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Do You Even Know What Gaslighting Is?

Content Warning: This article contains discussion about manipulation and abuse/abusive relationships.

According to the website Well+Good, “In 2018, Oxford Dictionaries named gaslighting one of its most popular words of the year, and since then, the word has seen a steady increase as a search term on Google.” This steady increase in the use of ‘gaslighting’ has become an integral part of the teenage dictionary.

When talking to Franklin High School students, multiple brought up the idea that they don’t feel as though teenagers know the actual meaning of this harmful term. According to the Oxford Dictionary, to gaslight is to “manipulate (a person) by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.”

The colloquialism of gaslighting originates from the 1930s play (later film adapted) “Gaslight,” in which the main character’s husband slowly convinces her that she is going insane. The name comes from the husband convincing the wife that she’s wrong about the gas lights dimming in her attic, even though he is the one dimming them. Since this play was produced, the term has remained, along with its meaning, yet it is used as much more of a commonplace term now than ever before. 

Most commonly, ‘gaslighting’ has been used to explain the complex dynamics and circumstances often found in abusive relationships. The term is often used in these contexts due to the common manipulation that takes place in these cycles of abuse. Gaslighting specifically refers to the questioning of one’s sanity due to the convincing nature of another person; this takes place in these relationship dynamics often in order to keep the victim of abuse in their relationship.

Some high school students hear accusations of peers gaslighting each other almost daily, but it begs the question, how often is gaslighting actually taking place among teenagers? The most common misuse of the term is when describing differences of opinion when it comes to the retelling of a story, or the discussion of what happened from one’s perspective. When the stories don’t align with one another, ‘gaslighting’ becomes an easy fallback to dissolve the conversation and move on. Gaslighting is an easy thing to accuse someone of; because it’s still considered a big deal, people don’t like to try and convince someone that it’s not gaslighting out of fear that they would yet again be accused of it.

However, this is where the trouble lies. When we compare disagreements on the basis of differing perspectives to a psychological manipulation technique that makes one question their own sanity, these said disagreements escalate into something they might not have ever been.

FHS sophomore Jesse Miller says, “I feel like people mix up manipulation and gaslighting.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, manipulation is “behavior that controls or influences somebody/something, often in a dishonest way so that they do not realize it.” The key difference between gaslighting and manipulation is that gaslighting is a specific form of manipulation.

The harm in misusing ‘gaslighting’ and forcing the term to become a more general concept instead of its specific nature is that when properly used, the significance and meaning are less impactful. For example, when both a disagreement in an argument and an attempt to convince someone that what they experienced wasn’t abuse are considered gaslighting, the meaning of the word is misconstrued and the power of gaslighting accusations are weakened. Teenagers using gaslighting as a joke or something to make fun diminishes the weight that the word and concept hold.

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