5 Times You're Mistakenly Accusing Someone of Gaslighting
Don't jump to conclusions in these situations, therapists say.
"Gaslighting" is now a common component of our vocabulary. It was even named Merriam-Webster's 2022 Word of the Year, defined as "the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one's own advantage."
According to Merriam-Webster, the term is derived from a 1938 play called Gaslight, where a man attempts to make his wife believe she is going crazy by telling her the gaslights in their home aren't really dimming. (In reality, they are.) When gaslighting occurs in real life, it can be a form of emotional abuse, having lasting effects on the person on the receiving end.
"At the core of it, gaslighting in the psychological manipulation of someone, making the victim engage in self-doubt or feel confused," Beth Ribarsky, PhD, professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Illinois Springfield, explains, noting that it can be present in romantic, familial, and even professional relationships.
She continues, "A gaslighter will ultimately use deception to gain/maintain power or control over their victim. For example, a gaslighter might deny saying something and accuse the victim of being irrational for even suggesting the gaslighter would have said such a thing, ultimately causing the victim to question their own judgment or reality."
While these situations are serious and concerning, because "gaslighting" is now part of our mainstream vocabulary, it's also subjected to overuse and misuse.
In fact, clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Date Smart, notes that gaslighting is often confused with passive-aggressiveness or bullying. While it can involve both of these behaviors, to be classified as gaslighting, there must be "elements of manipulation, control, and attempting to foster self-doubt," she says.
"[Gaslighting] is often a term that is misused to simply refer to any time anyone might manipulate the truth," Ribarsky adds. "Although gaslighters are infamous for convincing their victims that they are actually the ones engaging in the gaslighting, there are some things we might take as signs of gaslighting that really aren't."
Because the term is ubiquitous, you could be applying it incorrectly in your relationships—and perhaps accusing someone of "gaslighting" you when that's not the case. Read on for six signs you're mistakenly identifying gaslighting.
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When someone corrects you.
There's no denying it can be annoying and frustrating when someone tells you you did or said something wrong. However, just because someone decides to correct you, it doesn't necessarily mean they're a gaslighter.
"Humans are notoriously bad listeners, so it is easy for people to misremember or mishear something. So, your partner might simply correct you," Ribarsky says. "Even though I've been studying communication most of my life, I'm easily distracted and still far from a perfect listener, so it is not uncommon for my partner to remind me what he/someone might have said."
She continues, "As long as they aren't being accusatory or making you question your own reality, it is unlikely they are gaslighting you if they're simply reminding you of what was actually said."
When someone is forgetful or remember things differently.
Misremembering things goes both ways and if your partner is forgetful, don't jump to conclusions. Just because someone doesn't remember every detail or doesn't remember it the way you do, they're not necessarily looking to trick you.
"Everyone forgets things from time to time. That said, just because someone doesn't remember an event or conversation like you do doesn't mean they're gaslighting you," Daniel Rinaldi, therapist and life coach, tells Best Life. "People can have different interpretations or feelings about the same event."
"Someone can honestly struggle to remember the details of an event or story without the intention of being deceptive, yet it can feel like gaslighting," she explains. "The same goes for someone who omits details or fails to recall details."
When someone gets defensive.
According to Rinaldi, people are entitled to have different perceptions. So, if you try to challenge someone's recollection or actions and they become defensive, it might just be their instinct, not malice.
"Sometimes, when confronted, people become defensive because they feel attacked or uncomfortable, not because they are trying to manipulate you," Rinaldi says. "Questioning to understand better, even if they challenge your viewpoint, isn't necessarily gaslighting. Everyone makes mistakes or misunderstands situations. This doesn't mean they are intentionally trying to hurt you."
When you're already angry or upset.
Another time you might be getting gaslighting confused is when you're worked up or angry—and you might find yourself feeling this way if you're already in an argument.
"One common scenario where [you can mistakenly identify gaslighting] is during arguments or conflicts with others," Courtney Hubscher, MS, LMHC, NCC, of GroundWork Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, tells Best Life. "Emotions can run high and cloud our judgment, making us more likely to interpret someone's words or actions as manipulative or gaslighting when they may not have intended it that way."
When you're affected by your own biases or past experiences.
Our past experiences help shape who we are, but they can also have unintended effects on how we approach certain situations.
"If we're tired, angry, or triggered by unresolved issues, it can be easy to misinterpret another person's behavior based on past experiences," Manly says. "When we're under psychological stress, our radar can be off and we might mistakenly accuse someone of gaslighting behaviors."
She continues, "For example, if a former partner engaged in gaslighting, you might believe a new partner is gaslighting you even when they are not. When old wounds aren't given the attention and healing they deserve, it's often easy to get triggered by behaviors that feel similar in nature."
Take a step back and think before immediately assuming it's gaslighting.
As the term "gaslighting" is casually thrown around, you may believe you understand what it means—but if you don't, you run the risk of mistakenly accusing someone you care about.
Identifying gaslighting is not easy—and as the tactic is employed to confuse you, it's doubly difficult to determine when it's happening and when it's not.
Manly offers a few tips to determine if this is happening in your relationship, mainly by asking yourself a few questions.
"If you're in doubt about whether or not you're being gaslit, ask yourself these two questions: Is this person trying to manipulate and control me? Is this person trying to confuse me and get me to doubt my own reality? If the answer to both questions is 'yes,' you're most likely being gaslit," she says.
If the answer is "no," it's unlikely that you're being manipulated. In this situation, "take a time-out to self-reflect as you may be mistaking gaslighting for another behavior altogether," Manly advises.
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