Gaslighting Is Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year. Here's How Therapists Define It
The term “gaslighting” has seen a major spike in popularity across social media and pop culture over the past several years, to the point where Merriam-Webster chose it as 2022’s “Word of the Year,” saying the word saw a “1740 percent interest in lookups, with high interest throughout the year.” Which?? Concerning! But it tracks. Chances are, if you’ve watched any episode of The Bachelor franchise—or any reality TV show, TBH—you’ve seen examples of gaslighting, probably followed by intense discourse by passionate fans on Twitter and Instagram. The Chicks named their entire 2020 album Gaslighter, and in 2018, Oxford Dictionaries named it one of its most popular words of the year.
But even though gaslighting is a trendy term, the behavior it’s meant to describe is incredibly toxic. Gaslighting causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and their overall perception of reality. And while many forms of emotional abuse present similar characteristics, pinning the term on just any emotionally unpleasant situation muddles the meaning for those who experience it firsthand, thus creating confusion and misconceptions about what gaslighting actually looks like. So how can you tell if your partner is gaslighting you, or if it’s something else entirely? Let’s discuss.
What Is Gaslighting, Actually?
If you’ve ever said to someone, “I’m just feeling really sad today,” and they respond with something like, “No, you’re fine. You’re just feeling tired. Don’t be dramatic,” they’re suggesting that your reality is inaccurate—that what you’re actually experiencing isn’t sadness, you’re “just” tired. Gaslighting is that concept, but kicked up several notches.
“Gaslighting is similar to the concept of invalidation. It’s undermining somebody’s sense of reality and denying the facts, and their feelings, to create what is a blatantly false narrative. It makes someone question their judgment, their perception of reality, their experience, and sometimes their sanity,” says licensed psychotherapist Brooke Schwartz. “Not all feelings fit the facts of the situation. But all feelings are valid. Invalidation suggests that you’re wrong for feeling the way that you’re feeling.”
The term was popularized by its namesake movie, the 1944 film, Gaslight. In the film, the protagonist’s husband intentionally works to make her believe she can no longer trust her own perception of reality. He turns down the gas-powered lights in their home so they flicker throughout the house, but when she asks him why the lights are flickering, he denies they’re flickering at all, and suggests it’s all in her head.
“Over time, being gaslit breaks down the victim’s self esteem and their own ability to trust their own perspective on things,” says clinical psychologist Betsy Chung, relationship expert at the dating app XOXO. “A lot of time, the goal of the gaslighter is to get their partner to become more dependent on them to retain all control and power in the relationship. They make all the decisions and judgments because they’ve eroded their partner’s trust in themselves, so they defer to the gaslighter.”
What Doesn’t Count as Gaslighting?
Simple or complicated disagreements and differences in perspectives or recollections of events are not gaslighting, Schwartz says. Gaslighting is also not an isolated incident.
In a psychological Venn diagram of gaslighting versus general emotional manipulation, several factors would overlap, including lying and invalidation. But what makes gaslighting different, says Schwartz, is that it’s typically done with intent, with the gaslighter gaining something from manipulating the situation. Some partners are intentional liars, but not all intentional liars are gaslighters.
“I think it’s really important to highlight that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, and it can be incredibly dangerous. Since we’re seeing it on TV and seeing it discussed in other places, we’re almost using that term so colloquially that it’s becoming like, Oh, that’s just a thing people sometimes do. But gaslighting is actually a really dangerous behavior in any relationship,” says Schwartz.
In situations where one partner has more trouble trusting their own intuition and isn’t as assertive about sticking to their opinions, but is dating someone who’s dominant and assertive about theirs, the less assertive partner may sometimes internalize disagreements or strongly differing perspectives as gaslighting. In these instances, Schwartz says it’s important to watch how the more assertive partner responds to accusations of gaslighting. Do they want to understand why their partner feels that way? And are they receptive to what their partner has to say?
Ultimately, struggling with being assertive about your thoughts and ideas requires some self work, but dating someone who understands that process and allows you to communicate openly is important in helping you get there.
The Language of Gaslighting
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are several gaslighting techniques an emotionally abusive partner can resort to, including countering their partner’s memory, pretending to have forgotten what actually occurred, and trivializing their partner’s needs and feelings.
Schwartz says that gaslighting in relationships happens gradually. The abusive partner’s actions may seem harmless at first, but once they gain their partner’s trust, the abusive patterns continue and escalate, leaving the gaslit partner feeling confused, anxious, isolated, and disconnected from reality. They start relying fully on the abusive partner to define reality, which creates a very difficult situation to escape.
Gaslighters typically default to similar invalidating phrases, like: “This isn’t a big deal; you’re being sensitive”; “You’re so ungrateful”; “You’re going crazy”; “There you go again, bringing up *insert thing here*”; “No one else will believe you”; “I know what’s best for you.”
Chung explains that gaslighters can often start out by displaying the charming, nurturing parts of themselves to their partners—“love bombing” them to establish trust. Gradually, they isolate their partners from their support systems.
“For the gaslighter, these symptoms may manifest from childhood traumas,” Chung says. They may have consistent fears of being abandoned, of losing control, or being taken advantage of. So they might naturally have developed certain strategies in order to become more powerful or dominant over the people in their lives, so that these people won’t leave them. I know that the word codependency gets thrown around a lot, but people who have a tendency toward codependency might create situations where their partners really, really need and rely on them.”
Confronting a Gaslighting Partner
Schwartz says that confronting a gaslighter can go one of several ways. Some partners may realize they’re being gaslit and leave the situation instantly. Others may take longer to identify it, especially if they’ve relied on their partner’s version of reality for so long.
Chung emphasizes that the most important step in confronting a gaslighter is to seek out affirming relationships outside of them, whether it’s with family, friends, a therapist, or coworkers. Since gaslighters set out to distort their partner’s reality, the partner being gaslit should seek space to reconnect with their own thoughts, and support systems can help them do that.
For additional support, the partner who believes they’re being gaslit should aim to keep proof of everything—texts, photos, actual receipts, recordings, and more. The documented info is helpful, not only to have proof against their gaslighting partner, but to have something that grounds them in reality while confronting, Schwartz advises. If they continue to gaslight even after being confronted, bringing in a third party—like a therapist—would be helpful.
After confronting, it’s imperative that the gaslit partner is able to regain trust in themselves, and finding a trauma-focused therapist is vital to that healing process. Therapy can help them separate their own thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions from those of their gaslighting partner, and develop the tools they need to believe in themselves again.
If you’re noticing signs of gaslighting in your relationship and are struggling to confront your partner, you’re not alone. Gaslighting can be incredibly difficult to identify and process, but with the help of licensed professionals, external support systems, and a lot of self-compassion, you’ll be able to give yourself permission to feel your own feelings again.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
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