What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a term for purposefully screwing up the definitions and connections between existing experiences and the perceptions of another person involved. The term comes from a classic movie starring Ingrid Bergman where the husband decides to gain power over his wife by driving her crazy. The story is set in the early 1900s when natural gas lines were connected to the businesses and homes of those who could afford to pay, and used for many things we use electricity for today, including lighting. Lights we’re easy to use on that era’s version of a dimmer switch by turning the level of gas going to the lamp up or down.
In the movie, the husband turns the level of gas just a tiny bit up or down in different lights, changing it when his wife isn’t there. When she’s in the room and asks if one lamp seems to be a bit off from the others, he states that it seems the same to him. Then later adjusts it to match other lamps in the room, but changes a different lamp. Constantly having her perceptions dismissed and even questioned does, indeed, drive the wife crazy.
We are social beings, and work best with input from others to confirm our experience. No matter how strong or independent someone is, there is still awareness and a certain level of adherence to the social code, and varying levels of using others as a mirror to reflect, affirm or deny, and solidify our experiences.
Social media has become a huge part of our culture for just this reason. We have friends, family, and sometimes relative strangers agreeing that yes, that is a cute cat, a funny story, sad news, important information. And we are not wrong or weak for wanting and needing this. Having these affirmations helps strengthen our understanding of our experiences in life. We have a stronger, more enriched sense of self and others when we recieve feedback that supports our own perceptions. And we become weaker and less resilient when our perceptions are consistently denied.
Who is Gaslighting?
Classically, someone gaslighting is doing it on purpose, with full awareness and intent. This does happen. While the stereotype of someone abusing their partner is a large, angry man physically assaulting his wife or girlfriend; abusers not only come in a range of genders and sizes, but also use a range of ways to control and harm their partners. Gaslighting is one common way to abuse, and it can certainly be done with planning and intent.
However, the term has expanded to include people who are not overtly planning to gaslight their partner, friend, family member, client, or co-worker. But it still happens. When anyone is misrepresenting the truth to take power away from another, that is gaslighting, whether on a major level or a less severe one.
Just as when one person kills another there is 1st degree murder, where plans have been made and carried out; 2nd degree murder, where something happened in the moment that can’t be fixed; manslaughter, an accident resulting in death in a situation where the person who killed had some knowledge and awareness that their actions and situation had the potential to cause death; and accidental death, where both the living and the dead were caught in a series of unforseen occurrences that ended horribly. At the end of the incident, though, someone is still dead.
Using this comparison, first degree gaslighting might be a term for internationally creating an odd situation and then giving misleading information with the intent to weaken someone’s resilience and emotional balance.
‘Second degree gaslighting’, or gaslighting that isn’t planned but is definitely there, often occurs when one person in an interaction has more power and doesn’t take the time or effort to extend that privilege to lift the second person up. Power in our society is granted in several ways. Wealth usually confers a certain amount of power. Being the boss at work, having a high degree of skill or fame usually confer power, and some people are seen as more credible simply due to sex, gender, and race. When the person with more power assumes that their power confers knowledge, the situation is ripe for gaslighting. When I, as someone with a chronic disability, have talked to doctors about various symptoms only to be told that I’d be better with more socializing, with not taking the medication that has been working well for years, or that I am overstating my symptoms to begin with, I am being gaslighted. I’ve felt this way alone and in a crowd, at school, work, and social outings. I can give a step-by-step description of how I feel, when my symptoms began and what makes them better or worse.
To tell me I’m not properly talking my medication, or that I’m not really having the symptoms I’m experiencing right that minute is gaslighting. It’s using power – in this case the power of study, career, and social position to invalidate my experiences. And then a tiny bit of questioning sneaks in. I wonder if I am exaggerating or doing something wrong.
Continuing with this theme, the ‘manslaughter’ level would be when someone used their power or position to push their agenda, but had some solid evidence and shared that. And finally, mistakes do happen. Gaslighting is not the same situation as simply being mistaken.
Continuing for the moment to use doctors as an example; it took me over 15 years from the first time I went to the doctor specifically to ask about the symptoms I was experiencing to when I officially recieved the correct diagnosis. To be fair, the condition I have is rare, and isn’t discussed much, if at all, in medical school or internships. When I went to doctors during those 15 years, nearly every one of them said the same basic thing. “I’m not sure what this is and can’t be absolutely sure how best to treat it.” The way they told that to me, though, made all the difference. The doctor who told me “The first thing we need to do is address the symptoms that are causing you so many problems”, and the doctor who said, “I don’t know what you have, but you clearly have something and I’m going to keep on trying until we figure out what’s going on”, were both doctors who took pains to use their power to empower me.
The direct opposite of that was the doctor who told me that if the medication he prescribed wasn’t working, then I must not actually be feeling bad was directly gaslighting. Whether he had chosen those words specifically to make me go away and stop sayingI felt sick or was just reacting out of frustration is something I can’t know, but either way I was not empowered. If me reporting what was said could help other patients, it might help to know if it was planned or not – but the devastation I felt was the same.
This level of devestation is even higher in a personal relationship. Most of the doctors who said, from their position of trust and authority, that I wasn’t sick or didn’t need medication barely knew who I was. They saw me every month or two or three. They had to check my chart to remember which symptoms and medications went with my name, and if they hadn’t asked about something they sometimes made assumptions, such as telling me more excercise would help when I was taking a martial arts class that met twice weekly and going to a weekly dance class as well.
Having a partner tell me that I’m selfish, when they had been there to see so many things I did for others, not only hurt worse, but it left me with a lot of self doubt. Again, it doesn’t matter if this person had thought this for a while or just grabbed the closest insult available in a discussion. The effect on me was to weaken my sense of self and my resilience to the next conversation that went badly.
The answer to ‘Who is gaslighting’ is that anyone who gives replies or information that is A – slanted from the truth, B – strengthens their emotional position at the expense of the emotional resources of the other person(s) involved, and C – who is doing it deliberately.
To be doing it deliberately it isn’t necessary that the gaslighter have planned the conversation or the result, but it is necessary that they hold their emotional position as more important and that they are aware that they are not attempting to give valid information or to define their statements as personal opinions that their audience isn’t required to adopt as truth.
That’s why the overall way to both avoid gaslighting someone and to repel gaslighting from sticking to you lies in the simple, but very powerful, concept of the I Statement.
How to Stop Gaslighting
Gaslighting comes out of what the author and speaker Starhawk refers to as ‘Power Over’. Power over is any social system where people with power use that power to solidify and increase their power by reducing the power that others, especially others in a perceived lesser class or position, have within that system.
The system can be as large as a country or as small as two people in a relationship. Currently at a very large level, political and social leaders have been attempting, and sometimes succeeding, in gaslighting large numbers of their constituants or society at large.
A leader making an announcement that they are working hard to improve healthcare by cutting funding to said healthcare is gaslighting on an epic scale. And in addition to cold hard facts about how many people are helped or harmed directly; many, many more are harmed subtly by trying to make these two positions make sense together. As social beings, we do look to each other for assistance. More than that, in any human brain that isn’t highly damaged, we each have a part of the left side of the brain that wants everything to make sense.
This part is more willing to handle outright lies that are logical and match previous information than to handle information that doesn’t match, or to be told that no current information is available. This part of the brain will even make up plausible thoughts and insert them in between given facts to create a full story rather than tolerate ambiguity.
Having this portion of the brain isn’t some kind of cosmic joke. It’s an important skill to be able to act, rather than be paralyzed by incomplete or contradictory data. Still, it is the reason so many of us are willing to vote, purchase, follow, support, and otherwise act on false but plausible complete stories over accepting proven but incomplete stories. We prefer to believe we know what’s going on.
And it’s the reason gaslighting is so insidiously devestating. Gaslighting gives completing pieces to why and how things have occurred – it only requires that we accept the blame, shame, or culpability for incidents that aren’t ours.
To combat that as a potential victim of gaslighting, we regain our own power through I statements. The concept of I statements was first described in 1960 by a psychologist named Thomas Gordon*. I statements specifically focus on just the speaker and their thoughts or feelings. An I statement incorporates ‘I think’, ‘I feel’, ‘I believe’, ‘I want’ etc as the way to describe where this statement comes from, and focuses on what the speaker personally knows, thinks, has heard, would like, and so forth. By doing this, it bypasses the logical brain insisting on an integrated story, and allows more than one opinion to live together.
To add strength and flexibility to the relationship, follow up an I statement with a question to find out the thoughts of the other person(s). Just asking ‘what do you think’ has a lovely effect – if the questioner is listening and truly interested. This creates power WITH, instead of power over. Using I statements and honestly listening provides space for both opinions. Even if they don’t agree, two opinions can live together. I like green and you like yellow? Well, we could decorate with a pattern of daffodils or leaves? Plaid? Discover that we both like plum relatively well? Go with a neutral-ish tone and pops of several colours? Yes, this is a simplified example, and there are many situations where one choice has to take precedence. The point, however, is to let everyone involved feel heard, and to NOT remove their power, their agency, by playing false information or slanting the truth to make the other person feel less empowered than they deserve.
There are even many situations where one person does have more power in a circumstance. The goal is to use power between each other to support and to get things done, not to retain a higher position. Since this goes directly against what many of us have lived with and been taught, it can feel wrong – but it is, I’m fact, so very right.