The term gaslighting comes from the Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight, where the main character’s husband tries to make her think she is going insane. It’s a great movie, by the way, and the ending is quite satisfying. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s where the term comes from. It’s an insidious process that can tear down self esteem and create tremendous emotional confusion and pain.
Gaslighting is now officially a psychological term, defined as a psychological abuse of another person. It causes great harm to the person involved, and is a terrible thing. If you’ve ever been the victim of gaslighting, there are stages that you go through, as outlined by Robin Stern in her article for Psychology Today. Victims of this kind of abuse cycle through “disbelief ... defense ... and depression” (Stern).
Having been through it myself, I can attest to the agony and confusion. I didn’t believe in myself any longer. I barely recognized myself. I didn’t know who I was. I remembered a stronger person, but now, I was weak. I remembered a perceptive person, but now, I doubted all my ideas. He had me believing and blaming myself for everything. It was a terrible time, and I had no name for it then. No way to even prove it was happening to me, until much, much later. He does the same to someone else now, and I feel sad for her, for she too is a shell of the strong person she was in the beginning of their relationship.
These days, I see this term used a lot by people on the internet, often in the course of hurt feelings or angry arguments. And it troubles me. Gaslighting is something very serious and very profound. It is not name-calling. It is not “You misunderstood me.” It is not about fancy editing and internet huffiness. It is a long process, specifically directed by one individual to another individual. It is not these other things.
This is not to say those things are not upsetting. It is upsetting to be belittled or teased or made fun of. It is upsetting to feel patronized. But, if we spread the term thinly, to apply to all situations that bother us or that make us feel out of control in some way, we lessen the actual depth and profound pain of the real experience, even if it’s just by accident.
Abuse is a terrible thing. It takes time to recover. It is not a word to be spread all across the ground to cover every situation.