Anyone ever heard the term ‘gaslighting’?
For anybody who hasn’t, the term comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Boyer wants to have his wife (Bergman) committed to a mental asylum so he can get his hands on her jewellery – so to convince her that she’s mad, he toys with the gaslights in their house to make them flicker. Then whenever she mentions the flickering lights, he pretends that he can’t see anything, thereby convincing her that she’s going insane.
The term’s been used by mental health professionals and in rather less academic discourse for quite some time. I promise I’ll explain what it means very shortly, but first I want to discuss how ‘gaslighting’ is portrayed in two different sources. The first is this ROK article by 2wycked, which is basically a takedown of this other article written about gaslighting by Yashar Ali – and in my humble opinion, both articles are somewhat off the mark. Let’s start with the ROK article, because it’s about a million times worse than the other one. In this post the author claims that ‘gaslighting’ is basically a term made up by feminists and their beta white knights to lash out at males who challenge a woman’s view of herself. Apparently, women’s self-perceptions “are shaky and not based out of reality, so they need endless amounts of therapeutic messages that bolster their weak identities”; and when a man presents a woman with an unflattering comment about herself or her behaviour, she cannot deal with it. So what does she do? She accuses him of gaslighting, of portraying her as the one at fault when she is in fact no such thing. The writer further claims that whenever women are faced with unpalatable truths about themselves or women as a whole, they resort to accusing men of misogyny and sexism to deflect focus from their own faults – this, apparently, is another form of gaslighting. According to this article, if a woman accuses you of gaslighting (apparently men don’t make such accusations) then you are probably not doing anything wrong – you are merely rupturing her fragile and narcissistic self-identity. My main issue with this article is not the ridiculous generalisations it makes about both men and women (although those are quite profoundly stupid); it’s that the author seems to completely misunderstand what ‘gaslighting’ actually means. Ali’s article is considerably less inaccurate, as he seems to have a very good grasp of what ‘gaslighting’ involves and the ways in which it is commonly manifested. The one big problem I have with his interpretation is that Ali portrays gaslighting as something that happens almost exclusively to women, and that women alone are the primary victims of a social system which traditionally undervalues ‘feminine’ traits like empathy and expressing emotion.
Both articles are interesting in their own way, but as I said they’re both a little off target. The first article is fundamentally wrong because ‘gaslighting’ is not about someone calling you an asshole as a way of defending themselves against the unpleasant truths you reveal about their personality. To put it simply, gaslighting occurs when you say or do something which could be reasonably assumed to produce a negative reaction in another person, but when they do react accordingly you question their emotional response, making them doubt the validity of their own feelings and opinions. The essence is that the person who behaved rudely or inconsiderately is actually at fault, but by invalidating the emotional reaction of the person they have hurt they deflect blame from themselves. For instance, if your partner shows up half an hour late for a dinner date without apologising or letting you know beforehand, and then accuses you of overreacting when you complain about it, that would be gaslighting. If your friend criticises your appearance, and responds to you being offended by saying something like “I was just joking – you’re so sensitive!’, that would be gaslighting. See what I mean? Basically, gaslighting involves one person acting like an asshole, and then telling the person that they upset with their asshole behaviour that they are in fact the asshole for having an inappropriate or extreme reaction.
Gaslighting is most commonly viewed as something that is done by men to women. According to Ali, gaslighting stems largely from the fact that “we are conditioned to believe….that what women have to say, what they feel, isn’t quite as legitimate”. The idea is that our culture stereotypes women as being emotional, crazy, oversensitive and irrational, and that therefore it’s much easier to undermine their opinions and emotions. While I do agree that stereotypes like this exist and that they play a crucial role in the phenomenon of gaslighting, I dispute the idea that women are overwhelmingly the targets of gaslighting. It’s very easy to gaslight a woman by playing into the idea that women are unstable and overemotional, so their opinions and emotions are less likely to be rational and valid. But it’s also very easy to gaslight men and especially boys, by playing into the idea that any display of emotion or vulnerability is unmanly, and so if they’re expressing hurt feelings then they’re just being ‘pussies’.
To make it a bit clearer I’ll use a personal example, one of which I’m not particularly proud. In high school I had a male friend who I used to tease quite frequently about his appearance. He used to be chubby, but he hit the gym and the protein shakes something hardcore and ended up being super buff. So if I wasn’t paying him out for being fat, I was criticising him for being what I saw as ridiculously muscly. And when he told me I was being mean or unfair, guess what I’d say?
“You’re just being a pussy.”
“I was just kidding, why are you so oversensitive?”
“Don’t be such a girl!”
See what I mean? I was being cruel and insensitive, but I made him feel like he was the one at fault by telling him that his emotional reactions were inappropriate – and more specifically, that they were inappropriate for a male. Looking back on it, I realise that it’s something that was actually quite common for me and a number of my friends; we were always much less hesitant about insulting our male peers than we were about insulting female friends. For myself, I know made cracks about my guy friends that I would never in a million years have made at the expense of my girlfriends. It was almost like we all had this unspoken assumption that the feelings of boys were somehow ‘less’ than the feelings of girls – less sensitive, less fragile, less vulnerable. Men weren’t meant to get hurt as easily as women, and so when they did get hurt, we effectively criticised them for not being masculine enough to remain unaffected by our cruelty.
The point of this is not that gaslighting actually affects men more than women, because I don’t think it does. In fact, I believe that women are still more likely to be the victims of gaslighting than men, since our society stereotypes men as being stoic and rational and therefore their emotions are more likely to be taken seriously. But this very advantage is also commonly and easily turned against males; instead of accepting their emotions as reasonable and valid, we can denigrate them as effeminate and excessive, thereby undermining both their sense of masculinity and their emotional response. The gaslighting of males is a little more complex than gaslighting females. To gaslight a woman, you essentially have to invalidate her emotions by invoking the stereotype of the emotional, crazy female. To gaslight a man, you create invalidation by claiming that he is failing to live up to the stereotype – to be stoic, rational, unemotional, manly. If he was a ‘real’ man’, he wouldn’t have been upset in the first place. This is just one among many reasons why I detest traditional gender roles and stereotypes; whether you are or are not meeting the criteria for how members of your sex ‘typically’ behave, you’re still managing to do something wrong. Clap for society, everyone.
It’s important to note that gaslighting is often not intentional. Deflecting blame from ourselves by instead criticising the reaction we have produced in others is a very common behaviour, and it’s not always an act of conscious manipulation. Nobody wants to think badly of themselves if they can help it, and attack is the best form of defence and all that. But whether you’re doing it because you don’t want to face up to acting like an asshole, or simply because you’re an odious manipulative weasel, gaslighting is a pretty shitty thing to do. It took me quite a few years after leaving high school to realise what an absolute douchecanoe I’d been at times, and how I’d compounded what was basically unnecessarily cruel behaviour by undermining the completely valid emotional reactions of the people I’d hurt.
So how do we avoid gaslighting others? Well unfortunately, the key is self-awareness. And I say ‘unfortunately’ because self-awareness is something that almost everyone finds uncomfortable and which almost nobody is naturally good at. For myself, I found that it was much easier not to gaslight people when I bothered to stop for half a second and think about how what I said or did might affect another person. Part of that was probably just growing out of being a bratty teenager, but it does also take a degree of conscious effort to empathise with others (and I still screw up plenty). It sounds kind of obvious, but if we want to avoid needlessly hurting the feelings of others then we have to be able to imagine what those feelings might be like, preferably before the damage is done. And part of that involves facing up to the unwelcome possibility that we might be in the wrong.
While I don’t think this is really a ‘gender issue’ I do think that gender plays an important role, because part of increasing our capacity for empathy is getting rid of the idea that males and females have different feelings. It means letting go of the stereotype that women are naturally wired to feel too much, and men are inherently built to feel too little. Yes, sometimes people overreact, but I very much doubt it’s a direct result of the type of genitals they were born with. To some extent I do believe that our gender can affect how we perceive the world, but I’m not saying we renounce the idea that males and females are in any way different from one another. I’m saying that when we try to avoid gaslighting by practising self-awareness and empathy, we must filter out our prejudices about the emotional differences between men and women. Because prejudice and stereotypes are fundamentally dehumanising, and it’s impossible to truly empathise with someone if you view them as less human than yourself.