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A greater understanding of emotional abuse has developed recently but it remains far more difficult to spot than physical or sexual abuse, and often more difficult to understand and break away from. It is common to seek information about things we do not understand, especially things that feel personally relevant. Most people have probably experienced some form of manipulation and/or emotional abuse, whether gaslighting, name-calling, emotional blackmail, bullying, shaming, or intimidation, thus making this topic highly personal, relevant, painful, and applicable to most.
However, sometimes the term gaslighting is used incorrectly. It may be used to label any form of behaviour that the receiver disagrees with, as a form of attack or a way of shutting people or arguments down. It is important to develop a good understanding of what gaslighting is, and what it isn’t.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a pattern of behaviour, usually intentional, designed to make someone question their own reality, memories, or experiences.
The lesson is simple: When identifying gaslighting, look for a pattern (i.e., one time is not enough), and for behaviour that seems intentional or malicious (think “No, you are over-reacting because you are too sensitive, it didn’t happen that way”).
When Is It Not Gaslighting?
There is a range of times when behaviours might sound like gaslighting, but are not actually gaslighting.
Have you said one of the following things?
- “You misunderstood me; I didn’t mean it like that.”
- “That’s not what I remember.”
- “I didn’t mean to.”
- “What I said wasn’t so bad.”
I suspect that most of us have said some things along these lines in most of our relationships. Would this make us people who gaslight others? Possibly not.
Intentionality and Malice
Gaslighting is an intentional behaviour directed at diminishing someone’s sense of reality or denying their experiences as a way of helping the gaslighter save face/protect self-esteem/maintain the relationship/keep another person in a relationship/win an argument, etc. These motives are not necessarily understood or noticed by the gaslighter, and sometimes they may genuinely believe the things they say. However, the crux of gaslighting involves a sense of malice, i.e., an intentional attempt to deny someone’s reality for the perpetrator’s gain (even if this gain is subtle or unacknowledged).
Most other abusive behaviours, including name-calling, bullying, physical or sexual violence involve behaviours that are clearly intentional and are usually visible to both the perpetrator and other people involved. With gaslighting, people sometimes do not notice that they are engaging in these behaviours and may lack an understanding of the drivers underpinning the behaviour, making it even harder for people around them or victims to understand their actions.
When trying to understand subtler behaviours like gaslighting, I ask one simple question: What does the person stand to gain from this behaviour?
People engage in behaviours for two primary reasons: to gain something (status, money, sex, food, affiliation) or to avoid a loss (the loss of a relationship, loss of status, loss of a job).
Gaslighters often need their victims. The relationship serves a purpose and one of the primary reasons people gaslight is to keep others from seeing their bad behaviour and thus keep them in the relationship. If you can identify what someone stands to gain or lose, you will better understand the gaslighting.
The crux of gaslighting, or any form of emotional abuse, is that it involves a pattern of behaviour. A single episode of bad behaviour can be chalked up to a bad day or an accident, but if it happens a few times, it is a pattern. For a behaviour to be deemed gaslighting, we need to ascertain that someone engages in these behaviours repeatedly (e.g., often telling you that they were just joking, or didn’t mean to make you cry, or that you can’t take a joke).
Gaslighting Essential Reads
Most people will say things that might be insensitive, exasperated, or callous on occasion. It would not count as gaslighting unless there was a repeated pattern over time — a pattern based on a desire to deny recognition of the other’s experience.
The context within which gaslighting occurs is key. As an example, many people charged with crimes plead ‘not guilty’ and deny their offences in court. This is a part of the adversarial court system most modern jurisdictions have and does not qualify as gaslighting, because it occurs in the context of someone not incriminating themselves and attempting to prove their innocence — both rights enshrined in the modern judicial system. If people make statements in the context of an argument in which they are trying to explain their point of view, or if these statements are made over the course of legal proceedings or formal hearings, then they may be viewed as someone defending themselves, not intentionally attempting to gaslight.
It is also important to remember the principle that people generally have different views of a situation based on their histories, interpretations, and psychological needs, and that it is important to not classify behaviour as gaslighting if someone is simply trying to explain their view or defend themselves. It ventures into the realms of gaslighting if they then proceed to deny your experiences, instead of accepting that you may simply have different views.
What Is Being Denied
At the crux of gaslighting is a denial of someone’s experiences. Sometimes, people might deny certain aspects of experiences (e.g., “it didn’t quite happen that way" or “you forgot this factor”) and this is not necessarily indicative of gaslighting, as people often simply notice different things and remember things differently. Unlike what we commonly believe, memory is not a verbatim recording of objective truth but is instead usually our own interpretation and recollection, based on our histories and biases. It is helpful to remember this when considering gaslighting. Typically, someone denying your feelings, an objective reality you clearly recall, or reality that is unambiguous (e.g., whether they hit you or not) may be gaslighting, while differences in subtler details of memories might simply be attributable to differences in recollection.
Gaslighting can be a difficult behaviour to spot, but generally, look for a pattern in which someone appears to be intentionally and repeatedly denying your experiences and realities for some form of gain or prevention of loss. This is what sets this behaviour apart from the more innocent dismissive statements we all sometimes make.
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