“It’s not even a big deal.”
“You’re just overreacting”
“Calm down, you’re so dramatic”
“It was just a joke.”
It happens all the time. People are constantly told their perceived problems are not real, that they’re making up the issues around them. They begin to doubt their own sanity, thinking that, maybe, they are simply crazy. This is not normal; this is gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a type of mental and emotional manipulation that causes a person to question their own sanity and reality. It happens when one person or entity tries to diminish the other in order to gain power. This can manifest in the form of telling blatant lies, denying facts despite hard proof, and dismissing the victims as crazy, among many other tactics that wear down the victims’ mental healths.
This term originated from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a young woman, Paula, begins to doubt her own sanity due to her husband Gregory’s constant belittling of her and her thoughts. In one scene specifically, Gregory intentionally causes the gaslights in the house to flicker. However, when Paula confronts him, he insists that they are not actually flickering, causing her to not trust her own perception of reality.
Like in the film, this type of abuse is most commonly found in personal, namely romantic, relationships. It emerges when one party wants power and control over the relationship. It allows the gaslighter to divert responsibility away from him- or herself, all the while keeping a tight hold on their victimized significant other.
While gaslighting can happen to men and women alike, women are, unfortunately, more likely to be victims of this psychological manipulation. First off, there are the stereotypes that women are more dramatic and emotional; thus, it is easier for men to exploit this and deem women as crazy. Moreover, a study assessing marital relations regarding genders, specifically surrounding extramarital affairs, showed that husbands, and to a certain degree male therapists, perpetuate these female stereotypes.
On top of this, women are trained by society to crave emotional (specifically romantic) relationships in order to define their worth. This need for attachment makes them perfect victims for gaslighting, eager to please and fall under the control of their abusers.
Women also deal with gaslighting in other aspects of their life, separate from personal relationships. In the workplace, women are frequently the victims of sexism and, in more extreme cases, sexual harassment. They are told that they are imagining issues, that they’re simply not being a team player. For example, this could look like a boss promising to give a raise if a specific task is complete, then denying the conversation ever happened or a coworker making a sexist comment, then refusing to acknowledge he did, calling the woman emotional and dramatic; she should just “take a joke.”
More dangerously, women deal with gaslighting in the medical field too. Oftentimes, their complaints and symptoms are brushed off as women being dramatic. This causes years of misdiagnosing, which leads to very avoidable ailments and deaths experienced by women.
Gaslighting is not solely a feminist issue. Especially recently, it has come out to be an extremely prevalent issue in regards to race. Many times, people of color are told that their experiences with racism are not real; because they are minorities, they are going to seek out these incidents, and, even so, racism doesn’t exist anymore.
“When BIPOC share their experience with racism or confront someone about their racist behavior, the immediate reaction of the perpetrator is to question the victim’s experience, memory, or reality.” Issues of racial gaslighting have long been obscured.
Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah recently shared a post on Instagram about what racial gaslighting may look like:
Women and BIPOC are so accustomed to disbelief, skepticism and invalidation that we have internalized these to the extent that it affects our sense of reality and self-worth. Gaslighting occurs on all levels of life, personally, professionally, socially and politically. At this point, it has become so ingrained in our society that we expect it. Women and minorities expect to not have their experiences believed. Americans have to assume that politicians are lying.
Lately, it feels as if gaslighting has seeped into every major aspect of our society when it has become a core tactic used by our current government. Regardless of people’s personal opinions of our president, there is absolutely no denying that President Trump has been caught lying on multiple occasions.
But gaslighting is more than simple lying; it is denying facts and actively trying to change someone’s perception of reality. Trump has denied saying things he was on record stating, such as when he vehemently stated he never mocked a disabled reporter despite video evidence. He claimed to win in a “landslide victory” against Hillary Clinton in 2016, despite Clinton winning the popular vote. He urged his supporters to commit acts of violence against his dissidents and offered to pay their legal fees, then went on the record stating he never said such words, claiming he doesn’t “condone violence.”
We are living in an age where misinformation is rife. Inaccurate facts about politicians, public personas and crucial issues such as the coronavirus are rampant. While issues of misinformation can sometimes be rectified by locating reliable sources of information, the insidious nature of gaslighting makes it difficult to locate or combat, especially for vulnerable groups such as women and BIPOC. Most instances of gaslighting, are difficult to prove, they exist somewhere in the psychological realm, often without physical evidence.
We are living in an age where our perceptions of reality are increasingly varied and subject to manipulation. Whether this occurs through allegations of “fake news” and blatant lying by our politicians or as a tactic of manipulation exercised on vulnerable sections of society, never before has truth been such a contentious issue. This is in part, perpetuated by social media which exacerbates confusion and misinformation. It is no coincidence that the extent of our faith and trust, both in politicians and one another, seems to be lower than it has ever been. Somehow, we seem to be living in a world where we are told out realities are not real. And while we may be the victims of gaslighting, in some sense, when we enable and accept the process, we are also the enablers of it.