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For Those Who Experience Gaslighting, the Widespread Misuse of the Word Is Damaging

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It's likely that you've heard the word “gaslighting” before. It's been used in clinical and therapeutic settings for decades to describe a distinct form of psychological manipulation, but has seen a stark rise in usage outside the health-care arena in recent years. In 2018, Oxford Dictionaries named gaslighting one of its most popular words of the year, and since then, the word has seen a steady increase as a search term on Google.

But according to psychotherapists, its rise in usage is also marked by a rise in incorrect usage, which is contributing to confusion about what gaslighting actually means. According to Robin Stern, PhD, co-founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect, gaslighting is “the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings.”

A recent example of a widely consumed misuse of the word gaslighting came when Bachelorette star Katie Thurston offered her definition of the word while describing how she believed contestant Grep Grippo treated her during their onscreen relationship. “Gaslighting is when you try to make someone else feel like it’s their fault,” Thurston said during a taped special following the show's finale episode on August 9.

Without discounting Thurston's experience contending with Grippo's undeniably poor communication style—based on what was broadcast, at least—this is nonetheless not the definition of gaslighting. Dr. Stern says the key characteristic separating gaslighting from other forms of emotional manipulation is the intent to cause confusion, a component that was missing from Thurston's definition. That's not to say that Thurston did not indeed experience gaslighting behavior on the show, but the words she used to describe it perpetuate a lack of understanding for what it actually means, which can have the effect of leading those who legitimately experience it to be less likely to be able to identify it.

“The good news is that these terms are more readily known by society—so they can help certain behaviors be identified more easily and help people be more mindful of their boundaries," says psychotherapist Alisa Stamps, MSS, LCSW, author of The Gaslighting Recovery Journal. "The bad news is that we can throw these terms around, misuse them, and then lose their original definitions.”

The rise of gaslighting in language

The term "gaslighting" comes from a 1938 play called Gas Light. In the play and subsequent 1944 film (entitled Gaslight, as a single word), the protagonist's husband intentionally works to make her believe she can no longer trust her own perception of reality. One tactic he uses to drive this confusion is turning down the gas-powered lights in their home so they flicker throughout the house. When she asks him why the lights are flickering, he denies they're flickering at all, suggesting it's all happening inside her head.

Gaslighting began appearing in academic journals decades later in the 1980s, often regarding gendered power dynamics (à la the play and film). And while, according to the American Psychological Association, the term is occasionally used in clinical settings, it's now used more generally and as a colloquialism. It's also not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), meaning it is not an officially recognized psychiatric or mental-health condition. But that doesn't negate its impact on victims of the behavior.

Dr. Stern attributes some of the rise of usage (and misusage) of the term gaslighting to former president Donald Trump. In 2017, journalism professor Ben Yagoda wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that the word gaslighting had increased in usage as a reaction to Trump's behavior, stating the former president had a habitual tendency to, "say 'X', and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, 'I did not say "X". In fact, I would never dream of saying "X".'" By ignoring reality and perpetuating his own narrative—despite facts proving otherwise—he sought to gaslight the American people to accept his reality as the only reality.

Problems associated with misuse of the word gaslighting

Misusing the word gaslight can shut down otherwise productive conversation. “Gaslighting is often used in an accusatory way when somebody may just be insistent on something, or somebody may be trying to influence you," Dr. Stern says. "That’s not what gaslighting is.” In this example, the aim is not to devalue your perception of reality or lived experience but rather to push you to consider another perception or experience in addition to your own. While this urging can indeed be manipulative in execution, without the goal to undermine or deny your perspective, it's not gaslighting.

Gaslighting is also inextricably linked with abusive behavior and, as such, Dr. Stern says accusing someone of being a gaslighter simply because they are trying to convince you of something is a surefire way to scare them into abandoning their argument. In addition to being a misuse of the word gaslighting, accusing someone of gaslighting you functions as a trump card to end (or even "win") a conversation, which is also not reflective of healthy communication, so such accusations are best avoided as a tactic to end a discussion.

“Gaslighting is often used in an accusatory way when somebody may just be insistent on something, or somebody may be trying to influence you. That’s not what gaslighting is.” —Robin Stern, PhD

Furthermore, victims of gaslighting need the understood definition of the word to be protected. Dr. Stern and Stamps both report that in their work, clients and patients who are trapped in gaslighting relationships rarely know they are being gaslit—and without having a clear definition of what the term means, that understanding is harder to achieve. “The gaslighter intends to sow seeds of doubt in the person they are gaslighting, hoping to make them question their memory, their sanity, their perception, their reality,” Dr. Stern says.

Because gaslighting aims to cause confusion, these patients rarely have the clarity of mind to plop down in the chair and say, “I am being gaslit by my partner,” Dr. Stern adds, noting that when these victims hear that the patterns inside their relationship resemble gaslighting, many have an aha moment, during which they enter a new understanding of their relationship. By adding in the noise of convoluted interpretations of the what the term actually means, victims are less likely to be able to identify the gaslighting behavior they're subjected to. In other words, putting "gaslighting" through the linguistic meat grinder makes the word harder to access and understand for everyone, but, most importantly, for those who need it to describe their own experience.

Now, given the pervasiveness of “gaslight” in our vocabulary, it's fair to say it's at risk for following the path paved by words like “psychopath” and “narcissist”—which have clinical definitions that are now largely divorced from the way they are used in casual conversation. These words are used incorrectly all the time in intimate relationships—whether they be between romantic partners, friends, or family members—to communicate that we do not like the other person’s behavior. For example, an ex is not a narcissist for having broken up with you, but you may have labeled them as such when recounting the events to friends. This incorrect use "can lead to the downplaying of people's actual lived experiences, and these words almost evolve into slang," Stamp says.

Is it even possible to protect a word?

We cannot wave a magic wand and increase the accuracy and empathy of the public discourse around gaslighting, but we can put in effort on the individual level to not spread misinformation. “The biggest advice I can give is to check your information, check your sources, be mindful how you're using words and try to use them correctly,” Stamps says.

Dr. Stern echoes this sentiment, adding that the words we choose in conversations regarding people’s well-being are especially important. Stern and her colleagues at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence have an expression that speaks to the power of accurately naming something that has been done to you. “You name it to tame it,” they often say in reference to the healing power of identifying and owning your trauma—it is, after all, the first step in any recovery process. Every time the word “gaslight” is used correctly, then, its definition is continuing to be protected, which means victims of the particular form of abuse can continue to name it and tame it.

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