Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

In her excellent book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro), Dr. Robin Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

From this apt definition, we can tease out two major elements of gaslighting:

First, it is intentional and targeted toward a specific individual or group. It is not accidental or inadvertent. (After all, I cannot imagine a sincere apology along the lines of oh, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to gaslight you.)

Second, it is emotionally manipulative, designed to disorient and even frighten those on the receiving end. It’s about messing with someone’s perceptions of reality.

In short, gaslighting is a tool for taking, preserving, or abusing power. At work, it may be a component of workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, anti-union campaigns, or seemingly bizarre management pronouncements. I am glad that we have a term that captures such targeted, disorienting behaviors.

That said, there’s always the risk that the term can be overused.

In earlier posts, I predicted that now that gaslighting is becoming a more mainstream entry in our vocabulary of interpersonal abuse, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors at times. I believe this is now coming true. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed gaslighting being invoked in situations where the apparent factual circumstances did not justify its use.

Borrowing from an earlier post, gaslighting is sometimes confused with:

  • an honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • an argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • someone being obstinate or stubborn;
  • erroneous, even confusing, directives and instructions;
  • one side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “white lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • instances of incivility; or,
  • an incoherent explanation.

Indeed, I recently found myself characterizing a description of someone’s behavior as gaslighting, until I had to acknowledge that their actions didn’t reach that level. I believe that using the term gaslighting has become a, well, cool way of demonstrating that we’re in the know about the lingo of emotional manipulation. It then can be used as a sharp, negative, blanket label to characterize someone else’s objectionable statements or actions, even when they don’t quite fit the definition.

Especially in situations where negative emotions escalate, it can be tempting to slap a tag of gaslighting on communications (in person, on paper, or online) that become heated. However, if we are to save the use of this term for the specific, nasty tool of mistreatment that it is, then we should not hurl it across the room, so to speak, whenever angry disagreements occur. Unfortunately, there is enough real gaslighting going on to ensure many opportunities for its continued proper use.

2 responses

  1. Hm. When we talk about this method used by corupt institutions, it’s the by-fiat effect of a self-serving inconsistent regime. It’s not necessarily like in the actual film “Gaslight,” which was about one individual doing that to another. It becomes embedded into systems and heldinto place but institutional culture. Institutions and/or management that uses gaslighting will claim that such instances have been the result of mutual misunderstandings or erroneous inconsistent direction. But that’s part of fragmented hyper-stratified campus structures and systems in which management wants to hold onto all the power and exploit workers. And they’re FINE with that. But then they act innocent and well-meaning, THAT is gaslighting. They are not innocent and not well-meaning. They are self-serving and at best indifferent. Erroneous inconsistent directions are part and parcel of head-screwing from management, as is by fiat placing workers in double binds and then blaming them for not being able to work miracles,etc etc. So is speaking in moralistic jargon that makes you look like if you question or resist, you’re the asshole and the bad teacher, etc.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that individuals can intentionally claim that certain actions/statements were “merely” misunderstandings or erroneous directives, as part of the targeted disorientation. But the items on the list can simply be reflective of dysfunctional interpersonal communications or — in institutional settings — poor management. In any event, having experienced the upside-down culture of the academic workplace for much of my working life, I do get where you’re coming from!

      (BTW, I had to change your name to J.Doe because I don’t knowingly permit the use of other’s names as pseudonyms. There’s a real-life actor by the name you used!)

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