Gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse. Someone who is gaslighting will try to make a targeted person doubt their perception of reality. The gaslighter may convince the target that their memories are wrong or that they are overreacting to an event. The abuser may then present their own thoughts and feelings as “the real truth.”
The term originates with a 1938 play called “Gas Light.” In the play, a woman’s husband tries to convince her that she is mentally unstable. He makes small changes in her environment, such as dimming the gaslights in their house. He then convinces his wife she is simply imagining these changes. His ultimate goal is to have her committed to an asylum so he can steal her inheritance.
People experiencing gaslighting may benefit from finding a therapist.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is an abusive tactic aimed to make a person doubt their own thoughts and feelings. The abuse is often subtle at first. For example, if a person is telling a story, the abuser may challenge a small detail. The person may admit they were wrong on a detail, then move on. The next time, the abuser may use that past “victory” to discredit the person further, perhaps by questioning the person’s memory.
The person may argue back at first. They may intuit something is wrong in the relationship or marriage. But because each gaslighting incident is so minor, they can’t pinpoint any specific cause for their unease. Over time, the person may second-guess their own emotions and memories. They may rely on their abuser to tell them if their memory is correct of if their emotions are “reasonable.” The abuser uses this trust to gain control over their target.
Popular culture often depicts gaslighting as a man abusing his wife. Yet people of any gender can gaslight others or be gaslit themselves. Gaslighting can also occur in platonic contexts such as a workplace. Anyone can be a target.
Gaslighting Techniques to Watch Out For
Gaslighting can take many forms. Sometimes it can involve manipulating a person’s environment behind their back. Other times, the abuse is entirely verbal and emotional.
Common techniques include:
- Withholding: Refusing to listen to any concerns or pretending not to understand them.
- Example: “I don’t have time to listen to this nonsense. You’re not making any sense.”
- Countering: Questioning the target’s memory. An abuser may deny the events occurred in the way the target (accurately) remembers. They may also invent details of the event that did not occur.
- Example: “I heard you say it! You never remember our conversations right.”
- Forgetting/Denial: Pretending to forget events that have happened to further discredit the victim’s memory. An abuser may deny making promises to avoid responsibility.
- Example: “What are you talking about? I never promised you that.”
- Blocking/Diversion: Changing the subject to divert the target’s attention from a topic. An abuser may twist a conversation into an argument about the person’s credibility.
- Example: “Have you been talking to your sister again? She’s always putting stupid ideas in your head.”
- Trivializing: Asserting that a person is overreacting to hurtful behavior. This technique can condition a person into believing their emotions are invalid or excessive.
- Example: “You’re so sensitive! Everyone else thought my joke was funny.”
A gaslighter often uses the target’s “mistakes” and “overreactions” to cast themself as the victim. For example, an abuser may scream accusations at a person until the other party must raise their voice to be heard. The abuser may then cut the conversation short, claiming the other person is “out of control” and “too aggressive.” In some cases, the abuser may accuse the other person of being the true gaslighter.
How to Fight Gaslighting
Often the first step to protect yourself from gaslighting is to recognize its presence. Once you know you are being manipulated, you can determine your own reality more easily.
Ideally, someone experiencing abuse would get help and possibly leave the relationship. Yet sometimes barriers prevent a person from leaving right away. The person may be financially dependent on their abuser, or there may be children involved.
If you are a target of gaslighting, here are some tips you can use to defend yourself:
- Don’t take responsibility for the other person’s actions. The other person may claim you provoked the abuse. If you avoid the actions that offended them in the past, the gaslighter will likely come up with new excuses for their abuse.
- Don’t sacrifice yourself to spare their feelings. Even if you dedicate your whole life to making them happy, you will never completely fill the other person’s desire for control. People who gaslight others are often trying to fill a void in themselves. But they will not fix their heart by breaking yours.
- Remember your truth. Just because the other person sounds sure of themself doesn’t mean they are right. The gaslighter may never see your side of the story. Yet their opinion does not define reality. Nor does it define who you are as a person.
- Do not argue on their terms. If the other person is fabricating facts, you are unlikely to have a productive discussion. You may spend all your energy debating what is real instead of making your point. The other person may use gaslighting techniques to declare they won an argument. But you do not have to accept conclusions based on a faulty premise.
- Prioritize your safety. Gaslighting often makes targets doubt their own intuition. But if you feel you are in danger, you can always leave the situation. You do not need to prove a gaslighter’s threats of violence are sincere before calling the police. It is often safest to treat every threat as credible.
- Remember you are not alone. You may find it helpful to talk about your experiences with others. Friends and family can offer emotional support and validation.
Therapy is a safe place where you can talk through your feelings and memories without judgment. A therapist can help you recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors. They can also teach you how to resist psychological manipulation. In some cases, a therapist can help you develop a safety plan for leaving the relationship.
Why Do People Gaslight Others?
One of the most common reasons people gaslight is to gain power over others. This need for domination may stem from narcissism, antisocial personality, or other issues. Like most cases of abuse, gaslighting is about control.
As gaslighting progresses, the target often second-guesses their own memories and thoughts. Their self-doubt may put them on the defensive, preventing them from criticizing the abuser’s behavior. The target may rely on the abuser to verify their memories. This trust can give the abuser more opportunity to manipulate their target.
Over time, the abuser may convince the target that they cause the abuser’s aggression. The target’s efforts to apologize and repair the relationship often feed the abuser’s ego. Yet the target’s submission rarely offers lasting satisfaction. Someone with narcissistic personality may become “addicted” to gaslighting, needing more control to keep up their self-esteem.
Many gaslighters use the target’s shame and confusion to isolate them. The person may withdraw from loved ones for fear they will side with the abuser. The gaslighter’s goal is often to make the target completely dependent on them alone. If they reach this goal, the abuser may discard the target and seek a new person to “conquer.”
Effects of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can have catastrophic effects for a person’s psychological health. The process is often gradual, chipping away the person’s confidence and self-esteem. They may come to believe they deserve the abuse.
Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse that thrives on uncertainty. A person can grow to mistrust everything they hear, feel, and remember.Gaslighting can also affect a person’s social life. They abuser may manipulate them into cutting ties with friends and family. The person might also isolate themself, believing they are unstable or unlovable.
Even after the person escapes the abusive relationship, the effects of gaslighting can persist. The person may still doubt their perceptions and have trouble making decisions. They are also less likely to voice their emotions and feelings, knowing that they are likely to be invalidated.
Gaslighting may lead a person to develop mental health concerns. The constant self-doubt and confusion can contribute to anxiety. A person’s hopelessness and low self-esteem may lead to depression. Posttraumatic stress and codependency are also common developments.
Some survivors may struggle to trust others. They may be on constant guard for further manipulation. The person may blame themself for not catching the gaslighting earlier. Their refusal to show vulnerability might cause strain in future relationships.
Other survivors may become desperate for validation. They may try to keep other people around them with people-pleasing behaviors. Their submissiveness may put them at risk to be another abuser’s target.
Recovering from Gaslighting
Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse that thrives on uncertainty. A person can grow to mistrust everything they hear, feel, and remember. One of the most important things a survivor can get is validation.
A survivor may benefit from reforming any relationships they pulled back from during the abuse. Other people can verify one’s uncertain memories. Sympathy from others can reduce feelings of shame. As a person rebuilds their social circle, they can relearn how to trust others and themselves.
Those who have experienced gaslighting may also wish to seek therapy. A therapist is a neutral party who can help reinforce one’s sense of reality. In therapy, a person can rebuild their self-esteem and regain control of their lives. A therapist may also treat any mental health concerns caused by the abuse, such as PTSD. With time and support, a person can recover from gaslighting.
- De Canonville, C. L. (n.d.) The effects of gaslighting in narcissistic victim syndrome. Retrieved from https://narcissisticbehavior.net/the-effects-of-gaslighting-in-narcissistic-victim-syndrome
- Firth, S. (n.d.). What is gaslighting? The Week. Retrieved from http://theweek.com/article/index/239659/what-is-gaslighting
- (n.d.). Retrieved from http://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/Gaslighting.html
- Tracy, N. (n.d.). Gaslighting definition, techniques and being gaslighted. Healthy Place. Retrieved from http://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/gaslighting-definition-techniques-and-being-gaslighted
- What Is Gaslighting? (2014, May 29). Retrieved from http://www.thehotline.org/2014/05/what-is-gaslighting
- 7 signs you are a victim of gaslighting. (2015, July 2). The Good Men Project. Retrieved from https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/seven-signs-you-are-a-victim-of-gaslighting-fiff