Opinion: The Misuse of the Word "Gaslight" is Problematic

Carolyn Light

Gaslighting is very real, but every disagreement isn’t gaslighting

Photo by Renè Müller on Unsplash

At a recent colleague happy hour, one co-worker was telling a story about a disagreement between her and her boyfriend.

They’d had an argument about who had said they’d pick their daughter up from daycare. They’d both thought the other was going to get her, which meant that no one went to get her — until the daycare called, asking someone to please come get her.

He kept telling me, ‘I don’t remember it that way,’ she said. And I told him, ‘I’m sure that’s how it happened,’ and he said ‘If you say so, but I don’t really believe you.’ She took a sip of her drink. He was totally trying to gaslight me.

I mean, he wasn’t actually trying to gaslight you, I said.

She stared at me. 

Disagreeing with you doesn’t mean he’s gaslighting you, I reiterated.

Oh, yeah I know, she said. It’s an expression. She waved her hand at me. You know what I mean.

I did know what she meant.

I also know that “gaslighting” is used now casually in conversation — as she said — and I don’t think that it should be. My friends give me a hard time over my desire for words to be used properly. It’s true — I do love language, and I love words, and I love words when they’re used properly.

Still, it’s rare that I correct someone when they use a word incorrectly. If I know what someone is trying to say, I feel little interest in stopping them midsentence to pick at a word they used.

The proper use of the term “gaslighting,” though, connotes a type of emotional abuse — and as such, I feel that this is a term that should be used sparingly and accordingly.

Dr. Robin Stern, the co-founder of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence explains that gaslighting is “the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings.”

Gaslighting is meant to drive someone crazy, to make them question their own reality. Consistent gaslighting can cause a person to be unsure that anything they’ve experienced actually happened as they experienced it. 

As a counselor, I’ve seen many true examples of gaslighting.

Example One: Person A told Person B that they were going to pick up pizza for dinner. This conversation was witnessed by multiple others. When Person A did not return home with pizza that evening, Person B asked where the food was. Person A said, “I never said I was going to get pizza.” 

When Person B said, “Yes you did, otherwise I would have cooked dinner,” Person A responded, “I never would have said that, work was busy today. You’re making sh*t up in your mind because you didn’t want to cook.”

Example Two: Person C threw a glass at a wall and it shattered. Person D later stepped on a shard of glass when trying to clean up the pieces, and needed to get stitches. Weeks later, when Person D was getting their stitches out, Person C said, “You need to be more careful when carrying glass. We don’t want you to drop another plate and cut yourself.”

Person D said, “Are you kidding? Is this what we’re calling you throwing a glass and me cutting my foot when trying to clean it up now?”

Person C said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t throw a glass, you literally dropped a plate. I saw you do it.”

Example Three: Person E came home from work and was angry that Person F hadn’t brought the car in for an inspection. Person E said, “I texted you this morning asking you to do this, are you unable to read?”

Person F said, “You didn’t text me that; otherwise, I would have taken the car in.”

Person E said, “I did text you that! Why are you pretending I didn’t?”

Person F pulled up their texts and showed Person E that there was no text from them asking for this favor.

Person E said, “You obviously deleted the text to make me look like a liar.”

Person F said, “I did not! I never delete my texts!”

Person E said, “You clearly did and don’t remember it. I’m not sure why you’re losing your mind but it seems that you are.”

In each of these examples, one party is attempting to distort reality to fit their own narrative. In order to make their narrative work, however, they must discount the reality of their partner. They need to twist that reality, make it seem unlikely, and make their partner believe that they got it wrong. They need to confuse their partner into thinking their own recollection is incorrect, and that their ability to remember events accurately is in distress.

Further, all of the people in the above scenarios have multiple examples of similar behavior with their partners. Gaslighting happens in a pattern.

I’ve also seen many people refer to situations as gaslighting, that aren’t.

Hearing that one person remembers something completely different than another is not gaslighting. Having someone throw their arms up in an argument and say, I didn’t mean it like that! is not gaslighting. 

People can be insensitive, or frustrated — they may say things they don’t necessarily mean during an argument — but that doesn’t make their actions gaslighting.

Gaslighting is an emotionally abusive act — an intentional and habitual act, with malicious intent — and as a result, victims of this behavior often find themselves confused, unable to trust themselves, and insecure.

The issue with the misuse of this term is significant.

By using the term colloquially, we’re dulling its meaning. If every argument or disagreement we have with someone else is referred to as “gaslighting,” then an actual victim of gaslighting will struggle to define the behavior they’re being subjected to.

If a victim of gaslighting is listening to a friend describe a casual disagreement they’ve had as “gaslighting,” the victim won’t describe their own situation using this word. Why? Because their situation isn’t synonymous with their friend’s. If their friend is being gaslit, there must be another word for what is happening to them.

Ironically, I’ve found that the majority of people subjected to gaslighting don’t refer to the behavior as such. They’ve had their sense of reality so warped by their partner, parent, or friend, that they don’t recognize that they are being gaslit. 

Just as every ex we break up with is not a “narcissist,” and every person we argue with is not a “psychopath,” every disagreement we have with someone else is not an example of “gaslighting.”

These terms have psychological connotations that we’d do well to respect. By being intentional with our verbiage, we are not only communicating more effectively, but we’re communicating more accurately. By not watering down the term “gaslight,” we protect others from being labeled as abusive every time they argue with someone else, and importantly — we allow victims of these behaviors to properly label their own situations.

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