The Emerging Term and Damaging Practice of Gaslighting
What is gaslighting?
One of my coping mechanisms has turned into binge-watching comedies recently. (Self-care really is too gentle of a term anymore.) Well, this and staring in miniature fits of jealousy at people on cooking shows, but I already wrote about that recently.
On an episode of the iconic 1990s comedy, The Nanny, the stodgy widower, Mr. Sheffield, enters the living room to find Niles, the butler, juggling oranges. In a clipped discussion, the two banter about whether or not Niles was actually juggling. Before Mr. Sheffield’s uptight business partner makes an entrance and falls, puncturing an orange on her four inch stiletto heel, the debate centers on the reality of the observation of juggling. Niles declared that he would never admit to having been juggling.
From the perspective of the audience, the juggling happened. Maxwell Sheffield entered the room. The oranges were dropped. C.C. Babcock fell on the floor.
However, the statements from Niles playfully left, or were intended to leave, Mr. Sheffield questioning the reality of having observed the juggling.
This cute scene from The Nanny, even without the stylish and loud nanny appearing, provides a playful example that feels like the comedy version of gaslighting.
A term largely unknown until the last few years, “gaslighting” entered mainstream discussion, particularly in online forums. The origins trace to a 1938 movie called Gas Light with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the movie, the husband, Gregory, manipulates his wife, Paula, into doubting how she perceives reality. Saturday Night Live recently parodied this movie.
Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependence on the perpetrator.”
This is certainly much more serious than questioning the reality of juggling oranges.
Today, gaslighting is more of a colloquialism than a term from clinical literature. In a more general sense, the American Psychological Association dictionary defines this as the process “to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experience, or understanding of events.”
So, perhaps in the most casual sense it could be attempting to make someone question whether you were juggling oranges.
Importantly, gaslighting creates or exacerbates existing power dynamics in interpersonal relationships. Essentially, the methods are undermining emotions and invalidating the other person’s feelings.
Wondering about being too sensitive, frequently apologizing, making excuses, self-doubt, and similar are typical signs of being in a relationship with gaslighting. However, it is difficult to recognize at the time and from the perspective of the person on the receiving end of this behavior.
See this Vox article from a licensed psychoanalyst for examples of common phrases from gaslighters, as well as a step-by-step of what to do when you are being gaslit.
Gaslighting is not limited to just familial or intimate relationships. It happens often in the workplace. These relationships can be with anyone, but most frequently with someone who is control obsessed, seeks to wield power, and wants the other person to feel dependent on them for their job.
Gaslighters prey on empathetic people or people who are eager to take responsibility and the goal is to drive the other person away. It is a destructive behavior that undermines teams and is adverse to diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly when there is a power differential.
Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey’s discussion about people say it best. Maya Angelou is well known for the quote, “when people show you who they are, believe them.” In their exchange, Oprah recalled being asked, “My dear, why must you be shown 29 times before you can see who they really are? Why can’t you get it the first time?”
From their exchange, this important life lesson is adapted to Oprah’s statement, “when people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”