“Gaslighting” – Merriam-Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year – is a current buzz word, used in some academic journals of psychology in the 1980s, and now used in increasingly broad contexts. I would argue that it is also used with increasing carelessness. I hope to make a case here for taking back some reverence around this word and its use. My motivations? First, I kind of love the word and its history. It came into use after the 1944 movie (following the 1938 play of the same title) starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, which is a classic and excellent film noir (if you haven’t seen it, do!). The basic plot involves a husband who causes the gas light in the house to flicker, making his wife concerned, while all the while he tries to convince her she’s just seeing things. I grew up on classic films and ones like “Gaslight” hold a special place in my heart, so I am tickled at how this word became a thing. Beyond that, though, I am motivated to make a case for restoring some caution around how this term is used for the sake of our human relationships and how we engage in pursuing truth together. As Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, says, “gaslighting” falls into a camp of “fuzzy” words (which also includes words like “trauma” and “narcissism”). These are words whose misuse compromises authentic communication and relationship.
The word originally and formally refers to psychological manipulation (a form of abuse) whereby one person attempts to hold power over another by causing them to question/doubt their own perception of reality. Its now very popular use, however, has muddied its meaning. One big way it gets misused these days is to equate it simply with the behavior of someone attempting to persuade another of their point. “Gaslighting is often used in an accusatory way when somebody may just be insistent on something, or somebody may be trying to influence you," says Dr. Stern. “That’s not what gaslighting is.” This example illustrates the case of someone attempting to get another to consider additional perceptions or experiences without tossing out their own. The big difference between this and real gaslighting is that in the case of real gaslighting, this attempt at persuasion is always aimed at undermining the perspective of the other for the purpose of manipulation.
So, a couple of big dangers follow from this kind of misuse of the word. One is that the accusation of gaslighting can become, in an ironic turn of events, manipulative. If you don’t like being disagreed with, you can call it gaslighting and and shut up the other party, who doesn’t want to be seen in that light. It can become a shut-down of conversation which prevents deeper communication and genuine resolution. The other big way this muddied meaning can be harmful is that it can make it harder for real victims of gaslighting to know when it’s happening to them. One of the hallmarks of being truly gaslit is that it is very hard to recognize that it’s happening - precisely because, if it’s effective, you doubt your own perception and judgment of reality. It is often only after a lengthy process of coming to recognize the well-established pattern of gaslighting playing out in their own relationship that such victims can call it what it is. These victims need a clear definition of this form of psychological abuse - gaslighting - in order to be able to recognize, name, and take authority back from it in their own lives.
So, next time someone disagrees with you, don’t say they gaslit you, say they disagreed with you. Next time someone breaks up with you because they aren’t in love with you, don’t say they “gaslit” you, say they broke up with you. You will be doing your part to protect the accuracy of language around these important realities of real abuse versus relational conflict.