January 23, 2022

The Problem with Overusing the term “Gaslighting.”

NGram Gaslighting


The following article is in response to Waylon’s article: Twelve Tribes? Buddhism? Stop calling all Weird Religions “Cults.” Learn about them, first. Then…if they’re corrupt, awful…call ’em a Cult.


I’ve noticed many people using the term gaslighting these days.

Google’s NGram Viewer, a word-usage tracker, confirms gaslighting‘s frequency has skyrocketed. This spread is stripping its original meaning, giving birth to a sloppy colloquialism. Often is the case with psychological terms—OCD or cult, to name a couple.

Among laypersons, gaslighting can be synonymous with conscious denial, usually with manipulative intention. Aside from failing to capture the term’s actual meaning, this usage conflates easily with simple disagreement. Indeed, you may have witnessed a disagreement where one participant accuses the other of gaslighting. Suddenly, a simple difference of opinion escalates into a vicious accusation which must be defended. Even worse, the accusation could be interpreted accurately, which, in a nutshell, entails the following:

The repeated, intentional, and systematic undermining of a party’s confidence in their ability to determine reality. For example, being told ‘you’re crazy’ (or the like) repeatedly. This is done to gain power or influence over the target. Usually, the person or group is targeted and tested for their vulnerability.

Let’s explore this definition. If Trump says, “the election was stolen,” that isn’t clinical gaslighting. If Trump says repeatedly, “You can’t trust the media and the election was stolen,” then he’s destabilizing confidence in how we determine reality. That’s clinical-level gaslighting.

Words are diluted when they’re disseminated outside the context of their actual meaning. Replacing the nuanced with the simple erases our language’s ability to describe important things. It’s difficult to detect what we can’t describe. Suddenly, people who are actually being gaslighted don’t know it’s happening. Even those around them don’t know it’s happening. Put simply, if we all know what gaslighting actually is, it’s easier for us to organize against it.

Whether you’re using the technical definition or the layperson’s, gaslighting is vicious. In my opinion, a word like that should be used with care.


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