Yesterday, I finally looked up the precise meaning of a term I’d heard dozens of times before, but never really understood. The term was “gaslighting”, as in, “to gaslight someone”. It describes a type of psychological abuse, and according to Wikipedia, it is named after a film that depicts the practice.
As I understand it, “gaslighting” is when one person deliberately makes another person question his or her own perceptions and sanity, by repeatedly telling the person he or she is crazy, stupid, or irrational, or by engineering situations so that they actually seem so bizarre to the person, that it reinforces the idea that they have lost their minds or can’t trust their own thoughts. Reading about it in exact terms, I realize that I have seen it happen to disabled people, though I don’t think it has ever happened to me personally, and I desperately hope that I’ve never done anything like it to anyone else.
I was prompted to look up “gaslighting” by a Tweet from Heather Ure, @heatherurehere, who frequently writes about how people with various forms of autism are often victimized in this way. If you stop and think a moment, it makes a terrible kind of sense that people who actually have cognitive impairments or differences, who have already internalized doubts about their own mental reliability, would be vulnerable to someone deliberately encouraging them to doubt themselves.
The main thing I wonder now is whether we should use the same term, “gaslighting”, for both deliberate and unconscious forms of this phenomenon. The effects are awful and corrosive either way, but I can imagine people doing this to others, not out of malice or desire to deceive, but maybe out of an over-active sense of responsibility to govern other peoples’ rationality and self-awareness.
I think we all need to be alert to this risk ... not just of being the victim, but of being the perpetrator. There is a difference between giving someone we perceive to be struggling a “reality check”, and destructively undermining their self-confidence. It’s even worse if the person really does have difficulty understanding things as they are. If it's hard to keep your head together, more self-doubt doesn't help, and reminding someone for the umpteenth time that there's something "wrong" with them isn't truth-telling. Usually, it's just thinly veiled cruelty.
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