“Etymology” is the study of the origin and evolution of words. I love words. I always have. “History & Grammar of the English Language” was one of my favorite classes in college. (Nerd alert!) I like reading about how words and phrases came to be, how they are used, and why some fade away yet others become parts of our everyday speech.
Not only do I read a lot, I listen a lot. I hear words I’ve never heard thrown about almost daily, like everyone knows them but me. I hear the new trendy words the kids are using, and if I try one out, I learn real fast which ones are “cringey” and no longer socially acceptable (FYI, I don’t think “cringe” in any of its forms are en vogue any longer, so don’t embarrass yourself.).
Then, because I’m particularly attune to mental health talk, I hear lots of new “psychobabble” words (as Dr. Laura Schlesinger would call them) like this one – GASLIGHTING. It’s used a lot. I hear it all the time in the media, in social circles, from individuals. What is it? And is it legit?
GASLIGHTING is when someone manipulates another person so as to make them question their own sanity, reality, perceptions, even memory. It’s manipulation done with malice (not the kind like where you playfully trick your kid into taking a bite of her broccoli). The term is derived from a British play, Gas Light, (1938, Patrick Hamilton) and an American movie, Gaslight, (1944) whereby a husband hides his incessant search for his wife’s aunt’s missing jewels by making her out to be crazy (he fiddles with the gaslights in the house, dimming them periodically to make her think she’s losing it). It gained status as a colloquialism in only the last 15 years.
I went digging around online and learned that GASLIGHTING comes in a few forms…
COUNTERING (questions one’s memory) – “I think you’re forgetting what really happened.”
WITHHOLDING (pretending to not understand) – “Now you’re just confusing me.”
TRIVIALIZING (making light of one’s feelings) – “You are overreacting.”
DENIAL (refusing to take responsibility) – “That’s not what I meant.”
DIVERTING (changing the focus to highlight one’s lack of credibility) – “You can’t believe everything you hear.”
STEREOTYPING (assigning blame based on characteristics) – “Nobody will believe a woman divorced twice already.”
I understand that gaslighting happens gradually. Offenders start slow and work their way up, first with mild counters (“I was just joking.”) to bigger ones (“Are you crazy?”) until over time, the recipient loses all self esteem, falls into a sort of dependence, and gets controlled. Gaslighting happens in personal relationships, in schools, between parents and children, between patients and medical professionals, and from the mouths of politicians…all on the regular.
It’s an ugly practice meant to shut down conversation, shift blame, force compliance, and garner control. Yikes! So how do you know if you’re being gaslighted, and how do you prevent it?
Well, first, I think gaslighting is real. We are all on the receiving end of it from time to time by yucky people with serious issues. Some of us might even need to check ourselves to make sure we aren’t being yucky.
Second, I think charging someone with gaslighting can be its own form of gaslighting if the charge is misplaced. People might not actually remember something the way you did. You truly might have taken something the wrong way. Maybe you really misunderstood. The joke might have been in poor taste, but it was still intended to be a joke. Everyone is not yucky, and you are not always a victim.
You need to listen carefully to what someone says to you, evaluate their intent, and examine your response. What did they really mean by that? Are you triggered or uncomfortable? Are they? Why? Did they say that to manipulate or control you? Are you sure? Is it the truth, and it just hits home? Who needs to take responsibility?
On the other hand, check this out…if you KNOW you’re being gaslighted, then it isn’t gaslighting at all…because IT ISN’T WORKING. When you’re firm in your convictions, sure about yourself, confident in your decisions, you can’t be gaslighted. Yucky people can say whatever they want, counter with whatever they want, and you won’t be moved by their jack wagon nonsense. Their gaslighting attempts will have no power. That’s cool, right?!
So use it wisely. The word may become “psychobabble” in time, as it’s already starting to be a little overused or misused (in my never-so-humble opinion). Some would argue that by my simply saying the term is overused or misused, I’m gaslighting, but come on. Words matter. They give us clarity, but they can also serve as a crutch. I don’t know, I’m not a psychologist, but it makes sense.
I do know that word, GASLIGHTING, comes up a lot, sometimes too much, so I wanted to dig into what it meant. I always just called that kind of thing “crappy behavior by manipulative, controlling jerks”, but apparently now there’s a term for it. I really didn’t know how commonplace the notion of GASLIGHTING was, and thought I would share in case you didn’t either. It’s either gaining in popularity as a term, or the act of gaslighting is happening all over the place so it needed a name for calling-out and coping purposes.
I am just a listener, reader, and lover of words. What will they come up with next?
Interested in a good read on the subject of terms coined for a purpose? Check out the book,”The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised As Freedom”, by David Kupelian. Yep…they do it with words. Thought-provoking stuff.