No, You Aren't Being Gaslit

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No, You Aren't Being Gaslit
Self

The day after my ex-husband disappeared to secretly start a new life in Minnesota with his mistress, I stood in my kitchen trying to remember how to use a kitchen knife. I wanted to cut up an apple for lunch, but all I could do was stare at the utensil in my hand. It shocked me to realize I hadn’t used a knife unsupervised in my own kitchen for about five years — and now I was terrified.

I looked to my side, where my ex would typically stand while I was in the kitchen, monitoring every move I made as I prepared food. After a couple knife cuts, he’d claim I was about to cut myself and would take the knife away from me. A couple years of that, and I automatically started asking him to cut things up for me because I was convinced I’d injure myself — even though I had nearly 30 good years of successful, injury-free kitchen knife experience.

At the time, I told myself he was being concerned and thoughtful. But as I stood there staring at my knife and apple, I realized just how deep the scars went from a marriage hallmarked by intense gaslighting. It wasn’t care that made him watch me in the kitchen. It was his need to control my every move, to manipulate me into doing what he wanted all day, every day. By the end of our marriage, all I did was sit quietly on the couch, a shell of who I once was.

RELATED: 11 Warning Signs He’s A Gaslighting Sociopath

I couldn’t read a book because the silence made him think about how I read slower than anyone should. I couldn’t knit because the sound of my needles bothered his ears, so I must be doing it wrong. I couldn’t call my family because, according to him, we weren’t really as close as I said we were. Everything I said was questioned. Everything I did was supposedly incorrect. I needed him because without him, I wouldn’t know how to go through everyday life safely. After a few years of this, coupled with other emotional and mental abuses, I believed him.

Gaslighting is subversive and insidious. The abuse tactic is designed to make you question everything about yourself — your memories, your decision-making skills, your abilities — and to ultimately give yourself over to your abuser completely because you feel too crazy to go on alone. In most cases, it creeps up on you in the form of seemingly innocent questions (“Are you sure that’s how you hold the needles? You are left-handed after all.”) and off-hand observations (“Oh wow, you use a knife completely different than I do.”) until it slowly becomes a complete and total form of psychological manipulation.

RELATED: Why Negative Self-Control Is Gaslighting Your Body — And How To Stop

I didn’t realize what had happened until it was too late. Actually, I didn’t realize what had happened until he was gone. I’m only half joking when I wonder to others if his leaving in the middle of the night while I was out of town was just another gaslighting tactic, one meant to make me believe he had never even been there at all. Regardless, that day with the apple was the start of my path to healing, one I’m still on.

And I’m going to be honest: The biggest thing standing in my way of a complete recovery right now? People claiming they’re being gaslit when they aren’t.

Shouting “gaslighting!” when someone disagrees with you has become something of a trend lately. No, if someone thinks you’re wrong, they aren’t gaslighting you. No, passive aggression does not equal gaslighting. No, if someone remembers something differently than you do, they aren’t gaslighting you. Gaslighting is very intentional — it’s not just a difference of opinion or a mistaken memory.

Allow me to illustrate with an example argument.

Person 1: That isn’t a Shakespeare quote.

Person 2: Yes, it is.

Person 1: No, it’s really not.

Person 2: *pulls up text showing it’s a Shakespeare quote*

Person 1: Well, never mind, you were right!

Person 2: See? Don’t gaslight me.

Was Person 1 wrong? Yes. Was Person 1 gaslighting? Absolutely not, because they were not subversively trying to manipulate Person 2 into believing the quote actually wasn’t from Shakespeare while secretly knowing it was. They were just wrong, plain and simple. Insistently wrong, but still only wrong.

Let me make this easy for everyone out there in Internet Argument Land: If you don’t seriously fear you’re losing your mind, you’re not being gaslit.

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What you are being, though, is kind of a jerk.

Every time you cry “gaslighting,” you’re throwing survivors of this type of abuse back into a mental hellscape. I remember reading a comment thread about a season of Married at First Sight, where five or six people claimed one spouse was gaslighting the other. I had seen that season and saw no gaslighting whatsoever — just disagreements.

But that didn’t stop me from falling headfirst into that same feeling of confusion and insanity I had when my ex-husband berated me in a museum lobby because I said my foot hurt. He had been complaining all day about foot pain, refusing to take painkillers and instead walking slowly with an exaggerated (and needless) limp. I tripped, said my foot hurt as a result, and he spent ten minutes shouting at me that I was ruining his day with all my complaining every time we walked. 

When I heard a person on my block say they were gaslit when their sibling remembered something differently, I spiraled into past arguments where all my words would be twisted and turned around beyond recognition, followed by my ex-husband exclaiming “LAWYERED!” because he supposedly used my own words to prove me wrong, when all he did was intentionally confuse me.

This type of traumatic response is common among survivors. It’s torture for us and hinders our path to recovery and growth.

So please. Educate yourself on what the term actually means. And if you aren’t being gaslit, have some compassion and stop saying you are. We’re all just trying to heal.

RELATED: 5 Signs Of Gaslighting You Need To Watch Out For With Manipulators

Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer and best-selling author. She's been published in The New York Times, Smithsonian, Wired, and National Geographic Traveler.