What is Gaslighting?


by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT


As mental health becomes more and more popular in our culture, so do catchy terms. Gaslighting has become a regular topic of conversation in therapy and in social media. We may be aware of the term and even its definitions, but it's a tricky tactic to catch in the moment because of its subtlety and masquerade as 'helpful' behavior.


Where did the term "gaslighting" come from?

A short history lesson can help. The use of this term in popular culture began in the 1960's, but the original came from a play written by Patrick Hamilton titled "Gas Light" in 1938. It was made into films in the UK and in the U.S. in the 1940's. The story follows a woman and her abusive husband, convincing her that she is going insane by taking things and saying she stole them and doesn't remember, saying she's hearing sounds that don't exist.


Incrementally, he turns down the gas lights in their house, little by little, telling her that nothing has changed. She begins to question herself, doubting if she can trust her senses, trying to understand what's real and what's not.


The truth? The husband is looking for the woman's aunt's missing jewels, and in his search of the place, he is taking things and creating the noises himself.


What does gaslighting look like today?

Like I said, gaslighting can very subtle, and often people who are doing it don't realize what they're doing. Rarely are people intentionally taking your things and putting them in odd places, then claiming that you put them there yourself. But much of gaslighting today is more social manipulation than physical or delusional and still very often deflective in order to mask the behavior of the person.


Examples:

  • When someone tries to have a conversation about racism, sexism, discrimination, or any mistreatment, and the response is: "What? No way... he would never say something like that." or "Are you sure you're not overreacting?" or "No, they're nice people; they can't possibly be racist."

  • When you tell someone about the advice that a friend or therapist or family member gave you, and the response is: "Your friend doesn't know what they're talking about," or "I think you need to find a better therapist," or "Your dad has his own problems; he shouldn't be giving advice."

  • When someone closes off to having a conversation entirely, saying it's not worth having a conversation about

  • When someone persists in arguing their perspective, as though they can't help it and will not acknowledge any truth or emotions in what you're saying

  • When you bring up an issue with their opinion, and they bring out other issues that have nothing to do with what you said

It is difficult to identify that it's happening in the moment; but you can more easily identify signs of it after repeated conversations with this person (or group of people) if you take the time to tap into your feelings and your sense of self.


Indicators you may be gaslit:

  • You feel confused after spending time with them

  • You feel anxious, restless, or doubt your own choices

  • You have a hard time making decisions without consulting them

  • You feel hesitant or afraid to make plans without them

  • You become secretive or hide things from them

  • You avoid spending time with them

  • You feel guilty for any of these behaviors also

What do I do once I've identified it?

After we see the light (ha), it can be hard to grasp reality at first. Self-esteem work is crucial when it comes to overcoming gaslighting (whether you are being gaslit or gaslighting others unintentionally). In order to build self-esteem, we need:

  • to notice ourselves as sometimes good to get to the path of always good enough

  • to recognize it takes practice and it will grow over time

  • social support (intentional community, friends, therapist/mental health providers, family)

  • environmental support (safe space, distance from gaslighting relationship, healthy habits)

  • to give ourselves credit for the small, un-glamorous things we do every day to care for ourselves

We can overcome gaslighting with clear communication skills and boundaries. And we will be less and less likely to fall for it when we have practiced valuing ourselves.



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