What Exactly Is Gaslighting? The Term, Explained
A psychologist breaks down the often misused word.
Gaslighting might not be a new term, but it is one that has been thrown around a lot in recent times. Having said that, it’s not always used correctly, and with each incorrect use of the phrase comes the risk of trivialising the true meaning of the word and how it impacts people dealing with the reality of it in their relationships.
So, to help make sense of the commonly misused term and what it really means, we consulted Ash King, a psychologist and content manager at The Indigo Project, for a complete breakdown of gaslighting and what it really looks like.
What is gaslighting?
“Gaslighting is a type of emotional manipulation and abuse, that aims to distort someone’s perception of reality. The term comes from the 1940’s Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight, where a husband convinces his wife she’s going mad in order to steal from her),” says King
Is there a difference between gaslighting and just being ‘manipulative’? What are some examples?
“Gaslighting is really a form of control, whereby another person is actively trying to distort your understanding and interpretation of your own lived experience and emotional truth,” King explains.”While manipulation can be employed for a number of reasons, gaslighting is mainly about forcing another person to question their own memory, perception, feelings and sanity. An example would be, when you clearly communicate the facts of a past situation to someone, and they say ‘That never happened, you made that up. I didn’t do that’.”
Is gaslighting always intentional or can people be unaware that they are doing it?
This is where things get tricky, as this term has been used rather liberally lately and at times, applied simply when one person’s perception or interpretation of a particular situation does not match someone else’s (which is generally quite common), King emphasises. “We should be mindful of diluting the severity of gaslighting,” she says. “While it might not always be intentional, it is characterised by a chaotic interaction of denial, misdirection, lying, and, on the flip-side, love-bombing and elaborate displays of attention and affection. It can be administered in subtle ways, and its intent to is undermine and erode an individual’s sense of self-worth and their perception of reality.”
How do you spot gaslighting in a relationship?
According to King, there are a number of signs to watch for if you think you’re being gaslighted. They include the following: Gaslighting might be happening when a person in any kind of relationship:
- Tells blatant lies or stories that don’t add up
- Their behaviour doesn’t match what they say or the promises they make
- They deny things, even when presented with proof to the contrary
- They use phrases to undermine your sense of reality, including “You’re crazy”, “That never happened”, “You’re being too sensitive”, “You’re psycho”, “You don’t remember that correctly”
- They act inconsistently, putting you down one minute, and showering you with love and affection the next
- They act defensively or aggressively when confronted about bad behaviour
- They try to speak on your behalf, and distort your understanding or interpretation of past events