Content Warning: This post will discuss emotional abuse, mental manipulation, and gaslighting. Readers who have experienced these events may find this topic triggering. Reader discretion is advised.
The official definition of gaslighting, according to Dictionary.com, is a tactic used “to cause (a person) to doubt their sanity through the use of psychological manipulation.” The long-term effects of gaslighting can include trauma, anxiety, depression, feelings of self-doubt, and confusion. The term originated from a 1938 play Gaslight, where an abusive husband slowly manipulated his wife into believing she’s going mad. Eventually, the wife begins to question her reality.
“Usually, when we speak about gaslighting, we describe a very malicious, intentional activity. Someone telling someone else what they are seeing isn’t real to escape taking accountability for their actions.”
A gaslighter may insult you or call you names. They may lie outright, denying a lie you caught them in. They may try to diminish your reality by telling you that “you are overreaching” or are “too sensitive.” If they say something that hurts your feelings, they may try to push your boundaries by saying things like “it’s not that bad” or “you just need to toughen up.” In romantic relationships, they may lead a partner to believe they are incapable and could never survive independently in the world without them.
I am the survivor of long-term mental abuse and gaslighting. I’ve been gaslighted by people who I thought loved me. I have also experienced gaslighting within the professional workplace settings. Now that it’s happened to me in multiple environments, it’s become much easier for me to spot.
As mentioned above, with intentional gaslighting, the person gaslighting me was always attempting to control me, get something they want, or stay in a position of power. Although control is not the intention, many Autistic people will hear similar comments repeatedly throughout their lifetimes.
When we speak up about our needs or sensory discomfort, people make the same types of comments. It’s never just one person.
“It’s sometimes being invalidated thousands of times over and over again throughout one’s life – until you no longer advocate for your needs because you have been told, and start to believe, that your needs are unreasonable.”
Over and over again, people told me that my needs were unreasonable. That I didn’t need to sit in the dark, that the lights weren’t that bright, that it wasn’t that cold, or that the socks weren’t that itchy. They used these dismissive comments to get what they wanted – for me to stop “complaining” about things they didn’t understand.
I didn’t know I was autistic, and neither did they. People don’t understand autism and Autistic experience. Even now, most people have never heard of or understand sensory processing differences. I, myself, only learned about them when I was going through the diagnostic process as an adult a little over four years ago.
I was almost thirty when I found out I was Autistic and that my sensory processing differences were real and weren’t “all in my head” – because people had led me to believe they were exaggerated over the years. “It’s not that bad,” “you’re overreacting,” “you’re the only one complaining.”
I believed the lies – that I must not be trying hard enough. I was complaining too much. Nobody else was complaining.
For many years I’d completely dismissed my reality because the people around me had minimized my experience of the world over repeatedly. I thought everyone had the same experience I did. I believed that I complained too much and needed to “toughen up’ – leaving me in a vicious cycle of ignoring my own needs and pushing myself to the point of burnout and sickness constantly.
I spent most of my days feeling disconnected from my body. I stayed in survival mode for many years – a shell of a person operating on autopilot.
My Autistic discovery was a huge turning point in my life. It was as if the authentic person inside me, who had been packed away to become what I thought society wanted me to be, work up. They came to life and started to take their power back after years of dormancy under a heavy mask.
I no longer believed the lies society had told me – that I was broken, that I was too sensitive, and wasn’t good enough. Because the evidence had been handed to me, proving that my experience was valid and I wasn’t losing my mind.
I propose that society has gaslight me in much the same way my abusive ex and others have done to me over the years but is it gaslighting? Does intent matter if the impact is the same?
I’ve been in recovery from these things for many years, recovery from the partner who gaslit me for years, and recovery from the lies society told me.
- Was it gaslighting? Is gaslighting always intentional?
- If gaslighting can be unintentional does society gaslight autistic people and people in other minority groups?
- If gaslighting is always intentional – what do we call a similar phenomenon that can have the same catastrophic effects?
Time to ask our community what they think about this issue. I open up Twitter and type:
Do you think gaslighting can be unintentional? For example: Well-meaning people without sensory issues telling someone with sensory differences that the environment isn’t “that bad.”
Yea, if people don’t understand, they will absolutely do all the abusive things unintentionally. I believe when people truly understand, you can’t be abusive without feeling regret. Unless ur evil, but then again why would we let evil people in our lives? | Liz Valentin, @owllgyrl
There’s a really good essay called On Gaslighting in the book Turn This World Upside Down that argues gaslighting has been woven into the fabric of oppression, IE men sometimes cause women to question their perceptions without realizing it bc it’s so normalized | @queervengeance
One of my exes thought I was making up my sensory issues for 2.5 years & only thought otherwise when our therapist told him that’s a real thing. Elements of that relationship were terrible for me, but he wasn’t “bad”—he was immature & unprepared to understand people not like him | @anonymousnanny2
I do, and for me, this can mitigate the effect of the gaslighting. It feels worse to me if I know that they are doing it intentionally. Also, if I believe/know the person is doing it unintentionally I feel more able to communicate how what they have said made me feel. | Jess Plant, @IAmJessPlant
I think “unintentional” and “a result of ignorance” are very different, and most cases like your example are the former. | Andre Walker, @Blkhole4aheart
“It’s a blurry line to be sure.”
Susannah MacNeil, @SusannahMacNeil
I would consider this a form of microagression, and stemming from a place of social ignorance. Microagressions do tend to feel gaslighty though, especially if they’re something you experience often. Generally speaking, microagressions are harmful both emotionally and socially. | T. I. Triskelion, @SchizoidAutist
Absolutely. It’s not always a malicious thing but we have to keep in mind some of the things we do that are well meaning are actually harmful. | @harventesla
Like, with your example… I’m not sure I’d consider that gaslighting so much as a misunderstanding of perspective due to sensory differences. If it was something that was happening repeatedly with the same person being dismissive, I’d be more inclined to assume gaslighting. | Nikkiana Henninger, @nikkiana
Me and my partner occasionally do this to each other – I’m more lights and he’s more sensitive to smells – but it’s always accidental and we apologise when reminded. We BELIEVE each other, which is key Key | Joe’s Jacket, @JoesJacket1
Being invalidating and unempathetic isn’t the same thing as gaslighting. I think people overuse the term. Gaslighting is denial of facts that makes the other person doubt their own perceptions. Sometimes it’s deliberate & sometimes it’s due to inability to accept facts. | Katie, @katie_did_not
“It can be unintentional, but it still hurts.” @euleatweets
What I’m seeing in the thread is a question of whether gaslighting is defined by intent or impact. I want a separate word to describe the *experience* of having to second-guess my reality bc someone is unintentionally insensitive (impact) that won’t detract from the original word | Meghan E. B. Lin, @MeghanEBLin
I don’t think the intent behind gaslighting matters. The harm of being gaslit happens whether the gaslighter intended to be hurtful or not. Intentionally narrowing the definition to include fewer people/situations makes it a whole lot easier for gaslighting to remain common | @IsanghanSaengak
It’s not a problem of perspective, it’s a problem of perception. Not all invalidation is gaslighting, but empathic listening and trustful respect solve both. | Bob Yamtich, @BobYamtich
Yes, I think most abuse is not deliberate in the sense that they don’t decide to be abusive consciously. That’s why they fit a stereotype. | Janet Beatrice, @janet444
I think a true gaslighting behaviour has to be intentional by definition. However the well-meaning neurotypical person may inadvertently trigger the same reaction as one who is doing it on purpose. Depends on motive and context. | Graham Rossiter