What is 'gaslighting', the term Prince Harry uses in new Netflix docuseries trailer

Watch: Harry & Meghan volume two trailer released

Prince Harry has referred to what he describes as "institutional gaslighting" in the latest Netflix docuseries trailer for Harry & Meghan.

Explaining why they felt the need to leave the UK in 2020 when they did, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex recall some of their experiences from the period famously nicknamed 'Megxit' in the one-minute trailer.

"To see this institutional gaslighting..." Harry tells the camera, while sat beside his wife. The teaser then cuts to a solo interview with Meghan where she adds, "I wasn't being thrown to the wolves. I was being fed to the wolves".

But what exactly is gaslighting? As one of the most searched-for questions on Yahoo Search in 2022 it's clearly a term that's used regularly but confounds many. So, we're here to explain it.

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What is gaslighting?

Graphic to represent gaslighting with image of hands manipulating a man's mind. (Getty Images)
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that can make someone 'question their own reality'. (Getty Images)

'Gaslighting' can be traced back more than 80 years. "The term comes from a British play (and then film) called Gas Light 1938, although has only become popular since 2010," says Lisa Spitz, counsellor and psychotherapist.

The subsequent 1944 film adaptation of the play follows the relationship of Paula and Gregory, who manipulates his wife to make her feel as if she has gone mad.

In 2017, the term was used during the US presidential election with some accusing Donald Trump of winning the election via gaslighting, while in 2018 Love Island contestant Adam Collard was accused of “gaslighting and emotional abuse” by charity Women’s Aid for his behaviour towards fellow contestant Rosie Williams and then the show for bringing him back this year.

What's the definition of gaslighting?

"Gaslighting is defined as manipulating someone to question their own reality," Spitz explains. "The term is used to describe a person who presents a false narrative to another person or group and this leads them to question their own sanity, become distressed or disorientated. This normally is to the gaslighter’s benefit.

"Gaslighting usually only happens when someone is vulnerable, relationships are an unequal power dynamic and those on the receiving end are scared about what would happen if they challenged the perception of the gaslighter."

Spitz emphasises that it can make the recipient feel anxious and insecure, doubting that their version of events and feelings were true. "It would lead them to second guess themselves continually and not trust their own instincts."

Gaslighting is a form of coercive control, which has been a criminal offence since 2015, though prosecutions remain low. And while anyone can be guilty of it, statistics show that almost all perpetrators convicted for controlling and coercive behaviour in England and Wales in the year ending Dec 2020 were male: 364 out of 374 (97%), according to Women's Aid.

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Gaslighting in reality

Couple after argument, to represent gaslighting. (Getty Images)
Gaslighting can occur in relationships, within family, at work, and more. (Getty Images)

As a type of psychological abuse, gaslighting can often be very hard to pick up on.

Giving an example of what it might look like, Spitz says, "Someone might suspect if their boyfriend or girlfriend is unfaithful. When asked about it, the suspected partner might suggest that they are just being paranoid, that they are trustworthy, and that it is all in their head.

"This might be despite evidence to the contrary, e.g. evasive answers, hiding their phone and not being where they said they would be. This is often a technique that is used by people with narcissistic personality disorder."

Of course, the partner might not have cheated, but all these types of behaviours when connected could alert you to possible gaslighting.

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Can gaslighting only happen in romantic relationships?

When we think of gaslighting, we immediately think of something that happens within a couple. While this is often the case, it's by no means always the case.

"Gaslighting can occur in any situation, not just romantic relationships," says Spitz. "Family can tell you that feelings of exclusion are invalid, workplaces can bully employees and tell them that they are imagining it. Any situation where the power dynamic is abused and feelings are dismissed and denied can lead to gaslighting."

This helps to explain what Harry might have meant by the term he used in the Netflix trailer.

"Institutional gaslighting simply means that there is systemic abuse and denial of that abuse. It happens on a daily basis and is denied by the people doing it. It is normalised in such a way that you don’t realise that it's happening and you doubt your self and your perception of reality," explains Spitz.

Anyone experiencing abuse in a relationship are encouraged to call the Freephone 24/7 National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.womensaid.org.uk.

You can also contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or speak to Citizens Advice, selecting where in the UK you are first.