Shining Light on Gaslighting

Merriam-Webster’s Word of 2022: gaslighting.

gaslighting

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PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine . . . Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine . . .” - traditional Gospel song

As I have been writing this daily blog this morning, the sun has been coming up, dispelling the darkness.

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“Gaslighting” had been brought to my attention by a colleague. On this past Tuesday, it was revealed as Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, based solely on the data on most-searched words, excluding the timeless ones.1 Two definitions were provided, a long and a short one:

“Psychological manipulation of a person usually over an expended 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.”

Or more succinctly, “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.”

The term is derived from the 1938 play and 1944 film “Gaslight.” In the story, a husband tries to trick his new wife into believing she is going crazy, in part by telling her that their gaslights are working fine, while all the while he is intentionally and secretly dimming them while in the attic. In this case, the perpetrator was consciously doing the gaslighting, but it could be done unconsciously, too.

Why the rise in gaslighting usage? Does it have to do with the power struggles that are increasing normalization of divisiveness and scapegoating in this country? Personally, I have experienced it in an online psychiatric list serve where political correctness seemed to preclude the previously respectful interactions.

Almost by definition, there is commonly mental health harm from gaslighting that can include trauma, anxiety, and depression from the abuse and confusion. Paradoxically, it can also be a symptom of some psychiatric disorders, including the borderline, anti-social, and narcissistic personality disorders. However, the term has not appeared or been discussed much in the formal psychiatric literature.

It may be self-evident that someone being gaslighted may not realize it is happening to them. A clue is a sense of confusion over what is happening. Beneficial strategies include:

-Getting feedback about the situation from others that you trust

-Keeping evidence about what is happening to you

-Journalling daily

-Obtaining psychiatric help

Probably, thanks to Merriam-Webster, the publicity from this award will help public recognition of the problem. When I left my gaslit situation, I felt immediately better and have not encountered another where I felt that way again.

Interestingly, the prior 2 words of the year were “pandemic” in 2020 and “vaccine” in 2021, both also relating to mental health. I suppose one could put these 3 years and 3 words together and sum up the pandemic times by concluding that we have all been gaslighted to some extent at some time as we continue to disagree about what is the best for the health and mental health of all. We need our lights of truth, insight, and caring to shine more strongly.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

Reference

1. Gaslighting. Word of the Year 2022. Merriam-Webster. November 28, 2022. Accessed December 2, 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year

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