Each year, Merriam-Webster—the dictionary people—declare a “Word of the Year” based on data about how frequently words were looked up. For 2022, the word is “gaslighting.”
If you’re not familiar with gaslighting, Merriam-Webster defines it as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.”
I know the word from the old “Gaslight” movie—the story of a woman who is manipulated by her husband into believing that she is losing her mind. How?
Unbeknownst to her, he raises and lowers the levels of the gas lights in their home. When she notices the lights change, he convinces her that what she is seeing is not happening. It’s all in her mind. She begins to doubt herself. Maybe her mind is misleading her!
To manipulate someone into doubting their own sanity is a pretty nasty thing to do, isn’t it? Why would anyone do that?
Some people do awful things to other people. Why? I’ll offer one possibility from a Choice Theory perspective.
Choice Theory suggests that we all have basic needs; one is the need for power. While we are all motivated to take action to satisfy our needs, different people take different actions.
Fortunately, many people choose productive actions. They provide for themselves, their families and friends. They gain recognition through work and accomplishments. Whether it’s carpentry or artistry, they earn success. They help others, and get satisfaction from their ability to do so.
It’s the power need that motivates people to innovate, improve, build, and keep forging on. It’s a “powerful” need, and satisfying it in productive ways brings so much good to the world—both to the individual and to people who benefit from their actions.
Then there’s the other side. The gaslighting husband is satisfying his power need by controlling his wife’s mental state. It must be a powerful feeling to convince someone that they can’t even trust their own eyes. You’re in control. Heady stuff.
That behaviour is an example of what’s referred to as “external control” in Dr. Glasser’s Choice Theory. While I haven’t seen the term “gaslighting” used in Glasser’s writings, certainly the concept of using coercion and manipulation is seen as a source of relationship destruction.
It’s easy for us to detect the inherent nastiness of the gaslighter in the movie. However, there are situations where external control—even manipulation—has been viewed as socially acceptable. How can that be?
The motives of the external controller may not be evil; they may genuinely believe that they know what is best for you. They need to control you because you cannot be trusted to control yourself. Perhaps you don’t have the expertise or the sophistication to know what is best for you. Does that make gaslighting ok?
It’s true that people make mistakes. We don’t always make the best choices. Sometimes we hurt ourselves and others through our behaviour. Sometimes lessons are only learned through painful experience.
But attempts to control through deception demonstrate a lack of respect. I believe the ethical antidote to errors is to provide information. Make the case—explain and persuade—as opposed to tricking, manipulating and, yes, gaslighting.
Why do you think gaslighting was such a popular word this year?
Welcome to Reality Check:
articles and observations inspired by the work of Dr. William Glasser
- Choosing Behaviour
- Choosing Perspective
- Control and Choice
- Develop Understanding
- Doing, Thinking, Feeling, Physiology
- How it is sometimes
- Love & Belonging
- Perception & Reality
- Personal Freedom