The word “gaslighting” seems to be everywhere these days. The term has gained popularity in the last decade, giving it new life political commentators and columnists and supported by social media where it now attracts billions of views Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. In 2022, Miriam-Webster crowned with gas lighting word of the year.

But despite the term’s growing ubiquity in pop culture, it highlights a stark reality.

What is gas lighting?

Generally speaking, gas lighting is a form of psychological abuse or manipulation. It often occurs in abusive relationships where the perpetrator deliberately misleads their target – essentially distorting reality to make it seem like what the victim is experiencing or feeling is not real.

“It’s trying to make someone look or feel ‘crazy,'” says Paige Sweet, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies gaslighting in relationships and the workplace. “There are so many types of psychological abuse, but gaslighting has this added quality of convincing someone that their reality isn’t shared by other people, or trying to convince them that their understanding of what’s going on is distorted or wrong.”

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The rise of gas lighting

The term “gaslighting” made its debut in the 1938 British play. Gas light, which was adapted twice to the silver screen – most famously as the 1944 film Gas light, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boye. In the film, Paula (Bergman) is isolated from her husband Gregory (Boyer), who is committed to making her believe she is going crazy. In particular, one of Gregory’s tactics is to turn off the gas lights in the house before insisting it’s all in Paula’s head.

Most recently, the term regained public attention in 2016, when it was frequently used to describe former President Donald Trump’s strategy of creating false realities through repeated lies. An essay by journalist Lauren Duca, “How Donald Trump is setting America on fire,” It quickly went viral after it was posted on Teen Vogue that December.

Gaslighting has since been used to describe a variety of manipulative tactics and distortions of reality—for example, patients who feel their symptoms are unfairly dismissed by doctors may refer to their experience as “medical gaslighting,” according to a 2022 article. New York Times. That same year saw a whopping 1,740 percent increase in gaslighting searches online, according to Miriam-Webster.

Still, while the term is undoubtedly trendy, the behavior it’s meant to describe can be extremely toxic. and potentially dangerous.

Examples of gas lighting

Gaslighting primarily occurs in romantic relationships, but it can also occur in friendships, between family members, and even among coworkers. In certain cases, abusers can take advantage of their victim’s vulnerability, or prey to stereotypes or imbalances related to an individual’s gender, sexuality, race, nationality and class.

Below are just a few of the examples of gaslighting that Sweet documented through 12 months of intensive interviews with 43 heterosexual female survivors of domestic violence, published in a 2019 article. American Sociological Review.

  • Simone’s ex-husband hacked her social media accounts during their divorce, creating posts that made her appear mentally unstable.
  • Jen called her ex-boyfriend a “chameleon” who tried to disorient and confuse her with subtle fabrications, such as lying about the color of the shirt she had worn the day before.
  • If Brittany showed emotion or lost her temper during an argument, her abuser repeatedly called her “crazy,” causing her to question her own mental well-being.

What is Gaslighting in a Relationship?

These women often recalled how their abusers distorted reality and created confusion to make them feel “crazy” or emotionally unstable, drawing on the gendered idea that men are more “rational” than women.

“Femininity itself is kind of branded as ‘irrational,'” Sweet says. “Men, or masculinity, are given the power of [being] the arbiter of what is “rational” – the one who decides what is authoritative or trustworthy. This is one of the reasons why gaslighting is a gendered phenomenon.”

However, this does not mean that gaslighting only occurs when it is perpetrated by men against women. In her latest research, Sweet looks at how parents, for example, might inflame their own teenage children when they talk about experiences of childhood abuse.

“Lines of power and social power are really important to address,” she adds.

Signs of gaslight

Gaslighting victims may experience serious mental health consequences such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. That’s why it’s so important to be on the lookout for signs that you—or someone you know—may be suffering from gaslight.

“People often talk about that moment when they know something is wrong—if what someone is saying gives you that sick feeling in your stomach,” Sweet says. “I think, ‘This isn’t quite right, but I don’t know how to explain it.’ That’s kind of the heart of gaslighting, and the power of having a name for it: it’s really hard to put into words.”

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Gas lighting can also cause feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, or the pervasive feeling that the victim is somehow to blame for everything. It can even make targets question their own reality. One woman Sweet interviewed in her 2019 study described how her abuser made her feel like she was living in twilight zone.

“Often, especially in intimate relationships, [gaslighting] it goes along with other forms of control like isolation or insults,” says Sweet.

How to deal with gas lighting

If you suspect you are experiencing gaslight, there is certain steps you can take to protect yourself. For starters, reach out to others in your support system who can help validate and verify your experiences.

“Being able to rely on other people is really helpful,” Sweet says. “Getting counternarratives from others is the most reality-affirming thing you can do to reestablish yourself as a reliable interpreter of the world.”

One way to deal with gaslighting is by talking to other people about what’s going on in your relationship—even if it’s embarrassing or uncomfortable. Beyond that, if you feel like you’re isolating yourself in your relationship, Sweet continues, it’s even more important to reach out to those in your support network.

“What [isolation] is the thing you want to fight against; hang on to your existing relationships and rely on those people,” she adds.

Using existing resources and hotlines – such as National Domestic Violence Hotline — relating to abuse and domestic violence can also prove invaluable.

“These auxiliary systems are really good for gas lighting,” Sweet says. “People in these advocacy communities really speak that language.”

Additional support and resources:

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