The term “gaslighting” has been sparking curiosity and debate recently, and I share the fascination. Given the surge in its use in contemporary discussions, it’s evident that I’m not alone.
Significantly, the spotlight is often on the newer interpretation of the word, a definition recently added by Merriam-Webster as their 2022 Word of the Year: “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage”
But I find the older, more traditional meaning of the word to be of more profound interest. I’m captivated by how Merriam-Webster articulates this original definition: “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
In the movie Gaslight, from which the term derives, the villain consciously manipulates his wife into doubting her sanity. Intriguingly, Merriam-Webster’s definition doesn’t specify intent. I think this omission is purposeful, as I believe that many instances of gaslighting, and indeed many acts of psychological abuse more broadly, are perpetrated without explicit malice. I’ll elucidate with a hypothetical scenario.
Consider Sal, whose mother frequently provided him contradictory instructions as a child. She would caution him against excessive apologies while also urging him to acknowledge his mistakes and commit to rectifying them when he does apologize. Despite his best efforts, Sal always fell short of meeting one demand or the other.
When Sal, now an adult, confronted his mother about her conflicting instructions, she denied any wrongdoing and refused to provide an explanation. Even when presented with concrete examples, she insisted her memories were different or she didn’t remember the instances at all.
The aftermath of this interaction left Sal filled with anxiety and self-doubt. This was not the first instance where his mother denied any wrongdoing when he confronted her about it. Even though his confidants validated his feelings about his mother’s psychologically abusive behavior, he couldn’t shake off the nagging suspicion that he might be the problem. Perhaps his memories were incorrect after all.
This scenario represents a clear instance of gaslighting. Sal’s mother has repeatedly deceived him, leading him to question his own memories and mental health. Nonetheless, her objective is not to unhinge his grip on reality but to evade accountability. It’s likely she is completely oblivious to the harm her actions inflict on him.
It’s doubtful that Sal’s mother recognizes her behavior as gaslighting. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, many individuals who gaslight exhibit signs of psychopathology and therefore may lack insight into their behavior. This suggests that: “Because the gaslighter is himself typically psychologically disordered, he is often not fully aware of what he is doing or why he is doing it.”
I posit that many instances of psychological abuse involve a lack of self-awareness on the part of the abuser. As Kaytee Gillis observes, many abusers display signs of personality disorder pathology and may therefore lack insight into their actions. This could be the case with Sal’s mother; her contradictory demands could be construed as a “double bind“, but she likely neither recognises this nor her denials as gaslighting.
This is not an attempt to justify the mother’s behavior, it should be noted. As Gillis rightly asserts, “Whatever an abuser’s knowledge or level of self-awareness of their actions, abuse is wrong.” Rather, the focus here is on the fact that her lack of intent does not lessen the abusive nature of her actions. Merriam-Webster encapsulates this perfectly: when defining abuse, it’s not the intention but the impact on the victim that matters.
An earlier version of this article was published on Substack.
Lucas McCarthy is a psychology enthusiast who leverages personal experiences and tireless research to share thoughtful perspectives on mental health.