And it’s not confined to romantic relationships. The manipulation of your mental state to allow someone else’s bad behavior to continue can occur among friends and family. It can come from the mouths of politicians or doctors who want you to believe your pain is “all in your head” (people of color and women are most often on the receiving end of this “medical gaslighting”).
It can happen at work, too, like the friend who tells me that their boss always promises the latest project she’s working on will be the one to finally prove her worth to the higher-ups, and justify a promotion/new role/bonus… Of course, it never happens, and the only thing blocking any of those things is, in fact, her boss. Self-interest and control aren’t desires limited to intimate partners.
But a note of caution. Because the term gaslighting is, as the actress Rebecca Humphries has put it, at risk of being “watered down.” Humphries is the author of the genre-changing book Why Did You Stay? about the impact of being gaslit by her ex, a certain comedian who was caught cheating on her with his Strictly Come Dancing partner and recently visited the Australian jungle. (She never names him, so neither will I.)
And she’s right. Too often we substitute “liar” for “gaslighter.” We use it as an easy insult or joke when our partner claims we didn’t tell them to take the garbage out. At the risk of sounding humorless, it’s not all that funny when you consider the abuse it’s meant to describe.
We’re not talking about straightforward fibbing here; it’s far more devious and manipulative than that. And by misusing gaslighting as a term, we undermine the very word that’s designed to describe a pattern of undermining behavior.
“Gaslighting isn’t lying, it’s more sinister,” Humphries tells me. “You become so dependent on the gaslighter that you start to gaslight yourself before believing the truth about a situation. ‘I’m sure they said that they would come tonight… but then again, my brain is mad so I’m probably wrong.’ It truly feels as though you’re going insane, and the irony, of course, is that you are the one who holds the truth.”