Gaslighting is one of those terms that, thanks to social media, has entered the lexicon without most people actually knowing what it is.
Whether it’s done on a personal level by a loved one, or on a national scale by our political leaders, actual gaslighting is insidious and akin to bullying. It’s vile. And it’s a million miles away from the gripes of many of the people on Quora or Reddit, who are often just ax-grinding.
Taking one or two isolated incidents and then using them as evidence of an individual’s mental state, and accusing them of committing emotional manipulation, isn’t just muddying the waters, it’s a watering-down of a psychological mind-game that can wreak genuine havoc on an individual’s mental state.
It’s high time to begin redressing that balance and taking gaslighting more seriously before the term becomes so diluted that it loses all its currency.
So, what is gaslighting? Well, there are lots of things it’s not.
There’s not a human on this planet who hasn’t hurt another, or told a lie, or omitted a truth, or inadvertently invalidated the feelings of another. Doing those things does not mean you’re indulging in gaslighting—it just means you’re human and you’ve screwed up.
I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t rewritten a story from their past to paint themselves in a better light. Again, not evidence of gaslighting; just you doing something we’ve all done.
And I’ve yet to encounter anyone who hasn’t, whether consciously or not, attempted to try and manipulate someone else.
That last sentence may seem incredibly uncharitable, but who hasn’t—at some point—employed flattery or praise to make another view them more fondly? Sorry, folks, but that’s manipulation. Human beings manipulate; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have survived. It’s a natural impulse.
However, doing these things doesn’t mean you are gaslighting. And, if you have ever done any of these things, you’re still an incredibly long way from being a narcissist. It just means you’re human. A flawed creature who is often driven by impulses you don’t fully understand. A flawed human who doesn’t consciously set out to hurt another, but probably has done so, and who, at some stage of their lives, has employed some form of psychological manipulation without being aware that you have.
Gaslighting is different.
The internet is awash with definitions, but I prefer the following:
“A subtle form of emotional manipulation that often results in the recipient doubting their perception of reality and their sanity.” ~ Dr. Gabriela Sadurní Rodríguez
For a start, this tells you that, unlike the examples listed above (which are often prompted by subconscious motivations), gaslighting is very much a conscious action.
As a result, it’s also likely to be a pattern of behavior. Doing all of the things listed above doesn’t make you a gaslighter—but doing them consistently might.
People who gaslight aren’t automatically narcissists. Given the complexity in accurately diagnosing narcissism, and that there doesn’t seem to a binding consensus on the term anyway, I’m going to shy away from this particular word. Instead, I am going to simply say that both share several common characteristics.
The most obvious being an inability to see another’s point of view. As a result, at the heart of gaslighting is invalidation. What they want, what they feel, and what they say matters so much that what you want, what you feel, and what you say simply don’t. Dismissal awaits you at every turn.
So how does gaslighting manifest itself? It’s in the words they use, and the stock phrases you’ll hear them say repeatedly. Again, we’ve all probably used these at one point or another. The gaslighter, however, uses them a lot.
If you want to know if you’ve been the victim of gaslighting, you need to consider little more than whether you’ve heard these words said to any degree of frequency:
1. “I never did that.” / “I never said that.” / “I can’t remember that.” / “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” / “You’re rewriting history.”
Deniability is the gaslighter’s default position; they never accept culpability for the things they’ve done wrong. If you raise something they’ve said or done that’s caused you hurt, the easiest thing for them to do is just deny it ever happened. Easy.
It can be confusing when you first encounter this; huge, massive events suddenly just didn’t happen, and you’re left bewildered at what’s just taken place. But, for the gaslighter, it’s a handy way never to never have to address anything they don’t want to.
However, these words have another, more insidious, effect. You’ve now been cast in the role of liar: You’re now the one who’s morally in the wrong. Instead of having a conversation about something they’ve done wrong, you’re now having to defend yourself and your version of events.
More than that, how many times do you need to hear that before you do begin to question your own memory? You might be certain things happened as you remember them, but if someone tells you, over and over, that it didn’t, doubt is only natural. That seed has been planted; given time, it’ll bloom.
2. “You need help.” / “You’re crazy.” / “You have mental health problems.”
All of those things might be true—they certainly are in my case. However, it doesn’t mean the situation you’re actually discussing is due to any of them. And chances are, they aren’t. But it’s the perfect “get out of jail free” card. It’s just you and your unstable mental state, again.
But, it also comes loaded with an extra dollop of guilt. The chances are you’re already conscious of your mental illness, and the way it impacts others; using it against you is a pretty heartless trick. Not to mention it’s probably your own default setting, and the first place you look to whenever there’s trouble.
Either way, they’ve neatly shifted the blame onto you. And, again, you’re now having to defend yourself.
3. “But what about the things you’ve done wrong?”
What about those things? That’s more than likely not what you were actually talking about. You were probably discussing something they did. However, the gaslighter exists in a slightly different moral universe; if they did make a mistake, it’s balanced out by the ones you made. Except, there are two problems with that.
One, they made that mistake, not you. Ultimately what they did is on them. Unless you held a gun to their head and forced them to do what whatever it was they said or did, they’re pretty much responsible for it. However, if you embrace the idea of cause and effect, or one person’s errors mitigating the other’s, as they are seeming to…
Two, you’ll find that it won’t cut both ways. On the rare occasions they’ll admit hurting you, you’ll have your misdemeanors brought up to soften your argument. However, your mistakes will be seen in isolation. If you want to know if someone is gaslighting you, just try saying what they have, “But what about the things you’ve done wrong?” If you’re met with hostility, then bingo. One rule for them; another for you.
4. “You need to let it go.” / “Why do you bring up the past so much?” / “It wasn’t a big deal.”
As invalidation is a central part of the gaslighter’s workings, they like to be the arbiters of how long you should hold onto the hurt they’ve caused you. The fact is, they’re not the arbiters, and it’s not up to them; they don’t get to tell you how much they’ve hurt you, or how long you need to carry that pain for—you do: You do. As uncomfortable as it might be for them, if something hurt you, it hurt you; you get to choose for how long and how much.
If you’re only bringing up things to hurt them, then you’re no better than them. However, if there are issues that are still causing you pain, then they’re fair game. And, one of the reasons why they might be, is because you’ve never received a straight answer up to this point, because the gaslighter has deflected and shifted blame. Closure is hard when the person you’re speaking to won’t engage.
However, like the majority of other phrases they use, there’s a double-meaning here; you’re the one in the wrong. It’s you, and your unhealthy clinging to the past that is the real problem, not them. If you’d only let the past go, everything would be okay.
5. “I was only joking.” / “You’re taking things the wrong way.” / “You misunderstood what I was trying to say.”
Much like, “You need to let it go,” the gaslighter likes to tell you how you should interpret their words. Yes, it’s unhealthy to take the majority of other people’s comments too personally; we’d probably never interact with any human if we took everything that was said to heart. However, again, someone else doesn’t get to tell you how their words make you feel. They may have only been joking, but it doesn’t mean you found it funny. And, if they’d been pretty clear about what they’d said, they also don’t to get to say you’ve misunderstood.
The chances are you didn’t. And they weren’t joking. Your hurt is probably justified. But, once more, the blame has been shifted onto you.
It’s always you…
On the one hand, it should appear easy to dismiss all of this. Especially after you’ve become aware of what’s going on. After all, once you know this is occurring, the easiest thing to do is to simply stop communicating with that person.
The real problem is identifying it in the first place. That’s the genuine issue. Because, although I might have made it appear black and white, it’s far from being so in reality. It’s not overt, and it’s not done all of the time. The phrases above aren’t dropped into every conversation; if they were, you’d have nothing to do with that person almost as soon as they entered your life. They’re employed sporadically, sprinkled across a number of interactions, that might be easy to see with hindsight, but difficult to discern at the time.
That’s why it’s insidious. It’s subtle. However, the cumulative effect isn’t.
If you’ve ordinarily got a good memory, and you’re pretty secure in yourself, then you’ll probably be okay; gaslighting will be no more than an annoyance. However, if you already know your memory is patchy, and your self-esteem is on the floor, constantly being told you’re misremembering events, or that the real problem is you, is going to take its toll. Constant invalidation, especially if it’s done without you being aware, is toxic to one’s self-esteem. Before long you will be asking yourself, “Is it me? And I really the one in the wrong?”
And not just about the particular event you might have been trying to discuss, but about everything. Once that seed has been planted…
The other issue is who’s employing it. If it’s someone you can cut off, then do it. But, what if it’s not? What if it’s someone you have to engage with?
In that instance, it’s not simply about the cumulative effect, it’s also the dread that comes from knowing almost every future interaction is going to be either full of blame, or an utterly one-sided affair in which you’re just not going to be heard. There’s only so many times you can endure deflection, projection, or stonewalling before the “fight-or-flight” impulse kicks in.
In that instance, gaslighting isn’t just damaging to your self-esteem, it’s also exhausting. If there is someone in your life who leaves you drained and tired, yet utterly unfulfilled after communicating with them, look back over your past interactions. I’d be amazed if you didn’t find a smattering of those phrases listed above. Each one is an emotional black-hole, and that’s what your effort is vanishing into.
This article isn’t going to stop people discussing gaslighting on social media and using the term to assassinate the character of people who have hurt them. However, if it can add a bit more seriousness to the debate, then I’m happy to add my voice to it. After all, gaslighting is all about keeping others quiet, about taking away their right to express themselves. Anything, no matter how small it might appear, that might encourage victims to take their power back is completely worth the effort.
“Sometimes we just need to be heard…There are times in life when being heard leads to being healed.” ~ Steve Maraboli