Where does the term “gaslighting” come from?
Gaslighting is one of those terms that we hear often in the mental health world today. It is a common tool narcissists will use to control those around them and is an oh-too-common occurrence when discussing emotional manipulation. You might see articles or posts from Insta-therapists teaching you all about the nuances of the term and how it shows up in our unhealthy relationships. I’m here to give you some history and context of the term– because it’s kind of an odd term if I’m honest.
The term “gaslighting” originates in a British play-turned film from the 1930s. The play was called “Gas Light” and the plot is about a husband who mentally and emotionally manipulates his wife into believing she is crazy by changing the intensity of the gas lamps within their home. He does other crazy-making things like knocking on the walls or moving/disappearing items around the house.This obviously brought up some questions from Paula, the grieving and rich wife he had quickly married after discovering she had wealth.
He was so persistent in denying her reality that he eventually convinced her that she was crazy.The story ends in an epically tragic (and totally upsetting social reality) of the wife being committed to a mental institution in order for her inheritance to be stolen by her conniving husband.The film is upsetting to watch because the audience is watching a woman slowly begin to question herself and her sense of reality.
Gaslighting in today’s world
Gaslighting remains one of the most serious and insidious forms of psychological abuse.It runs rampant in unhealthy, abusive, and toxic relationships because it is so successful at causing the victim of abuse to question themselves so intensely.It's incredibly effective and upsetting to the victim in these dynamics. You can read more about the 5 different types of gaslighting here.
We also have to consider the social environments in which these dynamics are allowed to exist. There’s an undeniable history of women being called crazy or hysterical when expressing feelings, upset, or concerns. In some cultures, communities, or religions, it’s even expected to dismiss or downplay a woman’s concerns. Because of this, it might be easier for women to miss the signs of being gaslit early in a relationship.
As a culture, we also have a ways to go before we have arrived at true emotional intelligence. There is still incredible discomfort with emotions or emotional reactions and we often treat those that are expressing their experiences with disdain, concern, or distancing. As you can imagine, this provides fertile ground for gaslighting and can be hard for those that have been historically emotional to stay true to their experiences or protect themselves from gaslighting in relationships.
Reality-TV + Cultural Examples
Let’s talk about some examples of gaslighting that play out on a national and cultural stage. A recent example played out on Season 2 of Love is Blind on Netflix. There’s a fateful moment with contestant Shayne is actively dating two different women in the “pods”. He smugly walks into the pod, where he can’t see which woman is in the other pod and he makes the wrong guess and calls Natalie by the name of the other woman. Here’s where the gaslighting starts. He says things like “You aren’t going to be upset about this, right?” or “This is ridiculous. Don’t make this a big deal!” Natalie immediately starts feeling ashamed of her natural upset at being called the wrong name and then leaves the pod feeling like she needed to apologize for his mistake. This is classic gaslighting and I would guess that many audience members totally missed it because it feels like a normal part of relationships.
High-demand and insular communities are at high risk for gaslighting because it’s incredibly effective to keep members questioning their own instincts or experience. For better or worse, this creates more adherence to the community rules when members are questioning themselves or their perception of reality.
Gaslighting in relatively healthy relationships
Before we end, I want to point out that gaslighting is never okay and it can show up when tensions are high within relatively healthy relationships. I really encourage couples to look at the way in which they are communicating with one another when they are feeling defensive, hurt, or protective of themselves. This can come up in an argument or when one partner is not present to how they might be defensive in a particular moment.
Understanding how gaslighting shows up and is even promoted by the culture at large is empowering. It helps us have functional and healthy relationships when we are able to identify gaslighting, address it, and actually get to the bottom of dynamics emerging between folks in relationships.
If you need a mental health professional to help you better understand gaslighting and its impact on relationships, you can sign up for a free 15-minute consultation with one of our trauma therapists (California residents only). We provide online therapy and have therapists who are trained in emdr therapy. We also offer many different types of trauma therapy groups. All of our therapists specialize in trauma informed care, and informed trauma therapy
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