CW: this post discusses trauma and its impacts, and abuse, including providing examples of gaslighting
I want to start by defining gaslighting, as I understand it. Gaslighting is a tactic of abuse in which someone deliberately causes someone else to question or doubt their reality or sanity. The term is named after a movie from the 40s, but didn’t really start getting broadly used until the 2010s.
ps: fart lighting is exactly what it sounds like - lighting a fart on fire
What does this look like in practice? Ok, does anyone remember Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’? It was about a mutually abusive married couple who seemed to spend most of their time and energy trying to hurt each other, but one of the things Mr. Twit does to Mrs. Twit, is to add a tiny piece of wood to her cane every night, causing the cane to gradually lengthen and Mrs. Twit to believe she’s shrinking. Or there’s the episode of Community where a psychiatrist tries (and almost succeeds) to convince the study group that their community college doesn’t exist and that they’ve been locked in an institution the entire time they thought they were attending school. Realistically, most of the pranks Jim pulls on Dwight on The Office involve gaslighting.
To bring it closer to home, maybe you have a friend who any time they're angry with you they cuss you out and belittle you, and when you bring it up later they deny it, or minimize what they did by saying that you always blow things like this out of proportion and aren't they such a great friend to you? Or perhaps you have a partner who is regularly violating your relationship agreements, and any time you confront them about it they convince you that, no, everything that happened was innocent, you're always seeing things that aren't there, or that that's not really the thing you agreed to, and if you want to mutually modify your agreements that that's fine but we definitely can't do it now and retroactively, not when you're all activated about this, and they really worry about you when you're like this. Or maybe you’ve reminded your roommate 5 times this week to mow the lawn with them every time saying that they'll take care of it, when you get mad at them for not doing it they insist that, hang on, no, they did it the first time you asked, and it's just grown back, how did you not notice, and by the way that means it's your turn to mow the lawn. Shit like that.
If you exist in or around any social justice or leftist circles, this is probably not a new word for you. It’s becoming a very widely used word - Oxford University Press named ‘gaslighting’ a runner-up as one of the most popular new words of 2018, and it was Merriam-Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year! The fact that it is becoming widely known is great for a lot of reasons. For one thing, if you know about it, it’s a lot easier to recognize it happening to you. It’s a lot easier to point it out when you see it happening to loved ones. It makes it harder for people to get away with doing it to each other, and that’s cool.
Okay so, as we use words, their meanings shift and evolve, and that’s how language works. Words mean what we, collectively as a society, agree that they mean. So gaslighting has evolved, from meaning ‘someone maliciously and intentionally causing you to doubt your reality as a tactic of abuse’, to meaning ‘any kind of deception or dishonesty at all’. It’s okay that the word has evolved - but it’s not okay to keep treating it like a very specific abusive tactic, if that’s not what we mean.
It feels shitty to be lied to. It can be part of abuse. But it is not inherently abuse. And if we keep conflating the idea that any lying is gaslighting and gaslighting is a serious abuse tactic, we’re doing ourselves a huge emotional disservice and creating a social dynamic where we’re hypervigilant and no one feels safe.
I think the bit that stings the most for me, personally, is this - years ago, fresh out of an emotionally abusive relationship, I learned about gaslighting on Tumblr (because of course I did). I also learned how I could respond when I suspected someone was gaslighting me. I can say, “that’s not how I remember that happening”, or “I remember that situation differently”. It’s perfect, because I’m not telling them they are wrong in their recollection - I’m telling them that I experienced it differently. I am allowing that there can be multiple experiences of the same event. I have used variations of this phrase more times than I can count over the years, often even when there’s no gaslighting involved, because it’s important to remember that there is no objective True experience of something - everyone will experience it differently and that’s okay. Anyway - this phrase has made me feel like I was armed and ready to protect myself against being gaslit again.
Sarah Crosby (@themindgeek on Instagram), an Irish psychotherapist and artist, created a series of graphics that I think are *chef kiss* perfect:
I think these are great, and full of solid advice. Except, with the way this word and its meaning is evolving now, even saying “I remember it differently” is coded as being gaslighting. Which, I admit, hurts my heart because it’s a phrase that gave me strength when I was in a real dark place, but it’s also just inaccurate.
“I remember it differently and your recollection is wrong”, gaslighting.
“I remember that situation differently than you do”, not gaslighting.
I get that we like things to be black and white. It’s easy and safe and comfortable. My brain loves things being black and white!! But human interactions aren’t. They cannot be. This cultural slip and slide into “anyone who disagrees with me is gaslighting me” is real dangerous, and I know I for sure am seeing more people who care about each other and have good intentions towards each other, fall apart because of this extremely generous application of “gaslighting” to even small disagreements. Instead of 2 people having a disagreement then, it becomes one person gaslighting the other, which is abuse, and that means that person is an Abuser. To be clear, I don’t agree with all the “if this then this” that went into that last sentence, but that’s the logical path our brains take. It also means that we stop trying to resolve disputes and disagreements, and we lose the ability to talk things through and get through conflict in healthy ways.
I want to be really clear in all of this, that I think gaslighting is a real thing, it is a very slippery and effective abuse tactic. I have experienced it on a prolonged basis and I’m still fixing my brain from that. Please don’t take this as me being dismissive of gaslighting. I don’t like being lied to, it hurts me a whole heck of a lot, and if I knew someone was regularly lying to me or deceiving me, I also wouldn’t want to keep that person in my life. Honesty is super important to me, being lied to feels like shit… and it’s not automatically abuse. It can be manipulative, and again, lying can be and often is part of abusive dynamics, and part of gaslighting even! Deceit in itself is not abuse and it is not gaslighting. Gaslighting requires malicious or manipulative intent. Or maybe it doesn’t, but if it doesn’t, we can’t treat it like the huge abusive tactic we currently do. We can’t have it both ways, it just doesn’t work. We end up with the 3 Spidermans meme? Of people going “that’s not how I remember it! You’re gaslighting me!” and it goes nowhere and we all end up alone and sad and walled off.
I also think it’s worth noting that if you’re reading this, you’re probably a leftist queer person with mental health stuff and a buttload of trauma, and most of your friends are too. All that oppression and trauma bullshit you’ve had to deal with filters how you interact with the world. Having experienced abuse makes you hypervigilant about it happening again. When something triggers your trauma, you go into survival mode, maybe without even noticing it. But all that stuff impacts what you take away from experiences and interactions. So if you and your equally traumatized best friend get into a big fight, you’re probably both triggered, and you part ways to cool down, and you almost certainly both remember the interaction very differently. The things that triggered you are probably the important parts for you, and the things that triggered your friend are the key parts for them, and when you are triggered, your brain doesn’t say, “hey, this reminds me of that trauma that happened, please keep in mind that you might be upset about that”, your brain goes “DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER DANGER”.
I wanna share an exchange I had with a housemate a few years ago, to exemplify what the heck I’m talking about. Something had reminded me of the powerlessness I felt when with my abusive ex, and I was triggered. Wandering my house, I noticed a piece of artwork that my housemate had said they would hang up. They hadn’t hung it up and my brain said “Em, you can only trust yourself, you can take control of this situation by hanging that piece of art yourself”. So I started doing that, and my housemate walked in and asked what I was doing. I explained that this piece of art needed to get hung up and I needed to hang it right that moment. I said, “I’m not trying to attack you for not hanging it, I’m just gonna take care of it”, and they asked me if we could hang the art together later on. My brain said, “you were powerless then and now you’re doing something to regain your power and they won’t let you, you are still powerless, you will always be powerless”. We both got more distressed until we recognized we needed to take a break. Once my nervous system had calmed down, I was able to put the pieces together and realize exactly what and how had triggered me, and I could explain my reaction to my housemate. They, in turn, explained that in that exchange, their brain was telling them that I was attacking them for not having hung the artwork already. Their brain was telling them that they should feel shame for failing to do a simple thing and that I was rubbing it in their face, taunting them about their failure. We both came away from that interaction having experienced 2 very different conversations. And neither of us was gaslighting the other. We were both just two hurting people trying to talk to each other through the haze of trauma hanging between us.
Existing in shades of grey is exhausting. Black and white, definitive categories, are easy and comfortable. But we do ourselves and our communities a disservice if we refuse to hold on to those shades of grey. Someone sharing their recollection, saying “I don't remember you saying that to me”, is not the same as them saying “you never said that to me, that did not happen”, and as subtle as that distinction might be, it really, really matters.