Dear Aunty Thistledown – Gaslighting

My neighbour keeps telling us people are gaslighting her. I want to know what she means. But I am scared to google it. Not after the pegging debacle. Anyway, if gaslighting is a sex thing, just say it's a sex thing and leave it at that. I don’t need to know what goes where. Many thanks, Fine with being a prude

In Community5 Minutes


You’ve piqued my curiosity. I wonder how much pornographic detail I can include before the New Zealand Media Council wants a word. But alas, gaslighting is not a sex act. Although it is a form of wankery. Can I say wankery here? Yes, it seems I can.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological trickery that aims to make someone doubt themselves. The term originates from the 1938 play ‘Gas Light’ by Patrick Hamilton. The villain convinces his wife she is going insane so he can keep breaking into the upstairs apartment in his spare time. He assures his dearest that she is imagining the noises coming from upstairs, just like she is imagining the gas light in their house is dimming (when he turns on the upstairs lights).

Have you ever tried to talk to someone about an incident only to have them deny it ever happened? Doubting the accuracy of someone’s memory is a gaslighting tactic. Parents are great at it. Mine took me to a zoo as a preschooler and laughed while lion cubs dragged me around by my Swanndri. They could just say sorry for feeding me to lions, but they say it was probably a dream.

If downright denial won’t work, then there are more tools in the gaslighting toolkit. The most popular one I have come across in workplaces is simply invalidating the other person’s feelings: we aren’t being inconsiderate, you’re just being over sensitive again. It was a joke, lighten up. You need to get an early night. You always think we underpay you when you’re tired.

Then there is diversion and deflection. What’s that over there? It’s a detour to discussing anything but the victim’s concerns. The real issue here is the war in Ukraine or how nasty your mother was at Christmas.

And then there is the darker stuff. All of the above are strategies that are pretty common in the conflict-avoidant Kiwi culture. A lot of people have a gaping void between “don’t make a fuss” and “time for fisticuffs” where “let’s talk it out” should live. So sometimes, the less empathetic amongst us will occasionally employ these techniques in a misguided attempt to keep things genial. Since your neighbour is aware that she is being gaslit, we can assume that she is having this kind of (frustrating, but safe) interaction with a passing narcissist. It seems like she is free to roll her eyes, walk away, and go confuse the neighbours.

But gaslighting can also be used to control vulnerable people for personal gain. It may be employed in domestic abuse or to swindle the elderly. In which case gaslighters may intensify their tactics to push their victim further into la-la land. This might include withholding information, fabricating stories, or acts of sabotage.

Now this is the bit where I refer the audience to some helplines in case someone reading this needs more than a playful article on psychological abuse. The Shine website has helpful resources on escaping abusive relationships, an online chat function, and a hotline (0508 744 633). The website has a lot of information on gaslighting, which I totally did not plagiarise. And has information on narcissistic personality disorder if you have just realised you are orchestrating an alternative reality for the people around you. If you want to look up words that might be sex things without a thousand pop-ups for “hot single ladies in your area”, then will give you succinct definitions for all youth-speak of today.

Stay prudish,

Aunty Thistledown

  • Cali Thistledown lives on a farm where all the gates are tied together with baling twine and broken dreams. While she rarely knows what day it is, she has a rolodex of experts to call on to get the info you need. She’s Kiwi agriculture’s agony aunt. Contact our editor if you have a question for her,