative technique. It’s playing the slow, long game for personal gain.

The term gaslighting originated from a 1938 play of a similar name, “Gas Light,” by British playwright Richard Hamilton. The play produced two movie versions of the same name. Classified as a thriller, the play focuses on a calculating husband who convinces his wife she imagines any unusual sounds and dimming of the house gas lights as he secretly searches their house to steal her aunt’s jewels. The repetitive nature of the husband’s deceit drives the wife close to insanity as she doubts her perception. Do not fear! A detective visits her while tracking down a murderer (suspenseful music plays.)

According to Merriam-Webster, the term gaslighting has slightly altered since its introduction in 1938. Gaslighting is the act of psychologically manipulating someone over an extended period so that the victim questions the validity of their thoughts, perception of reality, or memories. The abuser grossly misleads someone, especially for one’s advantage. “Gaslighting” even received the coveted award of 2022 most searched Word of the Year.

Gaslighting is the repetitive whisper of self-doubt in an age of perceived fake news, online comment bots and misinformation. According to Psychology Today, gaslighters are motivated by two main traits: To avoid responsibility for their behavior and to dominate their victims’ actions.

The manipulation can start with love-bombing — the intense shower of attention at the beginning of a relationship that allows the exploiter to gain power. The next stage is separating the victim from family and friends or demonstrating unpredictable behavior. The third stage is the abuse of trust, in which a gaslighter withholds communication to exert control.

True gaslighting may be challenging to determine, but recognizing it is essential. In the article “When It Might Not Be Gaslighting,” psychologist Ahona Guha says to start by asking the question, “What does this person have to gain or lose from this behavior?” Look for reasons such as gaining something (money or status) or losing something (job, relationship, status). It also involves a long pattern of similar behavior, not just a singular incident or misunderstanding. Search for the intentional and repeated denial of experiences and reality, but to the benefit of the person gaslighting.

We all have our memories, and those stories will differ based on our experiences. Memory is not exact but a recollection of our interpretations, history, and biases. People will continue to banter around gaslighting as we maneuver through social media, friendships, politics, and relationships. Look for answers to the question, “What does this person have to gain or lose?”

Be safe.


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