I just learned that Merriam-Webster chose “gaslighting” to be their Word of the Year.
Interesting choice. It certainly does seem as if gaslighting is everywhere. From dating to the workplace to politics you’re either gaslighting or being gaslighted. Gaslit? Anyway, I wondered, what is it with gaslighting? Why is it so ubiquitous?
To find out, I went to the origins, which, in America, means Hollywood.
Gaslight The Movie
Gaslight (1944) was a popular film, starring Ingrid Bergman as the naive, wealthy wife of the villain, and too sexy for his shirt, Charles Boyer. For kicks look out for a very young, crafty beyond her years, Angela Lansbury.
Before Gaslight, the movie, our new Word of the Year didn’t exist in its current definition. Prior to 1944 ‘gaslight’ was just that, literally the light that shone from a gas-fueled lamp.
The Plot of The Movie
The plot of the movie revolves around how the Charles Boyer character, Ingrid’s husband, would have Angela Lansbury, the traitorous maid, flicker the gaslights in the house. Ingrid would freak out, “What’s happening with the lamps?” And Charles would say in his deep French accent, all reasonable and chill, “What are you talking about, dearest? Nothing is happening with the lamps. You must have imagined it.”
It’s not easy to spot gaslighting when it’s being done to you. Mostly because we are trusting souls. We want so much to believe our loved one doesn’t want us to doubt ourselves, our judgment or even our senses. We refrain from questioning them. Instead we question ourselves. Maybe I did want other men to pay attention to me by wearing that short skirt. Maybe I did ask for that flirtatious compliment the bartender gave me. Maybe I was drinking too much at the party and did I make a fool of myself?
It’s subtle, so subtle, at first anyway. Gaslighting (as in the movie – you’ve got to watch it) often follows love bombing. You know what love bombing is, right? Oh my god, love bombing is the worst! It’s the worm at the end of the hook. The pretty, pretty box with the snake inside.
Love bombing is when you meet someone and they tell you in a million different ways how awesome you are, how much they love and adore you. You are their one and only. Flowers, fancy meals, thoughtful gifts all the time, romantic af gestures that are meant to accelerate the falling in love stage of romantic relationships.
The key word here: Accelerate.
And we haven’t even begun to talk about the sex! Oh, the sex! So often the sex is exceptional because the love bomber is paying particular attention to pleasing you and that feels amazing. It’s all too good to be true.
Yeah. You said it.
Insidiously, the gaslighter begins to do their abusive work. They may start by isolating you. You go out with your friends too much, it’s not natural. “Hang out with me more.” You talk with your mother, sister, best friend, too often. You’re a grown woman. Be more independent. I only want what’s best for you. You know how much I love you.
Isolated and softened up with love bombing, the gaslighting begins.
You might wonder what the gaslighter gets out of it? Control. That’s it. Abuse is about controlling another person’s will by whatever means works. The horrible thing about gaslighting is that people are hesitant to call it abuse. If they were smacked across the face, then, no problem! Being hit is obviously abusive. Knowing confidently that you are being gaslighted isn’t easy when you’re in the middle of it.
You might be gaslighted when:
- The classic gaslighter move is to say and do things that put your sense of reality into question. “I never said that,” and, “That didn’t happen.” They are very good at twisting logic up in knots, “I’m sorry you think I hurt you,” or “Don’t you see how I’m the victim here?” and always: “I did it because I love you so much!”
- The abuser says things to and about you that are belittling and spark self-doubt. They defend the barb filled remarks by saying they are meant to be ‘helpful’ and ‘said with love.’
Examples of this: The gaslighter might say “Hmmm, you might want to rethink that outfit.” Or, “You know your co-workers are out for you. Don’t be so naive.” Or…“That degree you’re studying for is a waste.” The abuser decides to take over your finances because you “don’t have the head for it.” What they say will be so subtle in the way they put you down that you may ask yourself if you heard right. “Of course,” the abuser says, “You didn’t hear right”, or “I was just kidding! Can’t you take a joke?” And the seed of doubt is planted.
- Whatever you do that is strong and healthy is shot down. If you get the big promotion, plan a wonderful trip with your girlfriends, run a 10K, there is always a reason why it is not so great.Watch out for the gaslighter peppering compliments and supportive talk in with the put-down: “Sweetie, you are so great at your job. Too bad, it has nothing to do with your expensive college degree.” “I know that Wendy is your best friend, and that’s great, but do you notice how competitive she is with you?” “You are so cute when you try to reconcile your bank account! Here, let me help you so you don’t have to worry about it.”
- Boundaries are disrespected. When you feel like decisions are being made without your consent that affect you directly. When they push for you to be involved with their family, their friends, their favorite activities to the exclusion of anything and anyone you love. When they answer for you. When they order for you in a restaurant or bar, because they “love you and know you so well.” When they throw out food from your pantry or kitchen, “Because it’s for your health! You don’t want to get fat, do you?” When they delete your favorite apps from your phone because the gaslighter says it’s a waste of your time. When they make unilateral plans for both of you to spend the weekend with his family. The trap is that any protest on your part comes off as ungrateful and petty, so you go along. Maybe they are looking out for me…
- Being in their presence makes you nervous, on edge, braced. You might not even know why, just that you feel like you need to be ready for something possibly hurtful.
This is the opposite of feeling emotionally safe with someone.
Instead you walk on eggshells, concerned that if you challenge them they will get angry. You apologize a lot and they act as if you should.
- You begin to feel like a shadow of your former self. The purpose of gaslighting, as with any kind of abuse, psychological and/or physical, is to break a person down.
Even a strong woman can be worn away by a gaslighter.
In fact, Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse, says that psychological abusers, which all gaslighters are, often choose strong, accomplished, successful people for their prey because where’s the fun in breaking down a weakling?
Creepy, isn’t it? So when you think, why am I acting like I’m scared all the time? Why do I doubt myself so much? I never used to. Look at your relationships and ask yourself if they are truly loving or if there is gaslighting going on?
Read Part Two of Word of The Year: Gaslighting