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What is gaslighting, what are the signs, and where did the term come from?

What is gaslighting, what are the signs, and where did the term come from?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary recently revealed the word of 2022 to be “gaslighting”.

The searches for the word were up by 1,740 per cent compared with 2021, showcasing the increasing interest in and awareness of the dangerous practice.

Gaslighting isn’t specific to romantic relationships, the abusive act can take place between family members, friends, or colleagues, too.

For instance, in a new trailer for the tell-all Netflix docu-series Harry & Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex talk about “institutional gaslighting”, with Harry adding: “They were happy to lie to protect my brother. They were never willing to tell the truth to protect us.”

Similarly, this past year, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused of gaslighting the British public over tax rises.

Whether you suspect that you might be being gaslit or you simply want to be better informed about the phenomenon, here is an extensive look at what gaslighting means, where the term comes from, what the signs are, and how you can respond to it.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional abuse and manipulation in which the perpetrator makes his or her partner doubt their own sanity, memories, and judgement.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “the action or process of manipulating a person by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity”.

Similarly, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains it as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories, and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty about one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator”.

Where did the term come from?

The term gaslighting originates from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, Gas Light, in which a man manipulates his wife to the point where she thinks she is losing her mind, where he makes her believe that she is “imagining” the gaslight dimming in the house. A 1944 film adaptation followed, starring Ingrid Bergman, which received seven Oscar nominations.

Bergman plays a young woman who witnessed the murder of her aunt when she was a girl. When she marries, her husband comes to live with her in the house she inherited from her aunt, which is also where the murder occurred.

As time goes on, she begins to doubt her own sanity as her husband tells her she is acting in irregular ways and confines her to the house, where she hears knocking in the walls and sees the gaslights dimming.

Is gaslighting a form of abuse?

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said gaslighting is an “insidious form of domestic abuse”. She said: “From our work with survivors, we know that perpetrators of domestic abuse will use every tactic available to them to try to exert power and control over survivors.

“Gaslighting is one tactic of coercive and controlling behaviour that aims to make survivors doubt themselves, their perception of events and even their own sanity, with devastating consequences.

“Gaslighting is an insidious form of domestic abuse that is, by its very nature, sometimes difficult for survivors to recognise and build up the confidence to escape from.”

Gaslighting is a form of domestic abuse (PA Archive)
Gaslighting is a form of domestic abuse (PA Archive)

Signs of gaslighting

Relationship expert Juliette Karaman lists a number of signs that might present themselves to you if you are being gaslit. These include:

  • They deny that something happened, even when you show them physical evidence.

  • They continue to lie about something, adamantly putting the blame on you, or say you must have dreamed it, misremembered it, or made it up.

  • They accuse you of lying when you are telling the truth and change the subject when you confront them.

  • They love-bomb you and try to convince you that the relationship isn’t as bad as you think when you start to pull away from them.

  • They blame you by saying things like: “If only you did not act like this, I would not have to behave this way”.

  • They lie and reinvent stories to suit their needs, and make you question your perception of reality and your recollection of events.

Gaslighting makes you question your thoughts, memories, and convictions (Alex Green, Pexels)
Gaslighting makes you question your thoughts, memories, and convictions (Alex Green, Pexels)
  • They criticise you by saying “you are too sensitive” or “I was just joking, did you think I was serious?” when their words or behaviour upset you.

  • They criticise your family and friends, slowly alienating you from your loved ones, which makes you more emotionally dependent on them.

  • They are nice one moment and nasty the next, or they compliment you one minute and insult you the next, keeping you emotionally confused.

  • You find yourself constantly making excuses for their behaviour and accepting blame for their decisions.

  • You feel lonely and don’t trust anyone else to share your concerns with.

  • You find yourself constantly apologising.

  • You start to lose your self-esteem, and think less of yourself and your abilities.

Ms Ghose adds that gaslighting techniques that abusers use can include calling into question their partner’s memory of an incident, trivialising thoughts or feelings, accusations of lying or making things up, denying promises that have been made, and mocking their partner for “misconceptions”.

She explains: “This form of abuse can be subtle, therefore, some of the signs to watch out for include if you are second-guessing yourself all the time, feel confused, find yourself always apologising to your partner, you are having trouble making simple decisions and find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses for your partner.”

If you are worried that your relationship is controlling or unsafe, get in touch with Women’s Aid, Men’s Aid, or Refuge to receive support and advice.