Gaslighting: what it isn’t

NOTE: Roughly 500 people access this page a day. Most comments are about diagnosing people. Under no circumstances should you attempt a diagnosis without the DSM-5 or, if that’s too expensive, the DSM Desk Reference. If you can’t see a psychiatrist, at least buy the tool they’d use to determine your diagnosis.

So.

You’ve probably interacted with the kind of person who looks up some kind of psychological disorder and applies the diagnostic criteria to you in an effort to feel like they’ve won something. If they want to say you’re egotistical, but aren’t satisfied with the label “egotistical” and want something much more forceful, they might say you have narcissistic personality disorder. Take the exact same situation, replace “egotistical” with emotional, and they’ll invoke histrionic or borderline personality disorder.

You can continue the same process to infinity, for every disorder, because disorders have broad criteria. For psychologists, broad diagnostic criteria are not an enormous problem. These criteria aren’t vague to trained researchers who know what to look for, but if you don’t know what to look for, they can lead you into a realm of false diagnoses like saying your spouse “has narcissism” because you read the Wikipedia page.

This has rightly earned the term “armchair psychology,” but the armchair aspect doesn’t stop at psychology. Any kind of word that aims to categorize a kind of behavior as abusive, dysfunctional, or simply bad is likely to find its criteria abused by laymen, due to a diagnostic vagueness that exists when diagnostic criteria only list what something is rather than what it is not.

“Gaslighting” is a mental health term that originates from the 1938 play Gas Light and has exploded with popularity on the feminist / social justice / progressive blog sphere. There are several definitions of this term, but in a nutshell it refers to the act of trying to deceive someone into a false reality by discrediting their emotions. Like most mental health terms, it describes something serious; also like most mental health terms, it is ubiquitously misused.


The Google trends search for gaslighting shows it experiencing a surge of popularity in the last two years. What is more likely: a term describing a serious mental health threat has become popular on feminist, social justice and progressive blogs due to a growing concern with mental health issues in general — or because a lot of people have found a term to categorize behaviors they don’t like in a cognitively lazy way? I’m going with the latter.

It’s not difficult to find a social justice advocate who has accused someone of “gaslighting” someone else because that person said they are being too sensitive, too dramatic, or unable to take a joke. The added gravity of this accusation is that gaslighting is deemed a form of abuse by some mental health professionals. Domestic abuse in particular, since it is likely to occur in that setting. Like typical armchair psychology, accusing someone of this is a lot like accusing someone of having a personality disorder because you read the symptom-based diagnostic criteria in Psychology Today. Actual gaslighting is pretty serious, but virtually everyone who uses this term cannot distinguish between “domestic abuse” and “telling me I don’t have a sense of humor,” so the dilution of the term here isn’t helping anyone.

A definition that describes “gaslighting” as “trying to discredit your emotions” is not rigorous. What the more rigorous definitions of gaslighting are referring to is specific: attempting to deceive someone that false events actually occurred, and that real events are false. It is ongoing and requires some prior knowledge of at least one participant’s experiences; you can’t “gaslight” someone in an anonymous internet argument, and simply telling someone they’re being too sensitive lacks the denial-of-reality aspect. There needs to be a deliberate, dishonest aspect to it — in other words, there needs to be lying. Simply telling someone they can’t take a joke doesn’t qualify as lying, nor gaslighting, nor abuse.

The vast majority of resources you will find online attempt to the abusive nature of gaslighting are not actually describing abuse; most of these entries are the worst sort of pop-psychology and pseudoscience, because they will say things like “you’re overreacting” qualifies as this. Something like “you’re being crazy” can be as simple as a refutation in an argument to say that the emotions in a response are disproportional to the thing evoking the response. That is not abuse. That’s not even close to abuse.

I define a “good” definition as a precise one. And by “precise”, I mean you narrow down the possibilities of behavior it is describing so that the definition is very clear about what it means and doesn’t mean.

Wikipedia’s definition of gaslighting is actually useful in this respect. As per the current revision, it reads:

“a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.”

There is a definite marker here: the doubting of memory and perception. In other words, the gaslighting needs to be aimed at denying something factual, not simply the emotional state of the person receiving the criticism.

Contrast the Wikipedia definition with the unspecific definition by Yashar Ali, in an entry that was lamentably treated as a standard:

Gaslighting is a term, often used by mental health professionals (I am not one), to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.

The difference here  is drastic: in the Wikipedia definition, there needed to be an aspect of reality-denial. In this one, there is no mention of reality denial; “thinking [your] reaction [is] far off base” can mean something as simple as “thinking I have an exaggerated emotional response.” Which is to say — this is the kind of definition that makes women on tumblr believe they can say someone is “gaslighting” them when they’re told they’re being dramatic.

The instances of this definition falling short are numerous. There’s this implied one from Clutch Magazine:

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. I’ve always had a difficult time articulating an offense in the first place, so it’s been fairly easy for others to convince me I’ve misread an offensive situation. I can attest that too many comments like: “I was just playin’! You need to learn how to take a joke” and “Wooow. I was just tryna keep it real with you, but since you can’t take it without getting your feelings hurt, I’ll fall back” will make anyone second guess herself.

and even this one from a proposed mental health dictionary:

Example 1: If an abusive person says hurtful things and makes you cry, and then, instead of apologizing and taking responsibility, starts recommending treatments for what he or she calls “your depression” or “your mood swings,” you are in the presence of a gaslighter. Example 2: If someone insults you or criticizes you, and then pretends it was a joke and asks “Don’t you have a sense of humor?”, that’s gaslighting.

These definitions fall short because they lack the necessary aspect of reality denial and ongoing deception. It is not sufficient to say that because someone is downplaying another’s emotions they are gaslighting you; there must be an attempt to establish a fake reality and make the person believe that reality. In other words, to lie on a large scale.

There are some sources on the web (such as this academic’s work) which approach a rigorous definition of gaslighting, similar to the Wikipedia one I linked earlier. Most definitions, unfortunately, are more along the lines of this one in Psychology Today:

“Instead of addressing the issue, he tells you that you are way too sensitive and way too stressed…”

In an argument or conflict, there are absolutely situations where someone’s sensitivity can be at issue. And expecting someone to “address the issue” or otherwise be guilty of abuse is absurd, because “addressing the issue” is something distinctly in the realm of the collegiate; the educated. It relies on at least some implicit understanding of informal logic to understand what “the issue” is. Most people don’t know the precise distinctions between premise, conclusion, and proposition; most people don’t understand how to attack the main point of an argument, in fact. This is true with or without emotions. Most people focus on motive at expense of the point. This is something typical of the general population, not an abusive relationship.

Don’t get me wrong: it would be great if most people understood logic so well that avoiding the point qualified as abuse, but unfortunately that is not the case. A simple instance of ad hominem circumstantial, more easily understood as “motive fallacy”, is not psychological abuse. Nor is it psychological abuse to tell them that they don’t get a joke, or that they’re crazy, or that they’re being too sensitive.

If you wish to apply gaslighting to a set of behaviors, simply discrediting someone’s emotions doesn’t qualify as gaslighting. The litmus test for gaslighting by all authoritative definitions has been a dishonest and manipulative attempt to deny reality to the person on the receiving end of gaslighting. So, for example, an attempt to make that person believe that actions which most certainly happened haven’t actually happened. You can understand how some people would get the impression that calling someone crazy qualifies as this, because someone could say “you’re crazy, that never happened” — but merely telling someone they are being dramatic does not qualify as abuse, in any way, nor does telling someone they are being too sensitive qualify as abuse on its own.

Let me reiterate: no matter what you define gaslighting as, telling someone they are being dramatic or too sensitive or that they can’t take a joke in no way, shape or form qualifies as abuse on its own. Even repeatedly. There must be an aspect of denial of a factual event integrated with the accusations of oversensitivity. 

To clarify what I mean by “denial of a factual event”, I have constructed a set of examples to distinguish between actual gaslighting and not gaslighting at all.

Actual gaslighting: A wife witnesses her husband cheating on her. He starts an ongoing campaign to make her believe this event was false and that her perception of reality is incorrect. “No, you’re crazy.” When she insists that she saw what she saw, he retorts with “why are you being so emotional?”

Not gaslighting: A husband repeatedly tells jokes that offend his wife. “Why are you being so sensitive?”, he asks. “You take offense to things way too easily.” She starts to doubt her own judgment — but not because of any abusive reason.

Actual gaslighting: A boyfriend and girlfriend are having an intense argument when he hits her repeatedly. Several days later, she calls the police, but there is no proof. He insists that she is delusional to the police. When she confronts him about this in private, he insists that she imagined it, and repeatedly calls her crazy for recalling the event. She begins to doubt her own memory.

Not gaslighting: James is dating Rebecca, whose political ideology he opposes. James frequently comments on Rebecca’s articles with dramatic and overblown emotional language. Rebecca insists that he’s being overly emotional, and that he should stop doing that. He says she’s trying to diminish the importance of his point by gaslighting him.

Actual gaslighting: A son witnesses his mom snorting meth in the pantry, when he previously did not know his mom did drugs at all. Since this event is so anomalous, he has a hard time believing it. She insists that he imagined it — she was just dusting the pantry. But since this image was so vivid, he insists he believed it. She starts to discredit his statement, saying that he is delusional, that he is too emotional, and that he doesn’t have a grip on reality. He begins to doubt his own sense of reality and she uses this as a basis for additional lies.

The point: abuse is very specific. “Gaslighting”, as it is applied by far too many internet commenters, is not abuse. There is a form of gaslighting that qualifies as abuse, and the popular blog application of this term is not it. Much like “narcissism”, it has come to be diluted by pop-psychology such that talking about real gaslighting or real narcissism is next to impossible. The bloggers who scream “gaslighting” from the mere utterance of “you’re crazy” are unanimously wrong; the pop-psych writers who tell wives to look for cues like “you can’t take a joke” are being erroneously misleading; calling an emotional response disproportionate is far from abuse.

These commenters are wrong on a massive scale in their application of the term “gaslighting.” It is certainly possible for ongoing and systematic manipulation by way of breaking down a partner’s sense of reality (actual gaslighting) to be abuse, but not without rendering virtually all applications of the term by internet feminists and political bloggers woefully invalid.

42 thoughts on “Gaslighting: what it isn’t

  1. When a person has an integrated understanding of their emotions, and the conditions in their environment that give rise to them, they are enabled to make personal decisions effectively as it regards their well being and the satisfaction of their personal needs.

    In an authoritarian culture, this internal locus of control is systematically dismantled to keep individuals locked into a hierarchical social format in which people can forgo making informed decisions related to their personal needs in favor of supporting a larger power structure that concentrates wealth and resources into the hands of a few.

    People will feel crazy if every expression they make about their own internal reality (over which they are the only rightful authority) is contradicted; they will be socialized to fight against the aspects of themselves and their desires in life that speak to them most deeply and truly. And they will live divided, lest they turn and assert their own inner truth for what it is and refuse to let others dictate that.

    it is the height of arrogance to assume an authoritative role as it regards another’s emotional reactions, as that system of feedback with environment will do better in the case of an ‘individual’ taking ownership of such.

  2. Pingback: Putting the Spotlight on Bad Behavior: Gaslighting? | The Ignorance Antidote

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