News·4 min read

Gaslighting is the 2022 Word of the Year. But Do You Know What It Really Means?

A couple sitting on the couch, the woman seems distressed
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Dec 2, 2022

2022 is coming to a close. And with it, all of the year roundups we didn't know we needed (looking at you, Spotify Wrapped). One distinction people look out for is Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year. This year's winner is, drumroll please...gaslighting.

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. Given how popular the word has become, our "Skimm This" podcast sat down with 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? 

Dr. Durvasula explained it as “a form of emotional manipulation that's characterized by denying a person's reality, experiences, or perceptions.” Basically, when someone makes you question what you believe to be true. 

Don’t get this term confused with lying, or use it interchangeably, she noted. “Usually evidence will bring a liar to even begrudgingly fess up,” she said. “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 gaslighting examples? 

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 might try to…

Invalidate your feelings. 

  • “You’re being dramatic.” Other words someone might use: “sensitive” or “crazy.” 

  • “Why can’t you take a joke?” or, “You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

Twist reality and make you doubt yourself. 

  • “That never happened.” 

  • “It’s all in your head,” or “You’re imagining things.” 

  • “You have a bad memory.” 

  • “No one else believes you.”

Deflect responsibility. 

  • “You made me do/say it.”

  • “I’m sorry you think I hurt you.”

How can I respond to gaslighting phrases?

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.

theSkimm 

Gaslighting isn’t a new term, but it’s gained a lot of steam this year. But 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. You can listen to more about gaslighting here:


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