Apr 042013
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Constant sexist putdowns and one-upping can make a person question her own sanity.

by Jody Dallaire

Have you ever been told that you are “irrational,” “over-reacting,” “such a drama queen,” “have an overactive imagination,” or “can simply not take a joke” in response to your expressing your opinion or feelings to someone about a situation? If you have, then you are not alone. Chances are that you have experienced the phenomenon known as gaslighting.

I was introduced to the term recently when a friend sent me an article on the subject.  That essay opened my eyes to how we treat each other in intimate partner relationships, between co-workers and between friends and acquaintances.

“Gaslighting” is emotional manipulation intended to get the other person to question their reactions to a situation — characterizing these reactions as irrational and crazy.

So what is gaslighting? To put it bluntly, it is emotional manipulation. Its aim is to get the other person to question their reactions to a situation — characterizing these reactions as irrational and crazy. In short, the gaslighter does not want to take responsibility for their actions so they blame the gaslightee.

In psychological terms, the Urban Dictionary definition includes: “an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to the victim — having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception.”

Here are a couple of examples:

Your boyfriend/husband shows up an hour late for a planned evening out together without calling. When you ask him about it, he responds: “You are so sensitive and over-react all the time. It is not a big deal.”

Mary is collaborating with Charles on a project at work.  During a meeting, the boss realizes that Charles has not finished his share of the work. In order to save face, he lies in front of the boss by saying: “I was waiting for information from Mary to complete my section of the work. It is not my fault that she doesn’t share information and doesn’t work well in a team setting.”

The term gaslighting itself comes from the 1944 suspense film called Gaslight. In the film, the husband methodically tries to make his wife think that she is going insane in order to steal from her. One of the things that he does is dim the gaslights in the house until they flicker and then denies that he sees the lights dim. The wife questions her sanity and perception of reality as a result.

There are different types of gaslighting. As in the movie, there is intentional gaslighting, with comments intended to manipulate the other person — comments like “you are so stupid, nobody else would ever want you.” More often than not though, gaslighting is more subtle than that. It can even be masked as an apology: “I am sorry but it is your fault that I…”

Although we are all capable of committing gaslighting, more often than not men are the gaslighters and women are the gaslightees. Portraying women as irrational and clingy is part of our pop culture — glorified in the television programs and the movies that we watch and the songs that we listen to. This unfortunate stereotype is passed off as the norm in our society, and makes women more vulnerable to gaslighting, since people are pre-disposed to see women as irrational.

Not surprisingly, mental health professionals have warned that gaslighting has become an “epidemic” in our society.  Women who face constant putdowns often lack the confidence that they need to accept a promotion, to run for office or to even trust their own opinion as worthwhile. I feel so sad every time I hear a woman apologize before expressing her opinion.

This epidemic is likely the result of the way we socialize girls and boys and is perpetuated from one generation to the next. The first step in stopping gaslighting, is to be aware that it is happening. "Gaslighting" is a useful term that should make us all more aware of what's happening in our own behaviour and in that of others.

About Jody Dallaire

Jody Dallaire lives and works in Dieppe New Brunswick where she writes a weekly column on women's equality issues and matters of social justice. Email: jody.dallaire@rogers.com.

© Copyright 2013 Jody Dallaire, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

  One Response to “Gaslighting: a new term for manipulation”

  1. I found the title of this piece to be not only inaccurate but very puzzling.  Since the term "Gaslighting" has been used since the movie of the same name came out in the 1940's, & I have heard the term used all my life in conversation between women, I can't figure out why this very useful old term has been termed "new" all of a sudden.  It has definitely been  widely & commonly used by feminists at least since the 1970's across Canada in my experience.

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