Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in 'Gaslight' (1944) | Image: 2013 Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

What is Gaslighting? The True Meaning Behind Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2022

We have all heard the term ‘gaslighting’ at some point, but the term has a reputation where it loses its meaning somewhere along the way. So, what is gaslighting? Merriam-Webster‘s Word of the Year for 2022, gaslighting has roots in deep psychological learnings, however, much like the word ‘Simp‘, it’s been seamlessly integrated into the Gen Z vocabulary. It is therefore pretty interesting to dive into what the term means, where it comes from and how to respond when you hear the term or even worse, are being gaslit yourself!

In this Gaslighting article…

Hand Manipulating Marionette

What is Gaslighting?

From a historical perspective, the true gaslighting meaning is associated with psychological medical terminology, defined as essentially a form of psychological abuse. It stems from a person or a group of people making someone question their perception of reality or memories of what took place, in turn leading them to question their sanity. This can be done through comments or gossiping, and it often leads to the person being gaslighted feeling confused and anxious.

And per the official Merriam-Webster definition,

Gaslighting
the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.

It is helpful to compare gaslighting to a form of manipulation that can be intentional, which requires some serious thought and planning, or it can also be unintentional. The subtly of gaslighting, as it is often indirect, is what makes it so dangerous and hurtful. Gaslighting can occur in all forms of relationships and can be devastating to friendships and romantic relationships.

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in 'Gaslight' (1944) | Image: 2013 Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Gaslight’ (1944) | Image: 2013 Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Where Does the Term Gaslighting Come From?

You wouldn’t be a fool to think gaslighting was something to do with a stove or a fire, but it instead came from a play. The term came from the 1938 play and subsequent 1944 film called Gaslight. In the play and film, a devious husband manipulates his wife into convincing her she is going mad by dimming their gas-fuelled lights and telling her she is hallucinating. So, the term has no deep relation to gas and lighting as terms to describe a form of communication or manipulation. Rather, the term stems from a trivial correlation between the behaviours of a mean husband, his dimming of the lights in his home and the impact of this on his wife’s mental health.

Signs of Gaslighting

Even though gaslighting is commonly joked about and tossed around as a term often in incorrect circumstances, it is something that should be taken very seriously. This is because of the severe psychological effects that can arise alongside gaslighting. These are the main signs of gaslighting according to Robin Stern who is the author of the book ‘The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control your Life”

  • No longer feeling comfortable with the person you usually are
  • Being more anxious
  • Having less confidence
  • Wondering if you’re sensitive
  • Feeling as if everything you do is wrong
  • Apologizing often
  • Questioning whether your response to a person or a situation is appropriate or reasonable
  • Making excuses for another people’s behaviour
  • Feeling isolated or lonely
  • Finding it hard to make decisions
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Taking no pleasure in life’s activities that you used to enjoy

Stressed couple sitting on bench

Gaslighting Examples

People who in engage in gaslighting behaviour become an expert in the craft, if you want to call it that. People who gaslight are smart enough to identify your sensitivities and what makes you vulnerable and use this against you. Some ways they do this is by saying things or accusing you in ways that make you doubt your sanity, memory and judgement. Here are some examples of gaslighting that often take place.

  • Making the way you feel seems like a trivial emotion: “Oh now you’re going to be feeling pretty happy with yourself, aren’t you?”
  • Saying things that they later deny having said: “Come on, I never said that.”
  • Denying your emotions: “You’re just being overly sensitive” or “I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this.”
  • Conceal things or objects from you and then deny knowing about them: “You can’t find it? Well, where did you put it?”
  • Making you believe you were or were not at a certain place: “You’re insane, you did not come to the movie with me that time.”

stressed couple sitting on coach at psychologist cabinet

Causes

Gaslighting can occur for many reasons. The main ways in which gaslighting occurs is through watching and learning the behaviours of others. The most prominent instigating factor behind why people gaslight has to do with one person wanting to gain control over someone else. This trait is a negative trait that is typically held by people with abusive personalities and is something that should be worked on.

Whilst this may just be a negative personality trait for some, for others, it’s related to mental illness. Some people who possess this trait may have a personality disorder, such as narcissistic personality disorder. Whilst the term narcissistic is often quite overused to describe a self-centred or vain person, it is known that anyone can express narcissistic traits at some point or another and that there are serious long-term symptoms of narcissism. These symptoms include a constant need for admiration or attention, a belief that they are more special than anyone else and a striking lack of consideration and empathy for others.

Circle of people sitting on chairs

How to Respond to Gaslighting

If you experience gaslighting, it is important to understand how difficult the whole experience can be and find out ways to respond and work through it. As gaslighting can negatively impact one’s mental health, those who experience gaslighting should take action to look after theirs.

One of the main ways to do this and to help reassure yourself is by gathering evidence. Gathering evidence can help remind oneself that they are not imagining things that the perpetrator is in fact, making things up. This evidence can come in form of hearsay evidence and hard evidence. The hard evidence especially may be useful if a person who is being gaslighted enters a legal battle. Some ways to gather proof as recommended by the National Domestic Violence Hotline include keeping a diary, telling close friends, family or a counsellor, taking pictures and keeping voice memos. Each of these methods are ways to document and prove the truth.

It is important to remember that all this evidence should be gathered in a smart, discrete way so that the abuser doesn’t get in the way and obstruct it somehow. Some ways you could do this could be storing your evidence in hidden spots, keeping things locked away or sending evidence to a friend you trust who can keep it safe. If your experience of being gaslighted is reaching extreme lengths, it is important to get in touch with domestic abuse organisations that can help you out. If the effects are more related to mental health, the person being gaslighted should probably contact a therapist. A therapist can help someone who is being gaslighted work through their emotions and hopefully, come out the other side with little damage from the ordeal.

General FAQs

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is psychological abuse and manipulation where a person makes someone question their sanity and perception of reality.

Where does the term gaslighting come from?

The term gaslighting comes from the play and film called Gaslight.

How do you spot gaslighting activity?

You can spot when someone is gaslighting when they say things that make you question your memories and judgement, and in turn, your sanity.

CONTRIBUTOR

Aimee O'Keefe

Aimee O’Keefe is a Sydney-based freelance writer with a background in content marketing, lifestyle, architecture and travel coverage. She completed a Bachelor's degree in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and has worked with Universal Magazines, various leading digital marketing agencies and The Local Project.