Mental Musings: Stop Gaslighting the term Gaslighting


Millie Peck

By Millie Peck 

Hello readers! This week, I’ve invited a guest writer: my friend and S&B staff writer Millie Peck. Millie and I have bonded over our transparency with mental health, and I hope you enjoy her incredible column on gaslighting. Talk soon, remember to reach out if you need anything! -Alanis 


Within popular culture, gaslighting a clinical term that has recently been co-opted by popular culture. The term is used so flippantly in everyday dialogue that people often forget that it’s a pretty severe form of emotional manipulation and abuse, where the manipulator tries to get someone to question their own reality, perception or memory. It can be a funny and useful term when talking about a joking manner, but what concerns me is the frequency with which the term is used. Maybe before throwing it around so casually, it could be good to take some time to really think about what gaslighting is.

I didn’t fully understand gaslighting myself until I watched Katie Thurston’s season of “The Bachelorette” this summer. In the second to last episode of the season, front runner Greg Grippo gaslights Katie on national television. If for some reason you are not a member of Bachelor Nation and did not catch this episode, let me set the scene – Greg confesses his undying love for Katie and tells her she has “healed the hole in [his] heart.” Katie, who is also dating two other men at the time, doesn’t handle this remark well; after sitting in silence for a bit, she ultimately rallies and clearly states to Greg that he is her “frontrunner.” In this moment, however, Greg’s entire demeanor changes. He becomes aggressive and withdrawn. The next day, when he breaks up with her, the gaslighting occurs in full. He places the blame entirely on her, and claims that she has changed and that his departure from the show was her fault. He does a pretty good job of making her feel crazy, eventually leaving her literally begging on her knees trying to figure out what she had done.

Before the episode my sister texted me, giving me a trigger warning for any of my friends that had been in emotionally manipulative relationships. I repeated the warning to my friends before the episode, but didn’t think much of it. Truthfully, I mostly thought the trigger warning meant the episode would have really good drama. As it turns out, I really needed that trigger warning.

Watching that episode of “The Bachelorette” provided a concrete example of gaslighting, and I could suddenly identify specific incidences in my past. I have been treated in an incredibly similar way to the way Greg treated Katie. In past relationships I have been made to feel crazy. Like I was at fault for things. Like my emotions were invalid. Like my lived experience was somehow a misrepresentation of real events. I had relationships where people had worked hard to gatekeep my emotions. I was up till 3 a.m. sobbing, reliving those moments of trauma that had fundamentally changed the way I thought about myself.

And I wasn’t alone. Watching the episode gave one of my friends the space to talk about her emotionally abusive experiences. After talking things through after the episode, she felt validated enough to take up a compliant with Title IX. For both my friend and I, sitting in a room full of people who viewed Greg’s behavior as toxic gave us the permission to identify our own experiences as abuse. Because, in all honesty, most of the time we write off those experiences as part of a crappy breakup, or say that we were “just incompatible.”

We often blame ourselves when things go awry, and we aren’t really taught to recognize emotional manipulation as abuse. I didn’t even realize the gravity of a lot of my experiences until last summer when I started a new kind of trauma therapy called EMDR. The therapy was originally designed for veterans with PTSD, so when my therapist urged me to try it I felt a bit weird, because I didn’t feel like I had any “real” trauma. But, when I started working through my core feelings of self-loathing and unworthiness that resulted in my eating disorder and slew of other diagnoses, I was able to trace some of those feelings back to specific instances of emotional abuse and manipulation.

Emotional abuse is extremely difficult to identify. In a college setting, many people are experiencing their first-ever romantic relationship, which makes it harder to identify red flags and toxic behavior. Often when we are really in love or really excited to be with someone, we don’t recognize the manipulative and toxic patterns.

And perhaps one of the worst parts of gaslighting and other forms of emotional abuse is that even if we can figure to figure out for ourselves what is happening, others often don’t believe us. In contrast, if someone’s partner is explicitly verbally abusive or violent, no one questions it because that is the kind of abuse society is trained to recognize.

For anyone coming out of an emotionally abuse relationship, and for women specifically, they are often accused of being overdramatic or a called a “bitter ex.” After a break-up, my friends thought it was excessive and unreasonable when I didn’t want to be around my ex. They would tell me I was letting him win, or it just “wasn’t that deep.” In some ways I agreed with them, but I couldn’t ever put my finger on why it was so excruciatingly painful to think about this guy or why it felt nearly impossible to be near him. After a lot of therapy, I’ve figured out that it largely revolves around the fact that he was a major trigger. Being around him brought up a lot of those really horrible feelings I had about myself.

Gaslighting is real, it’s abuse, and we need to talk about it. I don’t blame anyone for not being informed about the phenomena. Hell, I didn’t really know that it had happened to me! However, given the frequency at which I am hearing the term, I think it’s time for a little education. Toxic relationships create real psychological trauma, and as a society we need to do better at validating the pain manipulative behavior causes and being allies to victims.