Gaslighting October 12, 2016

There’s been enough discussion of gaslighting on feminist sectors of the internet that I thought I’d throw in my voice on what it is and what it means for relationships.

Photo from Unsplash by Avi Agarwal.
Photo from Unsplash by Avi Agarwal.

This Bustle article defines gaslighting as a form of psychological abuse in which “information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.” The name derives from a play and its film adaptations, wherein an abusive spouse flickering the gas lights and denying it leads to the protagonist questioning her sanity.

I’m actually a bigger fan of the definition presented in this Everyday Feminism article: “Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.”

That dovetails with what a friend told me in conversation once, and which has stuck with me since: that it’s not okay for one person to tell another person what their internal state or experience is or has been. Fine, maybe there are a handful of very specific situations in which that’s acceptable (such as when one of those people is a trained specialist, or in a clinical setting). But in general? It’s not okay for people to say things like “But actually, your emotion is XYZ.”

Recognizing gaslighting takes people into tricky territory, because in intimate relationships, we do often trust our partners with our blindspots, and  we trust them to call us on our shit. I think it’s common for people to get called on something and be like, “oh crap, I didn’t realize I was doing that.” And from there, it’s a blurred line to move into “oh crap, I didn’t realize I was feeling that.”

My rule of thumb is that it’s okay for partners, close friends, and family members to inquire about my emotional state, feelings, and needs. It’s okay for them to make suggestions about my internal state, along the lines of “You seem upset, are you doing okay?” or “Are you sad? It looks like you’ve been crying.” But making statements that define my emotional state, or dictate what my experience has been, is not okay.

I also treat gaslighting as a feminist issue, because of the gendered associations in our culture of women with emotion and men with reason (thanks, dualism!). Women are perceived to feel emotions more deeply and intensely than men, and thus be under their sway and in need of a perspective check more often (yes, that was a huge generalization on my part…just go with it). Obviously people of any gender can emotionally abuse or be abused, but I believe that in a patriarchal culture, women especially need to be on the look-out for gaslighting since our cultural framing as the more emotional ones makes us more susceptible to not only being gaslighted (gas-lit?) but also questioning our own emotional experiences.

Anyway, the bottom line is that it’s not okay to dictate to anyone what their emotional experiences have been. It’s not okay to try to rewrite their memories or their role in a conversation. This can happen unintentionally, and ideally can be resolved through direct communication. Mostly this all is common-sense, but it’s helpful to have a term to encompass an experience that is sadly widespread.

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