In a recent post on Psychology Today, I discussed the topic of "institutional gaslighting", while giving examples of power struggles and misuse of power from what we've seen in interviews with the royal family, the Harry & Megan docuseries as well as from Harry's memoir, Spare.
Sometimes when we name "gaslighting", it's in the air we breathe.
Prince Harry claimed "institutional gaslighting" of Buckingham Palace. “I can't think of what my mum went through all those years by herself," Harry says in the docuseries. To him, seeing institutional gaslighting is extraordinary. "That's why everything that's happened to us was always going to happen to us because if you speak truth to power, that's how they respond.”
A strong statement.
As we continue to recognize gaslighting in the mainstream, I'm sure many of you are wondering, can we say goodbye to gaslighting in 2023?!
Gaslighting Was Named Merriam-Webster's 2022 Word Of The Year For A Reason!
Gaslighting is a term that has turned up everywhere. Merriam-Webster even named it the 2022 word of the year. Mainstream media has spotlighted the concept through the miniseries Inventing Anna, the documentary Bad Vegan, and the political miniseries thriller Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn.
The public is also becoming aware of gaslighting: I attended a holiday party where a woman confided how freeing it was to recently learn there was a name for the abuse she endured in her former marriage. I'm sure many of us have similar stories to tell.
Gaslighting as a form of emotional abuse occurs when one person’s psychological manipulation causes another person to question their reality. It can happen between two people in any relationship, such as in a romantic partnership, or in a professional context. It can even take place between a doctor and a patient in the form of medical gaslighting. And gaslighting usually occurs when there is a power imbalance—the person in the relationship with more power is the "gaslighter," the person with less power and at risk of being gaslighted, the "gaslightee."
Gaslighting also can occur on a cultural, political, or institutional level. A power struggle or power imbalance is the quality that all gaslighting scenarios share. I am not close enough to the situation to confirm nor deny the existence of gaslighting in this scenario, but Prince Harry claims that the royal family misused its authority by participating in institutional gaslighting. In particular, the Harry & Meghan docuseries finale focuses on the royal family’s relationship with the press. perhaps this was the reality check that supported Prince Harry in identifying the gaslighting.
“They were happy to lie to protect my brother," Harry says. “They were never willing to tell the truth to protect us.” Meghan adds: “I wasn't being thrown to the wolves. I was being fed to the wolves.”
Did Meghan And Harry Experience Gaslighting?
A frenzy of public Googling about institutional gaslighting ensued after the Harry & Meghan docuseries' release, along with opinions offered in the media about whether the claims of institutional gaslighting are well-founded. Throughout my 30-year career as a psychoanalyst, I have helped hundreds of people learn how to identify whether they are being gaslighted and how to begin to make changes in–or get out of–an abusive dynamic or relationship.
It’s important to remember that gaslighting does not take root in every argument or interpersonal conflict. Two people can disagree, each feeling strongly about their position and equally engaging in the debate. People can express their forceful and, at times, hurtful opinions as alternate interpretations of the same set of facts; this, too, is not gaslighting. Even when one person rejects the other person’s point of view and instead wants them to adopt their own perspective, gaslighting might not be present.
When Is It Gaslighting and When Is It Not?
As I explained previously, conflicts can veer into gaslighting if one person is so insistent over time that the other person starts to doubt themselves. A power imbalance in the relationship usually allows the "gaslighter" to undermine the "gaslightee’s" sense of self. The need to control, manipulate, and leverage power are essential components of gaslighting—not hurt feelings or challenged viewpoints.
Perhaps one of the more difficult gaslighting truths to accept is that it takes two. But therein lies your freedom and choice. The gaslighter uses blaming tactics or lies to try to get the other person to question their experience of reality. These attempts only become gaslighting if the recipient accepts this altered narrative, sometimes by simply living with it. Signs that the gaslightee has become a victim are when they feel unsure of themselves, wonder whether they are crazy, avoid future disagreements, and accept the gaslighter’s view of reality instead of their own.
The Gaslighting "Truth" Among The Royal Family
The unfortunate truth of gaslighting is that it is far more pervasive and invasive than we think or know. And today, it is recognized as a dynamic between two people, groups of people, or institutions in power because it’s a strategy that works to control or manipulate others for their own benefit.
In the context of Harry’s claims, if he and Meghan were experiencing institutional gaslighting, the royal family would be attempting, on a systemic level, to get them to believe a reality different from the one they were experiencing or observing. It is complicated.
Think about the complexity of the personal relationship in the family, and then the relationship of that family to the institution of the royal family, which some may know is nicknamed “The Firm” dating back to Queen Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI. The British press and tabloids have had their impact on the family and on “The Firm.” Again, complicated. And the complexity creates conflicting interests – sometimes resulting in identifying for all who is "up" and who is "down." Through this lens, someone often is the villain. This time it is Meghan.
Was Prince Harry And Meghan Able To Reclaim Their Reality?
Prince Harry referenced the act of “speaking truth to power” when responding to the British monarchy. This concept is a non-violent political tactic that dissidents use to oppose the propaganda and power of governments they regard as oppressive or authoritarian.
The truth is: No target of gaslighting must “Take It.” Knowledge is power. Although it may not be quick or easy, when you are suffering the impact of gaslighting, and then you identify it, sometimes it takes walking away to reclaim and live your reality.
Lessons Learned About Institutional Gaslighting And Your Relationships
You can help keep yourself from ending up in a gaslighting relationship by being aware of the language used in an argument, recognizing how it makes you feel, and noticing how you react to it.
In light of my upcoming workbook called, The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide, this comprehensive tool will be valuable for people recovering from all types of gaslighting relationship dynamics.
The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide is a tool for personal exploration that will help you identify if you are part of a pattern of emotional abuse and pull yourself out of that dynamic with a few crucial mindset shifts.
Through prompts, checklists, quizzes, and guided reflective questions, you will explore past and present relationships, gain the confidence to leave an abusive partner or set boundaries in an unavoidable situation, and heal after gaslighting.
You can pre-order it today, here. It will be available on February 21st, 2023.
Also make sure to listen to The Gaslight Effect Podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts.