What is Gaslighting anyway?

Mar 26, 2017

Cathy: So this is a delicate subject.

Liz: Yes.

Cathy: And we want to handle it with compassion and care. But it’s a very serious and we consider it very important. There has been a lot of use of the word “gaslighting” and we want to help define the word and also we’re seeing it used sometimes when it’s not appropriate and I think that it sometimes weakens the word for the people that really need it. So we wanted just with compassion and care help define that and maybe strengthen the use for people that really need it.

Liz: Right.

Cathy: So this is Dr. Liz from Sex-Positive Psych.

Liz: This is Cathy Vartuli from The Intimacy Dojo. And as a content note, we are going to be talking in this video about different kinds of abuse from inoculation. And so, if that’s a really strong trigger for you, go on to the next video.

Cathy: Yeah. So I love definitions. We’re both PhDs and yeah.

Liz: Yeah, a little different but you know.

Cathy: I can think of all kinds.

Liz: It’s not a real doctorate. It’s like a less important doctorate in the psychology world. It’s a whole thing. We’re practice-focused instead of research-focused which makes us less valid.

Cathy: My PhD is in science and engineering but engineering is considered the physicist. They’re like, “Oh, it’s not real science.”

Liz: Oh my gosh! I remember the physicist who told me all the time that psychology is not real science. I think that’s just a physicist’s thing.

Cathy: Yeah, that they want to feel better for themselves if they’re making about half of what those people are.

Liz: Right.

Cathy: So anyway, total side note.

Liz: Side note.

Cathy: So gaslighting by definition, I’m looking at urban dictionary, is a form of intimidation or psychological abuse that – where the false information is presented to the victim making them doubt their own memory and perception and quite often their sanity. So someone might say they might do something and then they deny knowing anything about it or say they’re imagining things.

Liz: Right.

Cathy: And it’s a very severe kind of abuse.

Liz: It is. And I want read the second section of urban dictionary. A more psychological definition of gaslighting is an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from and/or providing false information to the victim having gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception.

Cathy: And I think that’s really powerful because if we can’t trust our own perception, it can shake everything. It’s not just about one person. It’s like, “Do I trust myself with this person and that person in making decisions?” So we don’t mean in any of this discussion to imply that it’s not serious or should not be taken very seriously.

Liz: No. Or that there are people who very genuinely experience gaslighting or that you can feel as though you have been gaslit even if those factors were not necessarily involved.

Cathy: Right. So one thing I want to bring out in this is that there are times when people will not remember something or have a different occurrence of it to them but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are manipulating or maliciously gaslighting someone.

Liz: Right.

Cathy: So if Liz and I went to the movies last night just to give a trivial example and we both saw the same movie and I’m like, “Do you remember that scene where they did this thing and it was so cool?” And you’re like, “No.” Either you don’t remember or you didn’t have the same perspective on it.

Liz: Right.

Cathy: That’s not gaslighting. That’s having a difference of opinion.

Liz: I think that in an effort to be more supportive of people who are expressing that they have experienced abuse or toxic behaviors, a lot of our communities have gotten to the point of applying some of these terms in ways that are not necessarily accurate. So I have sometimes seen gaslighting applied as a term to a situation where one person disagreed with someone else in a way that made the other person feel hurt and while that is challenging, I don’t know that that is always gaslighting.

Cathy: I think one of the key distinctions I would look at is like if we’re going back to the silly example of the movie and it’s not to trivialize this but to try to take some of the feelings out of it, if Liz is saying, “No, that didn’t happen” you didn’t have that perspective as wrong versus that’s not how perceived it. So, there’s an owning of self versus, “You’re crazy, that never happened.”

Liz: Right. And I think again, going to the silly example, it would be, Cathy says to me, “Oh, do you remember the scene from the movie?” I remember that that scene was there but I don’t want to talk about it so I say, “That scene didn’t happen. Why do you keep saying that that scene happened? What’s wrong with you that keep imagining that there was a scene in the movie?” And like Cathy maybe like show me the movie and show me the scene and I would say, “That’s not at all what you said. I don’t understand what you mean.”

Cathy: Yeah.

Liz: Where there is this – again, it’s increasing in frequency. It’s systematic. It’s a withholding of factual information of a denial of reality or providing a false information, not just a disagreement over perceptions or even a disagreement over facts.

Cathy: Right. And I think that it’s such a delicate topic because for so long in most of our culture, victims were denied and people would come forward and say, “This is happening.” And then there was – people didn’t want to deal with it. So the gaslighting was supported. If someone was gaslighting them or abusing them, it was emphasized by society.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: So there is a really strong in our community, a strong advocacy for victims.

Liz: And it’s totally great.

Cathy: Yes.

Liz: I think that the way I see that is that if we take the formal cultural approach to it as being like one side of a pendulum swing where you deny every victim’s report and you always question the victim, our community has swung to the other side in a very...

Cathy: In some cases.

Liz: In some cases. And it’s in an attempt to be very reinforcing and supportive of people who have had experiences and I think that we’ve in that attempt lost some of the nuance that’s essential in dealing with these kinds of situations.

Cathy: And I think that what I’m perceiving is there is a fear of being non-supportive so people aren’t always saying, “Hey, I don’t really see that as malicious” which is really – there are people that don’t have the same memories, the same experiences, or they can actually disagree with you without being – without gaslighting you.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: And I just – I really care about the word because it’s – having this kind of definition is extremely important and when it’s being called out, if we’re calling it out in places where it doesn’t exist or when we weaken the term by applying it where there’s not malicious intent or actual abuse then I think we weaken it for the people that really need it.

Liz: Yeah, I agree. I think that when we’re describing these kinds of situations, what we’re talking about is something very serious and very severe. Gaslighting is an attempt to undermine someone’s ability to understand and perceive reality. And when we’re applying to disagreements that don’t feel good, I think that we lose the importance of that term and that it becomes more difficult then for us to talk about these very severe situations because we no longer have that kind of language that creates that difference.

Cathy: And one of my passions about this community and I love so much is that there has been a lot of freedom to express ourselves and I’m seeing people lately that have been afraid to disagree with me in the concern that they would be gaslighting me is they disagreed. And I want there to be open dialogue. I want people to be able to say, “I don’t agree with you.” And if you don’t agree with video, that’s great.

Liz: Put a comment. We want this dialogue.

Cathy: Do your own video. We don’t want to start a flame. We’re not at all trying to start – this is not directed to anyone in particular. It’s just in general trend that I’m concerned about and we talked about this, I don’t want our community to ever lose voices. I don’t want our community to ever be shut down because what we’re creating together, a place where people can dialogue about anything. We can talk about sex. We can talk about issues that no one else is talking about. It’s too valuable. So I really care that we have an ability for people to disagree with each other and not have it be seen as them taking away our voice.

Liz: Right. Yeah.

Cathy: Unless they actually are.

Liz: Unless they are. Right. And I think that’s the similar concern that I share is that I talk to a lot of people who very afraid about speaking out on some topics, who feel like if they say the wrong thing, they’re going to get ostracized from the community. They are going to publicly shamed.

And I think that we need to find a way to empower all the voice in our community and in some way especially the ones that we don’t agree with because I think that when we refused to listen to viewpoints that are different than our own or when we – and I’m not saying like enable racism or enable sexism or enable any of those problematic things, but I think that we in a sex educator community have to some extent ward ourselves off from significant portions of the world because we would not listen to them or dialogue with them and we want to include them in the work that we’re doing because we feel like they’re too backwards or never want to agree or they’re not worth it.

Cathy: Absolutely. And everybody gets to decide how much reserve they have to deal with it because it is very stressful.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: But I don’t think we’re going to change – like I have family members that I love deeply that voted for Trump and think there’s nothing wrong. They don’t understand why I’m upset. And I am choosing to keep some distance there but if I don’t interact with them and explain my perspective, they’re never – like no one else is going to do the work for me.

Liz: And I think that my fear with some of this looser application of the term “gaslighting” in particular is that it leads to more silence in your voices in a way that it’s not helpful to any of us in the long term. Over a long enough timeline, all of us will do something that could be called gaslighting but may or may not be. Over a long enough timeline, each and every one of us will end up violating someone’s consent.

Cathy: We’re humans.

Liz: We’re humans.

Cathy: And no matter how careful we are that we’re going to make mistakes but making a mistake does not mean or even a series of mistakes is not the same as malicious intent.

Liz: Yeah.

Cathy: And if we can and certainly a very touchy time for everybody, everybody’s nares are very raw and like we want to be very gentle and again, meaning this as pointing a finger.

Liz: No not at all.

Cathy: It’s an invitation to a dialogue and a request for people to double check their definitions and to be a little more careful about how we might be using words that are very powerful and very important to a lot of people and that give meaning to something that maybe we’re kind of blurring the lines a little bit.

Liz: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Cathy: So hopefully, this was said with the respect and caring that we intent.

Liz: Absolutely. And again, if you disagree with us, please let us know.

Cathy: Yeah.

Liz: We want this to be a dialogue. We don’t want to silence anyone’s voices. I’m not some epic voice of all the things. I don’t have all the knowledge. I’m not perfect. And I think that this is a really difficult subject but we all need to work at talking about.

Cathy: And I so respect that about this community. We’re figuring it out as we go. We’re building something brand new and that means there’s going to be some konky times. And I invite – if you can message below the video or you can also, if you want to email me directly.

Liz: You can email me directly as well.

Cathy: Cathy@theintimacydojo.com.

Liz: sexpositivepsych@gmail.com.

Cathy: So feel free to talk to us directly. We invite you to dialogue not flame. If you’re upset, we totally get. We’re not – this is a very sensitive subject. We debated over whether to do the video. And we care enough about the community and we’re all creating together that we’re wanting to say something. So if you’re upset, maybe message us personally so that we can discuss some of it rather than bringing the community in – to a dialogue is great. But if there’s a lot of upset feelings, maybe we can discuss it privately. We love upgrades and we’re open to it.

Liz: Yeah, all about upgrades. And I think for me, part of this video and other videos we’re doing on these kind of topics is about helping to create a brave space in our community. There are some great links below about the difference between a safe space and a brave space. And that a brave space, what you’re doing is empowering each other to take risks and make mistakes and definitely take accountability for those mistakes and make amends for those mistakes. But you’re not expecting perfection from everyone and you’re understanding that some things are going to make us uncomfortable and that discomfort is not the same as lack of safety.

Cathy: Yeah. So again, we hope that this was of compassion. Please let us know what you think.

Liz: Absolutely.

Cathy: That we invite comments and upgrades because that’s all – the only way we’re all going to learn.

Liz: Right, absolutely.

Cathy: So with love.

Liz: With love.

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