What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships. It is a covert type of emotional abuse where the bully or abuser misleads the target, creating a false narrative and making them question their judgments and reality. Ultimately, the victim of gaslighting starts to feel unsure about their perceptions of the world and even wonder if they are losing their sanity.
Gaslighting primarily occurs in romantic relationships, but it’s not uncommon for it to occur in controlling friendships or among family members as well. People who gaslight others may have mental health disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD). They use this type of emotional abuse to exert power over others in order to manipulate friends, family members, or even co-workers.
How Gaslighting Works
Gaslighting is a technique that undermines a person’s perception of reality. When someone is gaslighting you, you may second-guess yourself, your memories, recent events, and your perceptions. After communicating with the person gaslighting you, you may be left feeling dazed and wondering if there is something wrong with you. You may be encouraged to think you are actually to blame for something or that you’re just being too sensitive.
Gaslighting can confuse you and cause you to question your judgment, memory, self-worth, and overall mental health. It may help to know more about the tactics a person who is gaslighting you might use.
Lying to You
People who engage in gaslighting are often habitual and pathological liars and frequently exhibit narcissistic tendencies. It is typical for them to blatantly lie and never back down or change their stories, even when you call them out or provide proof of their deception. They may say something like: “You’re making things up,” “That never happened,” or “You’re crazy.”
Lying and distortion are the cornerstones of gaslighting behavior. Even when you know they are not telling the truth, they can be very convincing. In the end, you start to second-guess yourself.
People who gaslight spread rumors and gossip about you to others. They may pretend to be worried about you while subtly telling others that you seem emotionally unstable or “crazy.” Unfortunately, this tactic can be extremely effective and many people side with the abuser or bully without knowing the full story.
Additionally, someone who engages in gaslighting may lie to you and tell you that other people also think this about you. These people may have never said a bad thing about you, but the person who is gaslighting you will make every attempt to get you to believe they do.
When you ask a someone who gaslights a question or call them out for something they did or said, they may change the subject by asking a question instead of responding to the issue at hand. This not only throws off your train of thought but causes you to question the need to press a matter when they don’t feel the need to respond.
Minimizing Your Thoughts and Feelings
Trivializing your emotions allows the person who is gaslighting you to gain power over you. They might make statements like: “Calm down,” “You’re overreacting,” or “Why are you so sensitive?” All of these statements minimize how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking and communicate that you’re wrong.
When you deal with someone who never acknowledges your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs, you may begin to question them yourself. What’s more, you may never feel validated or understood, which can be extremely isolating, shaming, and difficult to cope with.
Blame-shifting is another common gaslighting tactic. Every discussion you have is somehow twisted to where you are to blame for something that occurred. Even when you try to discuss how the abuser’s behavior makes you feel, they’re able to twist the conversation so that you end up questioning if you are the cause of their bad behavior. For example, they may claim that if only you behaved differently, they would not treat you the way that they do.
People who engage in bullying and emotional abuse are notorious for denying that they did anything wrong. They do this to avoid taking responsibility for their poor choices. This denial can leave the victim of gaslighting feeling unseen, unheard, and as though the impact on them is of no importance. This tactic also makes it very hard for the victim to move on or to heal from the bullying or abusiveness.
Using Compassionate Words as Weapons
Sometimes, when called out or questioned, a person who gaslights will use kind and loving words to try to smooth over the situation. They might say something like, “You know how much I love you. I would never hurt you on purpose.”
These words may be what you want to hear, but they are inauthentic, especially if the same behavior is repeated. That said, they may be just enough to convince you to let them off the hook, which allows the person to escape responsibility or consequences for their hurtful behavior.
A person who gaslights tends to retell stories in ways that are in their favor. For instance, if your partner shoved you against the wall and you are discussing it later, they may twist the story and say you stumbled and they tried to steady you, which is what caused you to fall into the wall.
You may begin to doubt your memory of what happened. Encouraging confusion or second-guessing on your part is exactly the intention.
Gaslighting can include a range of tactics including lying, distracting, minimizing, denying, and blaming. When you are dealing with someone who uses gaslighting as a manipulation tool, pay close attention to what they do, not the words they choose.
Signs of Gaslighting
Being subjected to gaslighting can cause anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns including addiction and thoughts of suicide. For this reason, it’s important to recognize when you’re experiencing gaslighting. Ask yourself if any of the following statements ring true:
- You doubt your feelings and reality: You try to convince yourself that the treatment you receive is not that bad or that you are too sensitive.
- You question your judgment and perceptions: You are afraid of speaking up or expressing your emotions. You have learned that sharing your opinion usually makes you feel worse in the end, so you stay silent instead.
- You feel vulnerable and insecure: You often feel like you “walk on eggshells” around your partner, friend, or family member. You also feel on edge and lack self-esteem.
- You feel alone and powerless: You are convinced that everyone around you thinks you are “strange,” “crazy,” or “unstable,” just like the person who is gaslighting you says you are. This makes you feel trapped and isolated.
- You wonder if you are what they say you are: The person who gaslights you says words make you feel like you are wrong, unintelligent, inadequate, or insane. Sometimes, you even find yourself repeating these statements to yourself.
- You are disappointed in yourself and who you have become: For instance, you feel like you are weak and passive, and that you used to be stronger and more assertive.
- You feel confused: The behavior of the person gaslighting you confuses you, almost as if they are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- You worry that you are too sensitive: The person minimizes hurtful behaviors or words by saying “I was just joking” or “you need thicker skin.”
- You have a sense of impending doom: You feel like something terrible is about to happen when you are around this person. This may include feeling threatened and on edge without knowing why.
- You spend a lot of time apologizing: You feel the need to apologize all the time for what you do or who you are.
- You feel inadequate: You feel like you are never “good enough.” You try to live up to the expectations and demands of others, even if they are unreasonable.
- You second-guess yourself: You frequently wonder if you accurately remember the details of past events. You may have even stopped trying to share what you remember for fear that it is wrong.
- You assume others are disappointed in you: You apologize all the time for what you do or who you are, assuming people are let down by you or that you have somehow made a mistake.
- You wonder what’s wrong with you: You wonder if there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. In other words, you worry that you are not well mentally.
- You struggle to make decisions because you distrust yourself: You would rather allow your partner, friend, or family member to make decisions for you and avoid decision-making altogether.
If you identify with any of these signs of gaslighting, it’s important that you seek professional help right away. Left unaddressed, gaslighting can take a significant toll on your self-esteem and overall mental health.
Your doctor can recommend a counselor who is equipped to help you process and deal with what is happening to you.
You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.
Where Did ‘Gaslighting’ Get Its Name?
The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, known in America as “Angel Street” and later developed into the film “Gas Light” by Alfred Hitchcock.
In the suspense film, a manipulative husband tries to make his wife think she is losing her mind by making subtle changes in her environment, including slowly and steadily dimming the flame on a gas lamp. Not only does he disrupt her environment and make her believe she is insane, but he also abuses and controls her, cutting her off from family and friends.
Consequently, the wife begins second-guessing herself, her feelings, her perceptions, and her memories. Additionally, she feels neurotic, hypersensitive, and out-of-control, which is the goal of gaslighting—to leave the target feeling off-kilter and unsure of what is true and what isn’t.
Because this film was an accurate portrayal of the controlling and toxic actions that manipulative people use, psychologists and counselors began to label this type of emotionally abusive behavior “gaslighting.”
What to Do If Someone Is Gaslighting You
If you are experiencing gaslighting in a relationship, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Things you might do include:
- Gain some distance: It can be helpful to take a step back from the intense emotions that gaslighting can evoke. Physically leaving the situation can help, but you might also try using some relaxation techniques such ad deep breathing or grounding exercises.
- Save the evidence: Because gaslighting can make you question yourself, work on preserving evidence of your experiences. Keep a journal, save text conversations, or keep emails so that you can look back on them later and remind yourself that you shouldn’t doubt or question yourself.
- Set boundaries: Boundaries tell others what you are willing to accept in a relationship. Make it clear that you won’t allow the other person to engage in actions such as trivializing or denying what you have to say.
- Get an outside perspective: Talk to a friend or family member about what you are going through. Having another person’s perspective can help make the situation clearer to you.
- End the relationship: While it can be difficult, ending the relationship with someone who repeatedly gaslights you is often the most effective way to end the abuse.
If you suspect that you are experiencing gaslighting, you may also find it helpful to talk to a mental health professional. They can help you learn more about the situation, gain perspective, and develop new coping strategies that can help you deal with the behavior.
Remember that you are not to blame for what you are experiencing. The person gaslighting you is making a choice to behave this way. They are responsible for their actions. Nothing you did caused them to make this choice, and you won’t be able to change what they’re doing.
But with counseling, you can learn how to make healthy choices and set boundaries with the person who engages in gaslighting. Ultimately, you may reach a place where you feel ready to move on from the relationship.