You might have heard examples of gaslighting before, from the "Bachelorette" and "gaslight gatekeep girlboss" memes, to patients dealing with roadblocks in the medical world. Merriam-Webster even dubbed it its 2022 Word of the Year.Given how popular the word has become, theSkimm asked clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula to break down what the term actually means. Plus, we've got tips for how to respond to gaslighting.
Back up. What is gaslighting, exactly?
It’s a type of emotional abuse — and it happens everywhere, from romantic relationships to medical visits. Dr. Durvasula explains it as “a form of emotional manipulation that's characterized by denying a person's reality, experiences, or perceptions.” If someone has ever made you question what you’re sure is true, you’ve probably experienced gaslighting firsthand.
Don’t get this term confused with lying, or use it interchangeably, she notes. “Usually evidence will bring a liar to even begrudgingly fess up,” she says. “If you were to bring evidence to a gaslighter, they would use that as a jumping off point to pathologize the other person further.”
Gaslighting as we know it today comes from a 1938 play-turned-movie called “Gas Light.” It’s about a woman who notices the gas lights at home dimming — even though her husband tells her they aren’t. More than eight decades later, searches for the word “gaslighting”increased almost 2000%in 2022 from the previous year.
Why is the term so popular right now?
Dr. Durvasula explained that it's everywhere in our society: families, relationships, the workplace, educational settings, and beyond. Plus, it's nice to have a name for something that women in particular experience.
“Women have been more vulnerable to gaslighting because they've traditionally held less societal power,” she said. “A person who holds less power in a situation is easier to gaslight because of that less perceived power. It's easier for them to believe that, ‘Oh, I must be reading this situation wrong, this other person must be right.’”
But when the word gaslighting becomes a catch-all for other forms of conflict, Dr. Durvasula said it waters down its true meaning. “Gaslighting isn't just because somebody's arguing with you,” she said. “We're missing the emotional abuse that it really represents.”
What are some examples of gaslighting?
These days, you're probably not going to see actual gas lights in your everyday life like they did back in 1938. But here are some examples of gaslighting phrases that may be red flags.
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing.” This phrase, along with “You’re being dramatic”, or “Why can’t you take a joke?” are often used to invalidate your feelings.
“That never happened.” A gaslighter might use this phrase, or something close to it, as a way to make you doubt your own reality. Honorable mention: “You have a bad memory.”
“I’m sorry you think I hurt you.” This one helps the gaslighter deflect responsibility for their behavior.
Any tips on how to respond to gaslighting?
Start by validating your own feelings. Especially when you’re interacting with something in a position of perceived authority, like your boss or a doctor. If you feel safe to, assert yourself and what you feel — or seek validation elsewhere by confiding in someone else or seeking a second opinion.
And if you feel like your reality is being denied, stop the conversation. Then try writing down your feelings or making notes, so you can stay clear on what happened and how you felt. And ask your close friends or family for their perspective on the situation, to help you see things more clearly.
Gaslighting isn’t a new term, but it’s gained a lot of steam in recent years. However, misusing it can muddy the waters of what it really means — and knowing the real definition can help you recognize gaslighting IRL. If you feel like you’re experiencing it, remember to trust your gut and your own feelings.
Updated on April 11, 2023 to include the latest info.
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