My "Gaslighting" Experience and the Rise of the Popular Term
I was "gaslighted" in my relationship. "Gaslighting" is a relatively recent term developed to describe a particular kind of manipulative behavior in which the abuser convinces their victim that the victim's reality is false. Many have witnessed this kind of psychological abuse or been on the receiving end of it ourselves.
I started dating a man who lived in my apartment building. In the three weeks that we went out, he asked intimate questions about my past relationships and traumas. He complimented me often and suggested that I join him on his upcoming trip to Thailand. But then, I once caught him snooping through my medicine cabinet, hoping to learn which medications I took and for what purpose. The first time we had sex, I asked him to wear a condom; he tried to convince me that the effectiveness of condoms was a myth, and expecting him to wear one was evidence of my foolishness and distrustful nature. He had a psychology degree. In the short span of our courtship, he managed to draw from me enough information about my history and experiences to convince me that my paranoia was to blame for any issue I took with the way he spoke to me or treated me. Instead of it having anything to do with the names he called me or how he behaved. He called me crazy and broken and misaligned, and then he denied what he'd said.
I first heard the term gaslighting in 2017 , a year before I started seeing this man, in a creative writing course when I encountered it in a peer's work. She explored the term extensively, explaining that it originates from a 1944 film in which a character convinces his wife that she is going insane. This tactic frees him from responsibility for his actions and successfully diverts her from his indiscretions.
Throughout the experience, I felt terrible, off, and realized quickly that his poor treatment was more consistent than his charm. It wasn't until I was a few weeks out of the experience, though, that I realized his behavior lined up with my understanding of gaslighting. He wanted to make me feel crazy to make himself feel powerful. It was a game for him, getting inside my head and seeing how he might mix it up.
Earlier this year, during the first season of the Bachelorette, I heard this term again. Former Bachelorette Katie, known for her scrappiness and candor, flung the term like a spear at one of her contestants during their "After the Final Rose" sit down.
Greg, the contestant in question, was a fan favorite and seemed likely to be Katie's choice until late in the season, when her failure to match his emotional candor resulted in a long, painful back and forth, his departure, and her emotional unraveling. She was able to pick herself up and finish the season, even get engaged to another man, but failed to let go of her anger at him.
When Greg tried to apologize for "talking down to [her]," Katie abruptly replied, "Gaslighting, I think is probably a better term for it." When asked to clarify what she meant by that, Katie said, "Gaslighting is when you try to make someone else feel like this is their fault." This definition is, at best, imprecise, and at worst, incorrect. Greg was overreactive, performative, and condescending. But he never accused Katie of being crazy or tried to make her doubt the reality of her experience.
I have to say that when Katie chose to evoke this term, she lost me a little bit. It seemed to be a shallow attempt to position the audience against her former lover. It lessened the value of a word used to describe a legitimate form of abusive behavior that she found unfavorable. Definitions like these are not meant to be bent to our will to make our exes feel bad; they are meant to be tools for fighting psychological abuse.
Since I learned it, it seems like the term "Gaslighting" pops up everywhere. In some respects, this is a positive thing; it means that those on the receiving end of this kind of manipulation are learning to recognize it and hopefully put a stop to it. Giving a name to such a phenomenon is powerful and valuable when used correctly.