Gaslighting, Sealioning and Dealing With Online Harassment

The terms sealioning and gaslighting are all over these tense days. But what do these terms mean? How can we deal?

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6 min read
.Since PM Modi’s speech at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan on 22 December where he attempted to pacify fears about the CAA and NRC, the phrase ‘gaslighting’ has emerged everywhere
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Snapshot

Since PM Modi’s speech at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan on 22 December where he attempted to pacify fears about the CAA and NRC, the phrase ‘gaslighting’ has emerged everywhere. Many people accused the prime minister of gaslighting Indians.

Now this one’s been around for a while and was even word of the year in 2018. According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is a manipulation tactic where someone tries to make you question your reality by denying facts or even feelings.

But after this, the phrase, sealioning popped up too! ‘Don’t engage, he’s sealioning you,’ made as little sense as when my one year old nephew tries to talk to me.

I learnt that sealioning is another form of online harassment where someone questions you persistently and tries to get you to expend time and energy to explain your perspective. While this seems innocuous, this is a way of silencing you as the sealioner won’t listen or read any information but just try to undermine you.

The words may sound fun or strange but they are actually serious forms of harassment - we speak to mental health experts to find out how you can spot gaslighting and sealioning and how you can deal.

Gaslighting, Sealioning and Dealing With Online Harassment

  1. 1. Getting to Know Gaslighting: The Signs, The Way Out

    I never said that!

    You’re imagining it

    It’s in your head

    “Gaslighting is anything that can make you doubt your sanity and question your own self,” says Rashi Vidyasagar, criminologist and director of a mental health startup, The Alternative Story.

    Healthline calls it a form of “emotional abuse,” as the gaslighter manipulates you into questioning your thoughts, memories or even real events.

    Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that’s seen in abusive relationships. It’s the act of manipulating a person by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them. A victim of gaslighting can be pushed so far that they question their own sanity.

    How Does Gaslighting Work?

    • Blatant denial of facts - The gaslighter will deny things you know to be true.
    • Triviailsing your feelings: Rashi adds the person may even deny your feelings, “They will make you feel like you are overreacting and you may worry you are too sensitive.” They will de-legitimise your very real feelings.
    • Victim-blaming - ‘No, you’re crazy if you think that!’
    • They use things they know about you as ammunition: although gaslighting can happen in any relationship, it is usually done in the close ones who know what buttons to push.

    Though most common in romantic relationships, this can even happen between friends, in an employee-boss relationship or in a child-parent one.

    Expand
  2. 2. How Can You Deal with Gaslighting?

    The term came from a 1938 play and subsequent movie of the same name. British playwright Patrick Hamilton wrote a mystery thriller called Gas Light where the husband manipulates his loving wife into no longer believing her idea of reality.

    According to Vox, in one scene, the husband makes the gaslights flicker by turning them on in another room, but when his wife asks about it he pretends that the flickering is in her head causing her immense self-doubt. Thus the phrase ‘gaslighting.’

    But how can you know if you are being gaslit?

    • You are more anxious and under-confident.
    • Recognise if you start trusting yourself less, advises Rashi. “A good relationship is meant to make you feel better about yourself, to foster self-worth and confidence.” But if you find yourself feeling worse and trusting yourself less, it may be a sign.
    • You have trouble making simple decisions. This can happen very subtly. Rashi tells me about a client she had who was she was that under-confident. “She told me she was unable to pick out her own clothes everyday, she was that unsure of her abilities. Her partner had convinced her she had bad taste and she believed it strongly.”
    • You may feel like you are always wrong and unworthy
    • You’re always apologizing

    This subtle form of harassment is far more common then it should be. We have all had instances where we question ourselves, even though we know we are right, and we feel our self-worth diminish.

    An important thing to note is that every healthy relationship allows space for disagreements - arguably, they are even better for it! But gaslighting is different because it seeks to negate your perspective and put you down.

    How can you save your sanity?

    • Identify the problem
    • Have a support structure that is not linked to this person
    • Seek professional help
    • Feel all your feelings: gaslighters look to deny your feelings so to counter that feel them all, fully and in all their bright colours. Feel them and move on.
    • Self-compassion - kindness helps
    • Ask evidence from yourself - “If they say you are bad with money, ask yourself how you have survived thus far. Often men will convince women they are bad with money and will make them feel underconfident, and eventually take control of the financial matters themselves,” says Rashi.
    • See if you are having the same fight in a relationship and if your partner is not acknowledging your perspective. You may be gaslit and would need help

    Remember, you are in control and if you feel yourself losing a grip on reality and feeling underconfident, ask yourself - ‘Am I being gaslit?’ Then, seek help, love yourself, feel your feelings and turn the gaslight off.

    Expand
  3. 3. Explaining Sealioning or Looking at What's Wrong With Asking Questions

    Where’s the evidence of that?

    Explain to me what you meant by that statement.

    I’m just trying to ask nicely, why are you getting aggressive?

    Nothing seems wrong with these right? They’re polite questions, no?

    No, explains mental health professional and social worker Hena Faqurudheen, “In the age of Google and online information, one can easily find out basic information by oneself.”

    Enter ‘sealioning’ or the “attempt to troll or harass a person by asking them to spend their time and effort to educate you.”

    "Some people define it as a form of "aggressive cluelessness" - citing one's own ignorance to get someone else to explain things for you. But here's the other thing - it also never ends,” adds Hena.

    “Invariably, the person continues to keep asking questions, expecting that you will continue to answer. And because we want to be considered right and honest, we expend time and energy to prove our point. But this form of "discussion" often ends up frustrating those of us who have set out to educate.”

    In 2017, Harvard University did a study on forms of harmful speech, explaining that sealioning was, “an intentional, combative performance of cluelessness.” It includes a mix of persistent questions, about basic and easily Google-able information, and comments about civility and ‘logical debate.’

    The difference between a healthy debate and sealioning is this: a person sealioning you does not end the questioning, and is not receptive to the information you are giving them. “Sealioning usually is a follow-up with more questions, or even statements such as "no, no, you explain to me,” says Hena.

    “The person sealioning you is trying to interrogate you, trying to catch you out, and attempting to frustrate you so you will flounder. Then it becomes easy to proclaim your frustration as signs that you are not well-informed or aware, because “otherwise would you not know the answer?” and so on. This is an extremely insidious manner of engaging online.”
    Hena Faqurudheen, mental health professional and social worker 

    While being annoyed at constant questioning can seem like a small thing to brush off, it could also have long term

    Expand
  4. 4. Dealing with Sealioning: How Can You Spot the Signs and Preserve Your Mental Health

    The strange name actually emerged from an online Wondermark comic all the way back in 2014, and the creator, cartoonist David Malki spoke about their excitement at the term becoming a verb.

    The origins of sealioning
    The origins of sealioning
    (Photo: David Malki)
    1. How Can You Spot if You’re Being Sealioned?
    • The person asks for readily available information.
    • “They go on unrelated tangents or expect you to have information that is beyond your reach (or answer for others though you are not responsible),” adds Hena.
    • They insist they are engaging in reasonable debate but persist with the questioning.
    • “If you refuse to engage, then you are being unreasonable (which also indicates a sense of entitlement to your time and effort),” says Hena.
    • Even IF you choose to engage and give them answers/links to more resources, they keep asking more questions

    2. How Can You Deal With This?

    Dealing with this form of trolling is tough. “It tends to make the person being sealioned feel foolish, humiliated, frustrated and so on (which is exactly the point of sealioning). It's often a lose/lose situation as many people would put it,” says Hena.

    • The first thing to know is that you don’t owe anyone anything - not your time or energy if you don’t choose to. So simple, don't engage. We’ve been taught that ignoring bullies will make them go away.
    • If you can’t help it, Hena advises you to redirect them to resources and readings. “Let them do the reading themselves.”
    • Try to call in some support - friends with more information can share the burden.
    • Ask them to give evidence and prove their points. “Sealioning is about putting you on the back foot. Take your power back and ask them to show evidence and state their views clearly,” says Hena.
    • Name it: sometimes, calling out what they are doing as sealioning may help. “This could end the conversation.”

    Many of us feel an obligation to answer and engage, not just to prove ourselves but to help them see our perspective and change their minds. Hena reminds us: “You are not obligated to answer.”

    Reminding ourselves of that is important.

    Hena adds that she tends to respond to these comments by saying, “Google is free"

    (Make sure you don't miss fresh news updates from us. Click here to stay updated)

    Expand

Getting to Know Gaslighting: The Signs, The Way Out

I never said that!

You’re imagining it

It’s in your head

“Gaslighting is anything that can make you doubt your sanity and question your own self,” says Rashi Vidyasagar, criminologist and director of a mental health startup, The Alternative Story.

Healthline calls it a form of “emotional abuse,” as the gaslighter manipulates you into questioning your thoughts, memories or even real events.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that’s seen in abusive relationships. It’s the act of manipulating a person by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them. A victim of gaslighting can be pushed so far that they question their own sanity.

How Does Gaslighting Work?

  • Blatant denial of facts - The gaslighter will deny things you know to be true.
  • Triviailsing your feelings: Rashi adds the person may even deny your feelings, “They will make you feel like you are overreacting and you may worry you are too sensitive.” They will de-legitimise your very real feelings.
  • Victim-blaming - ‘No, you’re crazy if you think that!’
  • They use things they know about you as ammunition: although gaslighting can happen in any relationship, it is usually done in the close ones who know what buttons to push.

Though most common in romantic relationships, this can even happen between friends, in an employee-boss relationship or in a child-parent one.

How Can You Deal with Gaslighting?

The term came from a 1938 play and subsequent movie of the same name. British playwright Patrick Hamilton wrote a mystery thriller called Gas Light where the husband manipulates his loving wife into no longer believing her idea of reality.

According to Vox, in one scene, the husband makes the gaslights flicker by turning them on in another room, but when his wife asks about it he pretends that the flickering is in her head causing her immense self-doubt. Thus the phrase ‘gaslighting.’

But how can you know if you are being gaslit?

  • You are more anxious and under-confident.
  • Recognise if you start trusting yourself less, advises Rashi. “A good relationship is meant to make you feel better about yourself, to foster self-worth and confidence.” But if you find yourself feeling worse and trusting yourself less, it may be a sign.
  • You have trouble making simple decisions. This can happen very subtly. Rashi tells me about a client she had who was she was that under-confident. “She told me she was unable to pick out her own clothes everyday, she was that unsure of her abilities. Her partner had convinced her she had bad taste and she believed it strongly.”
  • You may feel like you are always wrong and unworthy
  • You’re always apologizing

This subtle form of harassment is far more common then it should be. We have all had instances where we question ourselves, even though we know we are right, and we feel our self-worth diminish.

An important thing to note is that every healthy relationship allows space for disagreements - arguably, they are even better for it! But gaslighting is different because it seeks to negate your perspective and put you down.

How can you save your sanity?

  • Identify the problem
  • Have a support structure that is not linked to this person
  • Seek professional help
  • Feel all your feelings: gaslighters look to deny your feelings so to counter that feel them all, fully and in all their bright colours. Feel them and move on.
  • Self-compassion - kindness helps
  • Ask evidence from yourself - “If they say you are bad with money, ask yourself how you have survived thus far. Often men will convince women they are bad with money and will make them feel underconfident, and eventually take control of the financial matters themselves,” says Rashi.
  • See if you are having the same fight in a relationship and if your partner is not acknowledging your perspective. You may be gaslit and would need help

Remember, you are in control and if you feel yourself losing a grip on reality and feeling underconfident, ask yourself - ‘Am I being gaslit?’ Then, seek help, love yourself, feel your feelings and turn the gaslight off.

Explaining Sealioning or Looking at What's Wrong With Asking Questions

Where’s the evidence of that?

Explain to me what you meant by that statement.

I’m just trying to ask nicely, why are you getting aggressive?

Nothing seems wrong with these right? They’re polite questions, no?

No, explains mental health professional and social worker Hena Faqurudheen, “In the age of Google and online information, one can easily find out basic information by oneself.”

Enter ‘sealioning’ or the “attempt to troll or harass a person by asking them to spend their time and effort to educate you.”

"Some people define it as a form of "aggressive cluelessness" - citing one's own ignorance to get someone else to explain things for you. But here's the other thing - it also never ends,” adds Hena.

“Invariably, the person continues to keep asking questions, expecting that you will continue to answer. And because we want to be considered right and honest, we expend time and energy to prove our point. But this form of "discussion" often ends up frustrating those of us who have set out to educate.”

In 2017, Harvard University did a study on forms of harmful speech, explaining that sealioning was, “an intentional, combative performance of cluelessness.” It includes a mix of persistent questions, about basic and easily Google-able information, and comments about civility and ‘logical debate.’

The difference between a healthy debate and sealioning is this: a person sealioning you does not end the questioning, and is not receptive to the information you are giving them. “Sealioning usually is a follow-up with more questions, or even statements such as "no, no, you explain to me,” says Hena.

“The person sealioning you is trying to interrogate you, trying to catch you out, and attempting to frustrate you so you will flounder. Then it becomes easy to proclaim your frustration as signs that you are not well-informed or aware, because “otherwise would you not know the answer?” and so on. This is an extremely insidious manner of engaging online.”
Hena Faqurudheen, mental health professional and social worker 

While being annoyed at constant questioning can seem like a small thing to brush off, it could also have long term

Dealing with Sealioning: How Can You Spot the Signs and Preserve Your Mental Health

The strange name actually emerged from an online Wondermark comic all the way back in 2014, and the creator, cartoonist David Malki spoke about their excitement at the term becoming a verb.

The origins of sealioning
The origins of sealioning
(Photo: David Malki)
  1. How Can You Spot if You’re Being Sealioned?
  • The person asks for readily available information.
  • “They go on unrelated tangents or expect you to have information that is beyond your reach (or answer for others though you are not responsible),” adds Hena.
  • They insist they are engaging in reasonable debate but persist with the questioning.
  • “If you refuse to engage, then you are being unreasonable (which also indicates a sense of entitlement to your time and effort),” says Hena.
  • Even IF you choose to engage and give them answers/links to more resources, they keep asking more questions

2. How Can You Deal With This?

Dealing with this form of trolling is tough. “It tends to make the person being sealioned feel foolish, humiliated, frustrated and so on (which is exactly the point of sealioning). It's often a lose/lose situation as many people would put it,” says Hena.

  • The first thing to know is that you don’t owe anyone anything - not your time or energy if you don’t choose to. So simple, don't engage. We’ve been taught that ignoring bullies will make them go away.
  • If you can’t help it, Hena advises you to redirect them to resources and readings. “Let them do the reading themselves.”
  • Try to call in some support - friends with more information can share the burden.
  • Ask them to give evidence and prove their points. “Sealioning is about putting you on the back foot. Take your power back and ask them to show evidence and state their views clearly,” says Hena.
  • Name it: sometimes, calling out what they are doing as sealioning may help. “This could end the conversation.”

Many of us feel an obligation to answer and engage, not just to prove ourselves but to help them see our perspective and change their minds. Hena reminds us: “You are not obligated to answer.”

Reminding ourselves of that is important.

Hena adds that she tends to respond to these comments by saying, “Google is free"

(Make sure you don't miss fresh news updates from us. Click here to stay updated)

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