By Joshua Nichols
Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting 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
In a recent article posted on their website, Merriam-Webster stated that the definition has broadened in recent times. Thus, gaslighting can also mean
“the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.”
How did the term come into existence?
The birth of the term takes us all the way back to a 1938 play written by British novelist, Patrick Hamilton. According to Wikipedia, this play was a “dark tale of a marriage based on deceit and trickery, and a husband committed to driving his wife insane in order to steal from her.” This later evolved into the 1944 American film “Gaslight” starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and the beloved and recently deceased, Angela Lansbury.
The film gets its name because the female lead, portrayed by Ingred Bergman, hears someone rummaging in the attic, but also notices the lights dimming or flickering at the same time. Her new husband, portrayed by Charles Boyer, happened to always be gone during this time. Spoiler alert: He was the one rummaging around in the attic! Turns out he was searching for heirlooms and other valuables of his wife’s recently deceased aunt. He would sneak into the attic undetected, but when he turned on the attic lights, the lights in other parts of the house would dim or flicker due to the decrease in gas flow caused by the attic lights being turned on. Although he may not have been a great thief, Boyer’s character was extremely crafty in the art of exploiting his wife’s trust and vulnerability, successfully convincing her it was all a figment of her imagination. In other words, he was an exceptional gaslighter!
How did it get selected as “word of the year”?
Now that you know the term’s origins, let’s talk about why Merriam-Webster selected it as the word of the year. According to their website, in 2022 the term “gaslighting” had a 1,740 percent increase in searches. Additionally, the word has transcended beyond the personal and into the political. Merriam- Webster.com is quoted as saying:
“In recent years, with the vast increase in channels and technologies used to mislead, gaslighting has become the favored word for the perception of deception. This is why (trust us!) it has earned its place as our Word of the Year.”
A Therapist’s Take
My first response in learning that Merriam-Webster chose this word as their 2022 Word of the Year was “less than surprised.” I thought, “Hmmm. I can see that.” After all, it was constantly being used in media coverage of politics, but it has also been a phenomenon that many mental health professionals have focused on in their writings and media posts.
My colleague Michelle Mays, has written a two-part blog on gaslighting. Additionally, the gaslighting video my colleagues and I produced – How to Put a Stop to Gaslighting for Good – on our youtube channel, RecoveryTV, is the currently the most watched video on our fairly small channel, averaging about 75 views daily. Like Michelle and many others, I, myself, am currently in the process of writing a blog on the different types of gaslighting. So, stay tuned for that!
You can see now why I wasn’t very surprised that gaslighting was the word of the year. In fact, I was more surprised that Meriam-Webster had such a thing as “word of the year.” I had no clue they did that.
The second feeling that came over me was sadness. “Are people experiencing the phenomenon of gaslighting that much?!” Think about it! In 2022, the internet search effort increased by nearly 2,000 percent! That’s mind-boggling, but it’s also saddening to think how many people are suffering from the experience of repetitiously being gaslit.
The last feeling I had upon learning of Meriam-Webster’s pick was encouragement and gratitude. “Good for them!” I thought. Maybe this will help bring awareness to others regarding the problem of gaslighting that has plagued our institutions, communities, families, friends, and homes. Maybe those who are vulnerable to the gaslighting phenomenon will be able to see the red flags and respond accordingly. Maybe they will learn to trust their gut and not allow themselves into being convinced they are going crazy or out of their minds. Maybe, just maybe, they will be able to spare themselves from the emotional turmoil and long road of recovery from the injuries created by gaslighting.
My encouragement to all is to learn about the phenomenon of gaslighting. Read books and blogs by respected professionals; listen to podcasts or other audio productions. Try not to overwhelm yourself, but the best defense is a good offense, right? Now that we are aware of the global problem of gaslighting, I think it would behoove us all to learn a little more about it in effort to prevent ourselves from falling prey to it.
If you are someone that feels like you have fallen prey to this phenomenon, then I encourage you to seek out a professional therapist in your area to help you navigate these often treacherous waters in effort to reclaim the sanity that was stolen from you.
As always, I wish you well on your mental health, relational health, and recovery journeys.
About the Author: Joshua Nichols is a licensed therapist and a co-owner of Family Solutions Counseling in the Oklahoma City metro area. He specializes in betrayal trauma recovery for and individuals and couples impacted by infidelity and sexually compulsive behavior.