What is 'gaslighting'?

·5-min read
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation which can be difficult for victims to detect as there are often no physical signs of abuse. (Getty Images)
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation which can be difficult for victims to detect as there are often no physical signs of abuse. (Getty Images)

‘What is gaslighting’ was one of the most commonly asked questions this year based on millions of searches on Yahoo. Here’s why it was such a common question in 2021 – including why questions peaked about it on 26 August.

What does it mean?

The origins of the term come from a 1938 play called Gaslight, which was developed into a more widely known film in 1944.

In the movie, a husband manipulates his wife by turning the gas lights down in their home and then denying it has been happening, causing her to question her sense of reality and eventually check into a mental institution.

Since then, the term has been used to describe a form of manipulation which takes place in abusive relationships.

According to the charity Women's Aid, gaslighting is "a form of psychological abuse which makes someone question their perception of reality".

Charity Cheshire Without Abuse says that a person might gaslight you by "undermining your confidence or intelligence, questioning your version of events, persistent lying and accusing you of going crazy, losing the plot or being mentally unstable".

This enablers abusers to control their victims.

Gaslighting leaves victims questioning their perception of reality. (Getty Images)
Gaslighting leaves victims questioning their perception of reality. (Getty Images)

In 2015, the UK government made the use of coercive or controlling behaviour a criminal offence which carries a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, a fine or both.

Still, this type of behaviour continues to be a big problem in relationships.

In July, the producers of Love Island were accused of enabling gaslighting on the show.

Women's Aid issued a plea to ITV which asked the broadcaster to "recognise coercive control when it is happening on the show", as two male contestants were accused of using "gaslighting, possessiveness, and manipulation" towards their partners.

ITV responded, insisting that it takes the emotional well-being of the Islanders "extremely seriously" and has "robust protocols" in place to monitor what's going on.

Some have accused Love Island of enabling manipulative and coercive behaviour in relationships. (Getty Images)
Some have accused Love Island of enabling manipulative and coercive behaviour in relationships. (Getty Images)

But, contrary to popular belief, gaslighting is not exclusive to romantic relationships.

Experts say that gaslighting can also take place between family members, friends, colleagues.

The term is also frequently used in politics.

Political theorists argue that some politicians use 'collective gaslighting' against the public, in order to consolidate their power.

What is the problem with ‘gaslighting’?

Confusing someone makes them vulnerable to being manipulated, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

This makes it difficult for victims to detect when it's happening in a relationship as there are often no physical signs of abuse.

When it occurs in a personal relationship, it can erode someone's self-esteem, self-worth and create a dependency on their partner, which can in turn lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and loneliness.

Academic Natascha Rietdijk argues that gaslighting in politics can undermine democracy by making the public less capable of resisting abuses of power.

Why has gaslighting been in the news in 2021?

In August, a US veteran and former CIA analyst accused the Biden administration of "gaslighting the country" over their handling of the exit from Afghanistan.

Matt Zeller, who fought in Afghanistan, criticised the US government for their treatment of Afghan refugees and for allegedly meeting with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar.

President Biden's approval ratings dropped in the days following the US evacuation from Afghanistan. (Getty Images)
President Joe Biden's approval ratings dropped in the days following the US evacuation from Afghanistan. (Getty Images)

Zeller said: "Let's be clear, the president has got to stop gaslighting the country.

"We could have done this [withdrew from Afghanistan] in a very orderly fashion. A plan existed all along.

"If the visa programme had actually functioned as designed, many of them would have gotten out years ago."

He also claimed that the US was "going to be judged by one number and one number alone for the rest of history, and that’s how many people did we leave behind. Not how many people did we save, but how many people did we leave behind".

Shortly afterwards, Zeller's interview went viral.

Biden is not the first US president to be accused of gaslighting.

After the Capitol Hill Riots in January, CNN accused the Trump Administration of gaslighting Americans by trying to make them remember the 6 January insurrection in a way which "isn't, actually, how it played out".

Still, many agreed with Zeller's claim that the US should have stayed in Afghanistan for longer than their evacuation date on 31 August.

Chris Purdy, from Veterans for American Ideals, a non-partisan group which helped evacuate Afghans, told Politico: “They [Biden Administration] keep saying this was inevitable, but there absolutely was a way to avoid this - if that’s not the definition of gaslighting, I don't know what is.”

The Taliban captured Kabul on 15 August.

Allied forces, including Britain, entered Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks and stayed to provide security for the new government once the Taliban were driven out.

Disturbing scenes from Kabul Airport showed Afghans desperately trying to leave the country with the Americans, with some even clinging to the US Air Force's plane as it took off.

There are currently 2.6 million UNHCR-registered refugees from Afghanistan, most of whom are in neighbouring countries Iran and Pakistan.

Biden continues to defend the decision to leave, saying that the US will "continue to work to help more people leave the country who are at risk".

Watch: Footage appears to show people clinging to side of US plane amid chaos at Kabul airport

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