Words and labels certainly cannot completely capture the essence of human emotions but sometimes, they empower us. It is ironical…words, language, are the invention of the rational part of us…or are they? The intention behind the invention was to reach out to fellow human beings. There are times when words are just not enough, but sometimes, there is a sense of relief when you discover that there is a word that perfectly explains your emotions/experiences. “Gaslighting” is one word that can probably explain generations of abuse suffered by anybody who is in a vulnerable position.
In simple words, gaslighting is “manipulating someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity” (Wikipedia). It can be done by a person, a group, government, society etc. The victim could be anybody and in some cases, the victim turns the oppressor. Women as a group have been gaslighted into believing that they are worthless by patriarchy. Some religious leaders gaslight their followers and the poor souls give up their thinking and doubts and start worshipping the self-proclaimed ‘gurus’. Some advertisers have also adopted gaslighting strategies to sell their products (if you are not thin/fair, no one will love you). Dr. Robin Stern presents an unbelievably accurate analysis of gaslighters (the ones who manipulate), their motives and the strategies that they adopt to manipulate the gaslightees. Her focus is on personal lives and not on groups but the essence remains the same.
Stern must be lauded for the way she acknowledges both the rational and emotional parts of human beings. She says that even if the gaslighter is right, it doesn’t give him/her the right to gaslight you. E.g. Let’s say your friend is taking an impulsive decision to quit his job and start a company, without having a concrete plan in place. As a friend, it’s your responsibility to tell him about your apprehensions but to use this “truth” to humiliate him or dominate him or to forcefully change him is gaslighting even if your opinion is true. This can be applied to ‘concern trolls’. For e.g. There are people who believe that fat-shaming is a ‘good’ thing because it is ultimately ‘concerned’ about fat people’s health. But in most cases, mocking a fat person does the exact opposite: the fat person ends up eating more because he/she uses food to numb the pain that comes from exclusion/humiliation. It’s gaslighting because the concern trolls make fat people doubt their reality. Every human being believes that he/she deserves to be loved but concern trolls tell them that they can be only loved if they are thin. So fat people start doubting their reality (“I am lovable”) and start accepting the gaslighter’s reality (“I am worthless because I am fat”). They start eating more and are also preoccupied with their weight. Since the majority of fat people’s thoughts are about weight, they hardly get time to think about their fellow human beings. So, they might come across as self-absorbed and they might repel people. This way, the gaslighter has proved the theory (that fat people don’t really have a lot of friends).
Gaslighters are not always the intimidating types. Some of them do what you want and agree with you completely and yet you feel something is “off”. This person is actually worried about his good-guy image; so he will do exactly what you want him to do and yet you will never be satisfied because he didn’t do those things for YOU.
Stern is not harsh towards gaslighters, though. According to her, a person starts gaslighting when she feels threatened or stressed out. For example, some men feel threatened by the women’s liberation movement and hence their response is to gaslight them. That’s why you see a lot of men making fun of feminists. Some mother-in-laws also feel threatened by the “new woman” in her son’s life and her response is to gaslight her daughter-in-law.
At the end of the day, gaslighters are just human beings seeking love and approval. They are vulnerable people who find it difficult to love themselves and express their needs. If you are a gaslightee, the best thing you can do is protect yourself from the gaslighter. However, Stern urged us to do this with compassion and understanding…towards the gaslighter and yourself.