Anyone and everyone gaslights these days. A politician who walks back a campaign promise? Gaslighter. A wife who insists she contributes to the housework despite never having washed a dish in her life? Gaslighter. A boyfriend who refuses to admit to infidelity despite text message evidence? The crown prince of gaslighting.
None of these situations fit the traditional definition of gaslighting.
“Who cares?” you say. Language evolves. The problem is that when we use the term ‘gaslighting’ to describe any behaviour from another person (often a romantic partner) that we don’t like, we’re attributing an intent to harm where there may not be one. We’re imagining a world where the people we love most conspire to drive us insane. This happens, but it’s rare.
If you have moments where it feels like you and your partner have completely different concepts of reality, it’s worth exploring with an open mind. It could be a red flag for emotional abuse or it could be a normal human disagreement. It all depends on context.
What gaslighting is
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 dependency on the perpetrator
The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play where a husband slowly and intentionally convinces his wife she is insane. He moves furniture and then denies moving it and turns the gaslights on and off, but tells his wife it’s in her imagination. His ultimate goal is to lock his wife in an institution. This is emotional abuse. It’s insidious, it’s premeditated, and it’s altogether different from someone who doesn’t take the garbage out and says they did.
What gaslighting isn’t
For a supposedly rational species, it is fascinating how easily two well-intentioned humans can fundamentally disagree on reality. Here are some common examples of situations that are certainly upsetting, but not typical of gaslighting. Importantly, these situations are not signs of emotional abuse.
1. Motivated reasoning
We’ve all been in a situation before where our emotions have clouded our judgement. Let’s say you and your girlfriend are planning a big move. The choice is between her hometown or yours and her hometown has a more expensive cost of living and fewer job opportunities. You know the two of you won’t be able to afford to live there. Despite the facts, she might argue tooth and nail that her hometown is the place to be. She’s motivated by her happy memories and the idea of being with her friends and family. This is a frustrating argument, but it’s not gaslighting.
2. Shame lying
When people feel ashamed, sometimes they lie. It can be about small things like taking the last cookie or farting in bed. It can also be about big things like financial debt, addiction, or infidelity. A significant lie can destroy a relationship. It’s extremely hurtful. But it’s not gaslighting. When someone lies about something they’re ashamed of, it’s not because they want to drive you insane. It’s because they don’t want to feel that shame.
3. Mental Illness
Some people experience delusions and hallucinations. Their version of reality is wildly different from the rest of us. It’s upsetting to watch someone you love insist on hearing voices in an empty room, but they’re not gaslighting you. If you suspect you may know someone who is going through this, check out earlypsychosis.ca.
4. Memory Differences
Human memory is quite fallible. I have a friend who has claimed for 15 years that he gave me box seats at a Raptors game when he most certainly did not. Harvard researcher Daniel Schacter conducted a study that helps explain why disagreements like this happen. He recited a list of words to a group of people: “candy, sour, sugar, bitter, good…” He then asked participants if he had said the word “sweet”. The majority said yes.
When we go to retrieve a memory, we will often fill in the fuzzy details with a seemingly rational explanation. The participants in the study remembered that Schacter said words that were similar to sweet, and so they assumed he must have said sweet as well. Our malleable memories help us make sense of day-to-day life, but it can be gasoline to the fire of a heated argument.
If you think you might be the victim of abuse, contact VictimLinkBC. If you are ever in immediate danger, call 911.