The dangers of “gaslighting”

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 

2 Timothy 4:1-4

What is “gaslighting” you ask? The term itself comes from the title of a 1938 play that was turned into a 1944 movie entitled Gaslight. In the movie a husband psychologically manipulates his wife to try to get her to think she’s insane. His goal was to have her committed to a mental institution and steal her inheritance.

Taken from that movie, the term “gaslighting” was originally used in clinical psychology to help those who have suffered from mental manipulation in an abusive relationship. And in this context the term is useful. It can help an abuse victim understand how she has been psychologically manipulated.

The problem with this term now is that it has been taken out of the context of abuse. This term is now used in a colloquial sense to describe every day interactions, and this is where it has become dangerous. Instead of it being understood as an intentional psychological abuse used in an abusive relationship over time, it is now thrown out there as an accusation in the middle of a conversation that involves simple disagreement.

Here’s how gaslighting is being defined today: “Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories.” Can you see how this definition is problematic if it is taken out of original context of an abusive relationship? Here’s how the term “gaslighting” is now being misused: if you make me question my perception of reality or my memories then you are psychologically abusing me.

Can you see how destructive that claim is? Can you see how the term can be used to prevent your listener from disagreeing with you for fear of being accused of psychological manipulation? Can you see how this term is now used to silence people into compliance?

For example, I can perceive that everyone is against me. But, if you try to convince me that my perception of reality is off, that maybe people are just misunderstanding me, then you are gaslighting me. You are psychologically abusing me. How dare you make me question my perception of reality!

Or if, because of my insecurities, my memories are filtered through a lens of self-hatred, and I “remember” that my friends were always mean to me growing up, you aren’t allowed to disagree with me. If you, as my friend who was also there, try to help me understand that wasn’t the case, you are gaslighting me. You are making me question my memories.

Do you see how accusing someone of gaslighting forces them to stop disagreeing with my “perception of reality?” If you disagree with me at any point and cause me to question my perception of reality, you are guilty of gaslighting, which is psychological abuse. So, you disagreeing with me is abusive. I get to weaponize my victimhood whenever someone disagrees with me.

The truth is that people often have skewed perceptions of reality. What they think happened, didn’t actually happen. But they are convinced it did because it comes through the filter and lens of their own life experiences, hurts, and wounds. What they think was said wasn’t actually said. Their own insecurities caused them to read subtext into the comment that actually was said. This happens ALL. THE. TIME. It is the most human thing in the world to do.

The thing about deception is that you don’t know you’re being deceived. We need help from others. We need people in our life who we trust who will cause us to “question our perception of reality.” This is what healthy relationships do. When I have a filter, or a bias, or a lens that is causing me to skew reality and skew what really happened, I NEED a good friend (and most often my wife) to cause me to question how I remember an event. This is not abuse. This is love. This is community. This is accountability.

Gaslighting, which is a useful term in a clinical setting, has become a dangerous accusation in a general setting with chilling consequences. It is a weapon used to eliminate disagreement and demand thought-compliance. It makes me an abuse victim every time someone tries to show me where my perception of reality is off. It makes me an abuse victim every time someone tries to show me where I might be wrongly filtering a memory through my own wounds. It’s too often used as a manipulative accusation intended to suppress disagreement.

If a person doesn’t feel heard in the middle of a conversation, disagreement, or argument, they should just state that they don’t feel heard instead of launching the accusation of “gaslighting.” The use of this term needs to stay in its original, useful context of counseling abuse victims. Outside of that, it becomes a thinly-veiled compliance tactic that silences disagreement.

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