Thanks to the website Jezebel.com, which I highly recommend unless you dislike occasional comic vulgarity, twice recently I’ve come across the term “gaslighting.” In reading up on it, I’ve decided that it’s a term that should be known to everybody who’s ever heard, and everybody who’s ever said, “You’re too sensitive. You’re overreacting. You’re just making too much out of this! What are you talking about? You’re imagining things, and I personally don’t appreciate it when you come at me with these made-up accusations.”
Or even, “It’s things like this that make me not want to be around you. You have a real problem, you know. You might even need help. It’s hard to deal with you when you’re like this.”
“Gaslight” is a 1944 movie in which Charles Boyer slowly convinces Ingrid Bergman that she can’t trust her own eyes and her own judgment — that she’s crazy. In his case, he’s carrying on illicit activities in the attic, and when he turns on the lights up there, the gas lights in the rest of the house dim. He convinces her that she’s imagining it… that the lights really aren’t getting dimmer… and it goes from there.
So the term “gaslighting” has been used to label a form of emotional abuse in which one person manipulates another to believe that she* is the problem, that she’s unreasonable or even crazy. Milder versions, though, happen every day, without us even noticing them.
Boiled to its essence, “gaslighting” is the act of making another person doubt herself in order to make yourself feel better. Ever told somebody, “You can’t be serious!” “You’re making this out to be worse than it is.” “You’re being ridiculous.” “You’re overreacting.”
OK, sure, most of us have. But if we remember how we felt at that moment, and we do it honestly, were we mostly feeling uncomfortable? Squeamish? A little guilty, maybe, or simply angry? Did we feel better after putting the other person down? A little relieved? Whew, that was close. But I’m right and she’s wrong, so it’s all OK.
A rational question to ask is, “But what if she really IS too sensitive?” And certainly there’s no doubt that our society is overpopulated with folks who lash out unreasonably at small provocations.
Here’s the answer, though: There are very few circumstances in which a normally empathetic person would tell another person, “You’re just too sensitive.”
That means most of the time you hear that statement, it’s coming from someone who is trying to make the other person doubt herself. In order to make himself feel better.
Because he’s getting uncomfortable — maybe nervous that he might be wrong or might look bad, or maybe he’s used to always being the dominant person in the conversation, or a dozen other reasons. And it’s probably an instinctive reaction, rather than a conscious effort to control her.
But that’s exactly what it usually is: an effort to control. Manipulation, not honesty. And it’s very rarely the response of a caring or loving person.
Imagine what words that caring or loving person would be likely to say. Different, right? Now stand up, walk away, and go find him.
* For simplicity’s sake, I’m using “he” for the manipulator and “she” for the subject of the abuse. It’s a stereotype, for which I apologize, but it’s also the most common scenario in this form of manipulation. Call it equal time for decades of jokes in which gossipy, emotional binge shoppers are always a “her.” But please know that I am fully aware there are many, many men to whom this doesn’t apply — thank God — many men to whom demeaning another person would not even occur as a possible course of action. A couple who happen to leap to mind are named Gerald, Matt, Ponch, Joe, Rick, Adrian, Andy, Darius, Chris, Robert, Todd, Kyle and probably YOU, if you’re a friend of mine who is still reading this post down to the footnotes. I love you guys, and I always will.