The first time I heard the term “gaslighting” was late last year, when I read The Current Conscience article “A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not ‘Crazy.'” The title alone sparked a sigh of relief, but upon finishing the article, I really felt validated.
In short, gaslighting is “manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.” The term is derived from the 1944 film, Gaslight, where Ingrid Bergman plays a wife whose husband tries to get her committed so he can steal her jewelry. He does this by setting the lights to flicker and convincing her, over time, that she’s imagining it.
Today, the term gaslighting has come to encompass any behavior where someone either consciously or unconsciously attempts to minimize a woman’s legitimate emotional or intellectual response by asserting that she’s overreacting or imagining an offense where there was none. According to “A Message to Women From a Man,” gaslighting is so effective because “women bare the brunt of our neurosis. It is much easier for us to place our emotional burdens on the shoulders of our wives, our female friends, our girlfriends, our female employees, our female colleagues, than for us to impose them on the shoulders of men. It’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it.”
Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. I’ve always had a difficult time articulating an offense in the first place, so it’s been fairly easy for others to convince me I’ve misread an offensive situation. I can attest that too many comments like: “I was just playin’! You need to learn how to take a joke” and “Wooow. I was just tryna keep it real with you, but since you can’t take it without getting your feelings hurt, I’ll fall back” will make anyone second guess herself.
Even now, I’m quick to run my first emotional response through a battery of self-assessments: Am I being too sensitive? Did he mean anything by it? Does it matter whether or not he “meant” anything by it if it still offended me? Am I imagining that eye-roll when I express myself? Am I the one in the wrong here? More often than not, these questions have simple yes or no answers.
Some misunderstandings strike the wrong chord because of the mood I was in before the encounter. When that happens, I’m willing to own it. In those cases, I usually am overreacting. Other exchanges are obviously offensive. Someone’s clearly insulting or undermining me and absolutely owes me an apology. Those are also fairly easy to resolve. Either the person apologizes when he’s called on it, or I cut him off. But in the cases where a comment is subtle and the speaker insists he was just joking or that I’m being “too sensitive” or, worse, that I’m hurting his feelings by insinuating that he’d ever intentionally set out to offend me, it’s gaslighting — and my response to it can range from dismissive to outraged, but neither response seems to resolve much. The more furious I am, the more evidence I’m providing for the argument that I’m overreacting. The quicker I am to shrug it off, the likelier it is that I’ll experience it with this person again.
Have you ever been gaslighted? How did you handle it?