Gaslighting: America’s New “It” Word
If I had a nickel for every time I heard or said the word “gaslighting”, I’d be a very rich therapist. Merriam Webster must have felt the same way, because earlier this month it was announced that “gaslighting” has been featured as their word of the year.
Wikipedia (I know, I know, not the best source) defines gaslighting as a “form of psychological manipulation where a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual”. This is done to make that individual question their own perception, memory, and sanity in order to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s beliefs, using such methods as denial, contradiction, lying, and misdirection. The term originates from the 1938 play entitled Gaslight, in which a “husband attempts to convince his wife that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their home environment, including slowly dimming the gaslights in their house while pretending nothing has changed, thus making his wife doubt her own perceptions”.
It’s important to know the actual definition so that we can use this word correctly. I’ve heard gaslighting mentioned everywhere from reality TV to the new Harry and Meghan special. Sometimes it’s been used correctly, and sometimes not. Remember that gaslighting is different than just plain lying. A lie is not really intended to make someone question their reality. In gaslighting, that is the sole purpose. There is maybe a tiny shred of the truth, all mixed and jumbled up in a confusing pile of disinformation.
How does a narcissist/gaslighter utilize this skill to their target’s detriment? Through gaslighting a narcissist is making sure that you see them—their thoughts, their perceptions, their beliefs. The trick is to make their targets think they are not capable of functioning without them, and thus the target will rely on the narcissist to give the “correct” version of reality. If we are “taught” that we can’t trust ourselves then we will inevitably be drawn to the person that has made certain of this.
What can we do to help ourselves when gaslighting is present? Most importantly, make sure that you seek out your own support system—be it a therapist, a trusted friend or family member, a support group, what have you. Second, hold on to what you know to be the truth. Try and stay grounded in your authentic self, understanding what it is that the narcissist is trying to do to you. Lastly, don’t be afraid to stop and pause before reacting. One of the best pieces of advice I heard early on in my career is that just because you were invited to the crisis does not mean that you have to go. Not reacting is a reaction and probably not one that the narcissist is used to dealing with. Gaslighting is a tactic to inflict shame on the target and if we don’t bite, the narcissist can’t be successful.