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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

-Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.

The term GASLIGHTING is defined 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.

This clear and concise definition should lead someone to fully explore the impacts of a specific relationship. Yet somehow, this term is being co-opted by the mainstream and used in its own way to manipulate people and situations. In fact, one may say that gaslighting as a term is being used to gaslight others!

If you tune in to any social media platform, you are very easily able to search the phrase and find a multitude of pages/posts/sites dedicated to defining and addressing gaslighting in your life. The problem is that very few of the people tossing this term around like confetti have any type of credential or experience in diagnosing. When we ‘diagnose’ without proper training, we run the risk of misdiagnosing and creating more problems than solutions.

Let me be clear, GASLIGHTING is not a diagnosis. Despite the frequency and seemingly official use of the word, it is important to know that this is a pop-culture reference and nothing more. You cannot look it up in the DSM-V (the diagnosing bible for mental health), nor is it a medical term. Basically, it is not “official” in any way – it is a layperson's phrase to describe patterns of behavior by one partner and the subsequent negative impacts on the other partner. It is shorthand to describe a fairly common pattern within a relationship.

The term derives from a play in the 1930’s and was later made into a 1944 film titled, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. As the story goes, a husband slowly manipulates the gas lights in the couples’ home to undermine the wife’s sense of sanity and force her to believe she is losing her mind. This is done with the intent of having the wife committed to a mental institution, at which point he can steal her inheritance. The process is well thought-out, highly manipulative and creative. It takes planning and follow-through as well as long-term commitment. It is not an easy task to systematically convince another person that they are going crazy (another term not used in the DSM).

When you think about it, how many times has someone tried to literally convince you that your reality is false? No, dear, the lights are not getting dimmer… It happens a lot – but not to the extreme that we are hearing about it. Of course, you hear people use phrases like, “you’re crazy” when you have an opinion. But that is not the same thing as systematically trying to undermine your sense of sanity. The problem is that we are very quick to label and ‘diagnose’ whenever something happens that we don’t like. We choose to pathologize any behavior we are uncomfortable with. Rather than accept that someone’s behavior is unappealing in some way, we find ourselves defining it, overthinking it, labeling it, diagnosing it.

Let me hit you with another definition from the good ‘ol Merriam-Webster dictionary: to pathologize is “to view or characterize as medically or psychologically abnormal”. Having a difference in opinions or trying to convince someone to see another perspective is not psychologically abnormal.

So, let’s get real. Are you using the term to describe anyone that is making you question your thoughts or actions? Did the recent election have you in frequent debate with someone that continually tried to convince you to vote for their choice? That is not the same things as gaslighting. Discourse is good! Having your thoughts and beliefs challenged is good! Challenge can be uncomfortable, but it is GOOD and it often results in growth. A person that challenges you, exposes you to different ways of thinking/believing, or offers you conflicting information to what you already believe is not gaslighting you.

Inigo Montoya - The Princess Bride

If you are in a conversation with someone that offers an opposing point of view, doesn’t it seem like they are trying to get you to change your mind? Do you get the feeling that they want to convince you of something? They want you to believe what they believe. THAT IS NOT GASLIGHTING. It might be rude and unwarranted, but it is not gaslighting behavior! Challenging viewpoints and opinions are not opportunities to label someone as “crazy” or that they “gaslight”.

Differing opinions are simply an opportunity to share information. If you choose to change your perspective based on new information, great! That is growth. But if you feel threatened and angry when presented with this new, conflicting information, please don’t pathologize the other person. Don’t diagnose them! Practice empathy. Get curious. Learn more about them. Why do they believe such things? Can you see how they came to that conclusion? Is there any harm in opening your mind to new possibilities? NO! But there is a great deal of harm that can come from mislabeling another person with a pop-phrase, unofficial diagnosis such as gaslighting.

*Please note that legitimate gaslighting within a relationship is a real problem and it is a form of abuse. It should not be dismissed. This article is addressing the over-generalizing use of the term to describe any interaction with a person that feels like a conflict. If you have been, or currently are, in a relationship with someone that is gaslighting you, please reach out for help and support from a professional*

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