Why Do They Do That: What Exactly is Gaslighting?

Black and white photo of a lighter flame

Why Do They Do That is a series by Kitty Wenham that aims to shine a light on some of the most common tactics used by those who perpetrate abuse. In this article we will explore the popular term ‘Gaslighting’, and what it actually means. Content warning: This series will regularly discuss topics related to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play ‘Gas Light’ is set in a fog-bound Victorian London, and primarily unfolds in the upper-class home of Jack Manningham, and his wife Bella. The play begins with Bella vocally on edge as she watches her husband flirt with the house staff whilst being openly reproaching and controlling towards his wife. Adding to her anxiety, Bella’s husband keeps disappearing from the house, and he won’t tell her where she’s going. Whenever he leaves, the gaslights dim, and she hears noises around the walls and ceiling. Her husband denies any wrongdoing and convinces Bella that she is slowly going insane.

Later, it’s revealed Bella wasn’t imagining anything. A detective visits the house and explains that the apartment above hers once belonged to a wealthy woman who was violently murdered in a cold-blooded robbery attempt, but the jewels were so well hidden that the killer, and the police, were never able to recover them. In fact, the killer visits the apartment ever night in search of the jewels – causing the footsteps that Bella was hearing, and the lights to dim in the rest of the building whenever he ignites the gas light upstairs. The killer, of course, is Bella’s husband.

This play and its successful 1944 movie adaption gave rise to the now-familiar term, gaslighting, that describes a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.

Gaslighting has experienced a surge of interest in the past couple of years. A Google trend report shows that the word began to gain attention in 2011, and that searches for it reached a peak in October 2018; occurring over 500% more than they did in November 2014. Unfortunately, it is almost inevitable that as gaslighting has become one of the most widely-used terms in the lexicon of emotional abuse, it has also become one of the most misused.

As there is no formally agreed upon psychological definition of the word ‘gaslighting’, it may perhaps be useful to begin by discussing what gaslighting isn’t.

“Gaslighting is not synonymous with lying or being deceptive. It’s not the same as an abuser denying, diminishing or minimising their actions, or your reaction to them.”

It is not synonymous with lying or being deceptive. It is also not the same as an abuser denying, diminishing or minimising their actions, or your reaction to them. These behaviours, which are abusive in their own ways, may look, and feel, similar, but it is important to differentiate these terms and to use them accurately. Even today, victims of domestic abuse still struggle to be taken seriously, and the misuse of terms used to describe the behaviour of abusers risks leading to their actions and the effect on their victims being minimised. Language also helps and empowers many victims to understand and come to terms with what they have been through, and the more convoluted these words become, the more we deny that possibility.

The Oxford Living Dictionaries defines the verb ‘gaslight’ as the intent to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity”. Whilst initially, this may sound very similar to lying, there are some key differences. Whilst the intent of a lie is to cover up a truth, the intent of gaslighting is to undermine the victim’s confidence in their own ability to distinguish the truth from a falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance. The effect of this is that it makes the victim unable to trust their own thoughts, and judgements, and renders them psychologically dependent on the abuser. It is used to distort reality, not deny it. Whilst a lie can be as simple as “I didn’t do that”, gaslighting often takes place over an extended period and is an ongoing technique in the abusive relationship.

Rather than saying, simply, “I didn’t do that”, a gaslighter may follow this with “you know I wouldn’t do that, that’s not the kind of person I am”, “I can’t believe you think I’d do something like that”, “This is just your anxiety speaking”, “You’re projecting your past trauma onto me” or “I think you need to see a doctor and get some help”. Another technique may be fuelling your isolation from other people by suggesting that they are the untrustworthy or lying parties. The key aspect of this is that all these statements are false – because they did do that.

This phenomenon can also be distinguished from minimisation, in which you may tell someone that their actions, or words, made you feel hurt, and they respond with “it was just a joke”, “you’re too sensitive”, “you need to get a sense of humour”, or “you’re overreacting”. With this technique, the abuser is minimising your emotions. This is also sometimes referred to as ‘downplaying’, ‘discounting’ or ‘underplaying’. Although all these behaviours may contribute to the feeling of cognitive distortion, they are still distinct.

In the process of gaslighting, the victim’s self-esteem is damaged, and they may feel guilty, paranoid, or like they are the bad person in the relationship for suggesting these events took place. Your reality and perception of yourself, and the world around you, is effectively changed. Even when we are out of an abusive relationship, or have finally recognised that we have been gaslighted, the emotional consequences of this can last many more years without professional help and affect your relationships with other people.

This can be a hard behaviour to recognise, but if, in a relationship, you are beginning to feel like you cannot trust yourself, or your own thoughts and feelings, this should be a serious warning sign.

“When the U.S. President publicly states that he did not say something he was caught saying on camera, he is not gaslighting us — he is lying.”

Katie Ghose, the Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Gaslighting is already a crime, covered under coercive control law, but we know from our work with survivors that there continues to be a lack of awareness about what this form of abuse is and the devastating impact it has on victims. Coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse. Yet in 2016, only 57 men and 2 women were convicted for coercive control offences.”

Although it is tempting to use such labels of abuse to describe the behaviour of those who are causing us great pain, and harm, it is still imperative that we endeavour to use these terms accurately to avoid further belittling the language of abuse survivors. Despite other patterns of abuse that may be present, when the U.S. President publicly states that he did not say something he was caught saying on camera, he is not gaslighting us, he is lying. When someone online tells you that you are ‘overreacting’ towards a sexist comment, or word, this is not gaslighting, this is minimisation. On the other hand, if you have confronted your partner after finding undeniable evidence of a lie, and they tell you that you are allowing your mental illness to colour your perception of them, this is gaslighting. All of these behaviours are hurtful, and wrong, in their own ways, but when we confuse the terms of abuse, we make it harder for victims to be able to recognise abusive behaviour in their own lives.

If you think you may be experiencing abuse, please reach out. In the U.K. you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or email helpline@womensaid.org.uk


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