Feminism 101: What is Gaslighting?

Illustration by Sara Haas.

Have you ever tried to explain to someone how they are harming you, even using examples to prove that there is a problem, only to be faced with stark denial? Have you had the lens turned on you, to the point that you started to question your own experiences and are now questioning whether you are actually the one causing harm?

You were feeling like a victim and decided to confront someone about it, and somehow you’re left wondering if your perception of reality is correct, or if you’re the perpetrator.  This specific form of psychological manipulation is commonly known as gaslighting.

Victim blaming takes many shapes and forms, but too often denial of the problem’s existence leaves victims in a haze, thinking they have completely made up their issues. Gaslighting is a common psychological trick that removes accountability and stifles discourse by laying blame on the victim or convincing them that there is no problem to begin with.

The term was coined after the play “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton was adapted into a popular film. The story is centered around a husband who manipulates his wife into questioning her sanity and perception of reality. The husband distorts their home environment (mainly by dimming the gas lights) and then denies any change has occurred at all. The wife is left disoriented, believing that she can no longer trust what she believes to be true.

It is widely recognized as a form of emotional abuse, one that is commonly experienced. The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes different methods of gaslighting and signs to watch out for, such as second guessing yourself, feeling like you are too sensitive, or feeling confused about what’s going on.

In our most intimate relationships, gaslighting can turn us against ourselves when it is actually our partners or family members who are causing us harm. By denying the experiences that we attest to, or turning the blame around, gaslighters convince us that what we are feeling is not based in reality. This can leave us feeling unanchored, unable to trust what we have experienced.

We see gaslighting pointed towards feminist movements and discourse, and much more often in the daily lives of women. When women are merely attesting to the sexism they’ve experienced they are often labeled as hysterical, crazy, or ‘PMS’ing. This leads to the misrepresentation of our natural reactions as emotional overreactions. Gaslighting diverts the conversation towards how women need to calm down and cope with minor inconveniences rather than discussing the real and potent underlying issues that drive us to our outrage.

Once you start to notice traces of gaslighting in your everyday interactions, the immense amount of gaslighting directed towards social justice movements from mainstream media is painfully obvious. People attempting to maintain (deliberately or not) the hegemonic ideal drown out activists by overwriting their testimony of reality.

This happens towards the Black Lives Matter movement, as people consistently deny the racial bias of police officers, most evidently by touting the phrase “All Lives Matter” to supercede the issues pointed out by BLM activists. As pointed out in this article posted on Salon, gaslighting was even more common after the murder of police officers in Dallas. Those blaming the deaths of the officers on the rhetoric of BLM activists are misguiding the conversation from the issues Black Lives Matter is addressing. Even with video footage of young black women and men being unjustly murdered, there are those who attempt to gaslight the public into believing that there was no murder but rather a mistake done by a well-meaning police officer. They distort the representation of the case in order to discredit the argument that there was in fact a murder.

Gaslighting has especially posed a severe threat in the current political discourse. We see this happening with the Republican presidential candidate’s consistent and adamant denial of abuse, even when he is directly confronted with his own words. It’s even clearer when his surrogates go into interviews ready to turn the conversation away from his history with sexual assault, going so far as to call female news anchors “obsessed with sex” while repeatedly dismissing the term “sexual predator” as inflammatory.

Gaslighting is meant to shut people down, skew their perception of reality, and cause them to question the truth. It manipulates words and experiences to redirect the consequences of what happened.

Combatting gaslighting takes conviction in one’s self and in one’s allies. It means that we, the victims, cannot let the distortion of facts leave us questioning what is actually true. It means that we need to listen to each other’s testimonies of what we know to be true, and to trust in these testimonies.

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