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Have you ever been gaslighted. Here is how to recognise it and protect your reality

Luba Kassova | April 19, 2023
Have you ever been gaslighted. Here is how to recognise it and protect your reality Have you ever been gaslighted. Here is how to recognise it and protect your reality

The first time I heard the term gaslighting (psychological manipulation to undermine someone’s perception of reality) was in June 2021, during the pandemic. I was interviewing Kalani*, a wellbeing consultant, a woman of colour, who had had cancer and was sharing her painful experience of having been gaslighted by her family. “Everywhere I go there are women who are still being gaslit and not being heard by their family… I could talk about this forever. We need a different world. Part of me is relieved that I don’t have children, especially not daughters, because it is really difficult to be a woman,” she observed with evident anguish. Throughout the interview I heard how most of the men in Kalani’s family had denied her pain, anger, and resentment. The family’s refusal to accept her reality had compounded the enormous pressure she had experienced during the pandemic, all the while fighting a life-threatening disease. This toxic mix had caused an unfathomable feeling of loneliness.

Over the following months, the term “gaslighting” cropped up more frequently. Interestingly, it was more often women of colour who confided about having been gaslighted: a professional coach, a news editor, a programme manager. Was this a coincidence or is some women’s reality denied much more forcefully than others’?
So began my journey of uncovering how much harder women of colour have it than white women. Legions of women, and especially women of colour in countries with multi-racial populations, are not only being dismissed just for being women but are also being gaslighted outright. Their reality is being denied, their self-worth demolished and their self-confidence continually undermined.
My research for this article revealed that gaslighting was among the Oxford English Dictionary’s words of the year in 2018 and was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2022. The rise of its use may well be linked to the rise of the #MeToo movement, which peaked in 2018. Google searches of the word gaslighting and its derivatives have steadily increased globally since 2017, peaking last month.
Gaslighting is defined as a psychological manipulation aimed at making one distrust oneself, one’s perceptions, and, crucially, one’s interpretation of the past. A gaslighter attempts to rewrite the past to manipulate someone’s perception of it, with a view to eroding their trust in their own ability to interpret reality accurately. Gaslighting is also about denying someone’s current reality. It can be perpetrated by another person, by an organisation, even by a state. In February 2022 Putin attempted to gaslight a whole nation – Ukraine – by attempting to manipulate their past, before initiating Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Gaslighting manifests in denying the past, lying, shifting blame, minimising another person’s feelings, and diverting their attention to something else. It results in a person feeling increasingly confused, indecisive, unnecessarily apologetic, detached from themselves, lacking in confidence, and isolated. 
A key difference between being dismissed and being gaslighted lies in whether the act is intentional or not. Gaslighters – be they people, organisations, or countries – are fully aware of their attempt to manipulate. It is always a deliberate act, whereas dismissing someone’s feelings, needs or perceptions can be unconscious. Mary Ann Sieghart skilfully explains in The Authority Gap the damage caused by this widespread women-dismissing bias.
Amara* is a professional coach. When I interviewed her for a book, she described numerous situations where she or her clients – women of colour – were dismissed and silenced, mostly by men. “As a black woman my voice didn't even come on the table. And that was often even just unconscious. Those subtle behaviours leading somehow to my voice not being as respected, were quite stark. Even when I stood up, I faced the classic context of being told: ‘Well, you're being aggressive, angry’.”
I remember feeling shocked by an example of continual organisational gaslighting shared with me by Rebecca*, a black senior news editor from an English-speaking country in the global north. Throughout her entire career, she had repeatedly been significantly underpaid compared to her peers. While this may not come as a surprise to anyone who is aware of the gender pay gap, the manner in which the reputable news organisation she worked for managed her queries about her pay will. Establishing and correcting this pay discrepancy came at a great cost to Rebecca’s wellbeing.
As Rebecca climbed the management ladder, she was aware of the possibility of there being a widening pay gap between her and her mostly white male peers. Every time she asked her line managers to confirm whether her salary was comparable to those of her peers, they reassured her that it was. However, during her investigations, she found out that every reassurance had been a blatant lie, involving deliberate attempts to undermine her perception of reality: “Ooh, I am curious, why do you think that? Why do you say that? Ooh no, you're wrong about that. Oh, so and so didn't mean that, they meant this.”
Having been continuously gaslighted, Rebecca had almost given up. “Turns out I was being paid xyz less than my white male counterparts. That does a lot of damage... It was gaslighting because I was going to give up, because I started second-guessing myself: ‘They're pushing back because it’s absolutely fine...’ It was ridiculous, but they were fighting it, and fighting it and fighting it, and even when I was grudgingly told what the pay was there was a judgement, ‘Ooh, you don't seem that happy’, and I said, ‘Well, you’ve just told me what the figures are, and now I've got to consider if I’m happy with that’.”
There are ways to counteract gaslighting. The most important among them – suggested in articles in Psychology Now and Psychologies – is to keep notes or a private journal which will make it harder for a person or institution to rewrite your past and undermine your confidence in your perception of reality. In an organisational context, you can keep a log of revelatory emails, or evidence that supports your reality. In a personal context, it is important to seek the advice of more than one trustworthy friend to calibrate the claims that a gaslighter is making. Tracking how you feel is another way of detecting gaslighting: regularly doubting yourself after an interaction, being told that you are “oversensitive” or being asked if you had “a bad night’ after voicing a frustration, are all signs of possible gaslighting.
While Rebecca, aided by a white senior woman, succeeded in her fight for equal pay and recognised that she had been institutionally gaslighted, there are millions of women, who have and will fall prey to this pernicious psychological manipulation every day, mostly without recognising it. Dark-skinned women will experience gaslighting at a higher rate than other groups. Allies must call out gaslighting and support victims as openly or as subtly as they require. The first step towards self-empowerment or allyship is having the vocabulary to conceptualise the problem. Now that I know the term, I am able to recognise more readily when my or someone else’s reality has been denied. It certainly helps me unpack in my writing the complex reality that women frequently have to navigate daily.
*The names have been changed to protect the identity of the source

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