I just saw on Sexual Violence Centre Cork‘s page that the term “gaslighting” is the word chosen by Merriam-Webster as the word of the year 2022 with searches on its website for the word spiking by 1,740% in 2022.
What a thing to witness! What a cultural shift! In awareness at least – the behaviour certainly hasn’t disappeared. If anything, its ‘territory’ has expanded. But it’s always good to have the language for a phenomenon. It literally makes it easier to talk about it.
So many of us have been gaslit. So many of us are being gaslit.
And usually by those closest to us. Our family, our partner, our spouse. Or indeed, and now more than ever, by strangers via the device we’re holding in our hands.
Have you experienced gaslighting but not had a word to describe it?
Originally “gaslighting” referred to psychological manipulation in intimate or close relationships. Rather than stop or take responsibility for his/her manipulative behaviour, the gaslighter would instead persuade their victim that they are at fault, or even that they are crazy and thus imagining things. The gaslighter might also convince others that the victim is crazy. Once achieved, this manipulation allows the abuser can carry on with impunity. It is more complex than “simple” manipulation. The extra ingredient is the piece where the victim is persuaded to doubt themselves, their beliefs, their very sanity.
Have you been persuaded you’re a bit (or a lot) crazy when you reported or named abuse? Were you told you were overreacting (ugh, hate that one), over sensitive, exaggerating, making sh*t up? Being awkward? Being unkind? (A favourite these days) Too moralistic (whuuut??!) too demanding, too unstable, too frigid? Have you been told you’re too fragile? Labelled the black sheep?
Gaslighting can happen on a larger scale too. Entire communities can be led to join in, to collude. Neighbours can, for example, be led to believe that perpetrators are decent people (think of how rape and abuse cases are reported for example – the accused held down a job/employs locals / does charity work therefore bla bla grand fella bla bla… ) and that therefore any stated or witnessed abuse must be either imagined or somehow the fault of the victim.
Entire societies, it seems, can also be prey to gaslighting. How else might we explain the likes of Donald Trump – just one example that springs to mind – a known, proven misogynist, being elected to office? Millions of people persuaded to believe that what they see isn’t the truth, to sort of “unsee” it. Or to attach a more benign meaning to what they see. We hear the word gaslighting being used in academic papers discussing Gender Ideology, Identity Politics, Equality Legislation – it has become a research term that is moving more freely now between the disciplines of psychology and sociology. Which makes sense given where we’re at societally.
Every micro is part of a macro.
Today the word seems to have expanded in meaning to describe or include the practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.
“In this age of misinformation – of ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deep fakes – gaslighting has emerged as a word for our time,” Merriam-Webster said in their statement, nodding to the “the vast increase in channels and technologies used to mislead” people, especially in personal and political contexts.
Gaslighting manipulates reality. And so it involves social power too.
Either way, in a family, a marriage or partnership, a work environment, or online, this phenomenon ain’t going anywhere. Please know that if you are uneasily aware that you might be in this situation personally, there is support available. People now have a greater understanding of the dynamics – those people are your friends, hopefully, and certainly professionals. We all ‘get it’ a lot more now, but we can still so easily fall prey. We are human after all, annoying as that is!
Knowing deep down in your silent but screaming gut that you’re not ‘crazy’ is always a good start I reckon. Take a breath, steady yourself. Get the support you deserve.
Sexual Violence Centre CorkWomen’s AidIrish Association of Humanistic and Integrative PsychotherapyIrish Council for Psychotherapy IACP – Irish Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy Youghal Community Health ProjectYANA Cork Domestic Violence Project