Believe us, it’s true
2022 recaps abound! At Merriam-Webster, this means the Word of the Year is also identified. America’s oldest dictionary publisher has made it official, naming “gaslighting” its word of the year.
Search interests for the term on the Merriam-Webster website rose by a whopping 1,740 percent, as gaslighting was frequently looked up multiple times in a day. Anyone who has found themselves wondering if they were really overreacting or overthinking in a particular situation will remember the confusing feeling of self-doubt, before realizing that they were gaslighted. And to process what happened, people seek answers in the hopes of understanding what they went through.
Merriam-Webster has two definitions for gaslighting. The first describes it as “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.”
The second broadly defines gaslighting as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.”
The term originated from Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian-era play from 1938, titled Gaslight, set in London about a middle-class marriage based on lies and deceit. A film in 1944 based on the original play tells the same story, in which a husband manipulates his wife into believing that she is going insane. His mysterious activities in the attic cause the gas lights in their home to dim, but he repeatedly insists to his wife that the lights are not dimming and that she cannot trust her own perceptions (spoiler alert: she is not imagining things).
While this mind game of sorts isn’t new, it was only fairly recently that we found the word to describe what was happening that has reached the mainstream.
Finally, it’s been identified: articulating how gaslighters rewrite the narrative for their victims, filling their minds with doubt about reality and questioning their own sanity. The National Domestic Violence Hotline recognizes gaslighting as a legitimate and extremely effective form of emotional abuse.
This is not only confined to romantic partners; the manipulation of your mental state to rationalize someone else’s bad behavior to continue can occur among family and friends. According to Psychology Today, the “I’m sorry you feel that way” approach, along with avoiding an argument in lieu of admitting fault, is an example of gaslighting. However, the desire for self-interest and control goes beyond our personal relationships—it applies on a larger scale, in institutions and organizations.
Gaslighting is more complex than straightforward lying, too, it’s more sinister and manipulative. The victims become so dependent on their gaslighters that they begin to gaslight themselves…before believing the truth about a particular situation. In this age of misinformation, “fake news” and conspiracy theories abound, deliberately misleading people and causing discord by distorting facts. This year, the New York Times also wrote about medical gaslighting, when patients, especially women and people of color, are dismissed by physicians who downplay the severity of their symptoms, making them believe that the pain is “all in their head.”
On a positive note, with the increased awareness about gaslighting, more people can identify what it is and are empowered to call it out. Better yet, those who fall victim to gaslighting can understand that their experiences are valid and that they have every right to speak their truth. This, in turn, should hopefully lead them to find the strength to move forward as they begin their healing journey.
With gaslighting being selected as the Word of the Year, here’s something to ponder: the current state of the world and how across cultures, this kind of behavior is a shared experience. Choose to be kind and to be better.