What is gaslighting? Sarah Xerta provides an introduction to this issue of psychological abuse and lays the groundwork for future articles to follow.
I have been wanting to write about gaslighting for close to a year now, but every time I think about all the thinking I will have to unravel in order to present a thorough examination of this topic, my brain hurts. I get overwhelmed. I have to tread carefully, like a spy who has to navigate the matrix of a laser-alarm system, if I make the wrong move I might set the whole thing off and spiral into my own psychological abyss of unknowing, self-doubt, fear.
Yet the severity of this risk is also why I feel compelled to write these words. To give structure to the unknown is to make it known, and to know something is to lessen its power over you. And that’s what gaslighting, like any form of abuse, is ultimately about: power. And not just any power but a specific kind of power that asserts itself by making others powerless. When this happens in a personal relationship, we call it abuse. When this happens on a societal level, we call it oppression. Gaslighting is a form of abuse that is happening on both personal and universal levels, and it’s making people sick.
But what is gaslighting, exactly? The word comes from a play in which a man lowers the lights in the home but then tells his wife she is only imagining that the lights are dimmer, leaving her to question her own perception of reality and ultimately depend on her husband for “the truth.” Gaslighting, then, is a form of psychological abuse in which one person invalidates another person’s reality in order to assert control over that person’s perception of reality. Repeated exposure to this type of abuse has grave consequences for the victim’s psychological health, including but certainly not limited to dissociation from reality, paranoia, an inability to distinguish rational thoughts from irrational thoughts, and a dependency on the abuser to decide what is real and safe.
Although in the play the man is intentionally gaslighting his wife, psychological abuse doesn’t have to be intentional to cause damage. Because gaslighting is invisible, it can be difficult to detect, and even then the severe self-doubt it so often causes can leave a victim feeling entirely lost in psychological hell, a vulnerability that increases one’s risk of being further abused.
It is tempting now, to fill the rest of this space with a neat synopsis of real-life examples of gaslighting, what you can do about it, and tell you that I understand. That you are not alone. But I do understand, which is why I am not going to neatly wrap up anything for the sake of a 500-800 article in a publication. I want to spend time with you. I want to unravel psychological abuse from all the angles that I can, because I believe doing so is a way to restore power from those it’s been stolen from.
We hear often about gaslighting in abusive relationships, but what about parents who gaslight their children? Bosses who gaslight their employees? Governments that gaslight their citizens? Entire systems of thought that help shape what we think we know about reality, that leave us questioning ourselves, questioning our questioning.
As someone who has been a victim of gaslighting for most of their life, I tend to ask a lot of questions. It is instilled in me, to question and to doubt, to leave nothing unexamined. There are times this quality causes me immense personal distress, but I refuse to further pathologize myself, to further alienate myself from my perceptions of reality. My perception of reality involves questioning much of what I perceive: what happens if I let this be, if I stop fighting myself? By questioning my own questioning I have come into answers that allow me to see myself as worthy of being seen, answers that make me want to keep asking, to stay alive to do so. Questions don’t have to be knots. They shouldn’t be knots, anyway, since asking a question is a process, an opening.
Throughout this series I hope to untangle some of the knots of psychological abuse in order to open pathways of thinking, knowing, and being. Our society is slow to take abuse seriously and even slower to recognize abuse that cannot be seen, pain that cannot be proven with empirical “objective” evidence. This, too, is a form of gaslighting, perpetuated by linear patriarchal thought, but I’ll stop now and pace myself. I deserve that, after all.
Next Topic: Gaslighting in Intimate Partner Relationships