In 2018, the term ‘gaslighting’ was voted one of the year’s most popular words by the Oxford University Press. Since, its usage has only soared, with a continuous increase in Google searches and a general, noticeable infiltration into common online discourse. It would be difficult to read through the comment section regarding any social media drama without seeing the term bandied about, or having one or more of the much-scrutinised parties referred to as ‘gaslighters’ and abusers. Clearly, the name seems to have struck a cultural nerve – it’s just, drawing on contextual clues, it can be difficult discern what exactly it means.
A little obscurely, the term itself originates from a 1930s British play called ‘Gas Light;’ a tense, mystery-slash-thriller, in which an abusive husband convinces his wife that she has in fact gone mad. The name was then adopted into the psychological lexicon to refer to a real, covert form of emotional abuse, in which the victim’s sense of reality is undermined through persistent lies and devaluation of their own experience. It sounds simply terrifying. And, according to anyone who has suffered from it, it is.
Though the act is strongly linked to personality disorders such as narcissism and borderline, it can be committed by anybody. Those who use it as a form of abuse do not always do so intentionally, either, but regardless, the effects are just as damaging. Manifestations of gaslighting include insistent lies, even when presented with evidence of the truth, spreading damaging rumours, pathological blame shifting, and consistently diverting attention from the topic of discussion. Victims of this form of abuse may begin to doubt their own sense of reality, their capacity for judgement and even suffer from feelings of vulnerability and confusion. For many, a surge in awareness over the term has been wholly empowering. Gaslighting and its definition have enabled them to give shape and coherence to a form of abuse that is otherwise incredibly insidious, and has given many the needed confidence to step away from harmful relationships. So what is wrong with its proliferation?
Unfortunately, as experts such as psychotherapist Alisa Stamps warn, when such terms grow more popular, so does their potential for misuse. Of course, it is impossible to deny anyone’s anecdotal experience with gaslighting, particularly with the anonymity of the Internet, but where the issue truly lies is when we see the original definition of the term being diluted to refer to petty celebrity arguments, characters who are engaged in non-serious friction on TV shows, or even complaining about people who may butt heads with us, but who are ultimately not out to contuse our entire sense of reality, in our own lives. Gaslighting is not a synonym for having a disagreement with somebody. Yet, by observation of its use, it would seem that way.
It isn’t the first mental health term to suffer from damaging, widespread misapplication, either. At a near-similar frequency, you can observe the same public figures being accused of gaslighting also being diagnosed by armchair psychologists with a whole range of disorders, from narcissism to psychopathy to the widely mischaracterised borderline. In a similar vein, you can now also see enthusiastic texters being accused of “love bombing” (another very real, very serious form of manipulation), as well as those who demonstrate normal human faults – such as being late or forgetful – being labelled as highly toxic. Simply put, the more that the definitions behind these terms become watered down, the less empowering they are for victims who are trying to bring clarity to their abuse.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why gaslighting, and terms like it, have become so readily digested into the mainstream vernacular. Why do we seem to enjoy labelling people narcissists? Why do we find comfort in prescribing a serious word like gaslighting to our everyday squabbles? A potential answer may simply be found in the very act itself, in labelling. It makes it easier for us to make sense of the actions of others if we are able to fit them neatly into a set of prescribed signs and symptoms. In some cases, I believe a lot of people would rather explain away the callous of actions of another as being due to a real psychological issue, rather than them simply being an unpleasant person. Equally, when disagreeing with another’s version of events, it can be easier to shout ‘gaslighting,’ rather than try to understand their perspective.
To reiterate, the fact that so many people have access to the term – amongst others – is important and, overall, incredibly beneficial. The popularity of YouTube channels and TikTok pages run by counsellors and psychologists has enabled many people who have lived with those suffering from a mental disorder, or, indeed, those who suffer from one themselves, to educate themselves and to demystify issues that are often portrayed in media as being inherently malicious. Society has historically swept mental health issues under the rug, and the positives of its growing awareness far outweighs the negatives. However, as stated, the power of these words is only maintained by the integrity of their meaning. If gaslighting becomes just another way to shut down an otherwise productive conversation, then what word should the actual victims use?