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What Is Gaslighting and How to Recognize It?

Discover signs and examples of gaslighting, as well as suggestions for stopping it.



The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 movie about a newly married couple called Gaslight. In the film, the husband tries to drive his new wife crazy so that he can claim her wealth for himself. His primary tactic for doing this is to turn up and down the brightness of the gaslights in their apartment, denying all the while that anything is changing. This is just one of several actions he takes to make her start to doubt her own senses and perceptions; eventually, she accepts reality as he tells her it is, instead.

Gaslighting is engaging in behaviors that make the world surreal for somebody else, making them question their own reality (Ferraro, 2006). This may be achieved by manipulating somebody’s perceptions, memory, reasoning, or emotions (Sodoma, 2022). And the ultimate outcome of gaslighting is typically a person who cannot disagree with the gaslighter because they no longer believe in any of their own thoughts, feelings, or perceptions (Abramson, 2014). However, in the movie example, the husband is quite aware of what he is doing. In real life, not all gaslighters are conscious of their actions – not that this excuses their behavior.

Phrases that likely indicate someone is trying, intentionally or unintentionally, to gaslight you, include the following:

  • “You must not be remembering that right.”

  • “I’m not going to argue with you, but I know what I know.”

  • “There’s no reason to feel that way.”

  • “I sometimes think you’re making these things up just to have an excuse to be mad with me.”

  • “You’re always the victim here, aren’t you? It’s always my fault with you.”

  • “I can’t believe you feel that way – it just doesn’t make sense.”

  • “I didn’t do anything wrong. You’re just too sensitive.”

Another way to identify examples of gaslighting is to think about how you might go about eroding somebody’s sense of reality. Efforts to hide important details, lie about one’s own actions, and control the narrative and the person in general, are all behaviors that can have a gaslighting effect (Petric, 2022).

Suppose your work colleague fails to meet a deadline in a way that impacts your work together. When you ask them about the situation, gaslighting responses might look like some of the following (Petric, 2022):

  • Lying: “I did send you that report. Maybe you should check your email more closely.”

  • Misdirection: “I’m pretty sure somebody else on the team was supposed to do that. And shouldn’t you remember who you asked to do this?”

  • Denial: “There’s no way that was my responsibility. If it was, I would have it on my to-do list, and look, it’s not here.”

  • Nonverbal behaviors: If somebody glares, audibly sighs, or rolls their eyes, but vehemently denies they are doing these things, or denies that these behaviors have any meaning behind them, they may be part of a gaslighting pattern.

Origin of Gaslighting

Generally, people who are more likely to gaslight others have poor conflict resolution skills and are not good at managing their close relationships (Brodie et al., 2018). They tend to have trouble understanding what they and other people are thinking. In other words, they have a hard time thinking about thinking (Bateman & Fonagy, 2008), which means they are probably not fully aware of what they are doing. This example is not meant to be belittling, but you could perhaps draw a comparison to when a child vigorously denies doing something they clearly have done.

Gaslighting behaviors appear to be done more often by men to women than the other way around (Hester et al., 2017). In fact, some scholars argue that gaslighting based on gender is taking place not just between partners but on a broader cultural and social level, as the experiences of women are routinely discredited and doubted (for example, when women who have experienced sexual assault are disbelieved) (Stark, 2019).

How To Deal With Gaslighting

In a popular book on how to deal with gaslighting, Robin Stern (2018) stressed the importance of the gaslightee taking an active role in breaking the cycle of gaslighting. (After all, what incentive does the gaslighter have to stop their behavior?)

Stern suggests that if you are being gaslighted, ask yourself why you want the approval of the gaslighting person. Once you have identified the reason, you can ask yourself whether that is a healthy expectation. If it is not, you may want to write down what healthy boundaries in the relationship would look like. Then, practice a more effective response pattern – one that does not engage the gaslighter’s version of events and that validates and protects your own needs. It may be helpful to roleplay this kind of situation with a good friend or even a therapist.

In Sum

Gaslighting has gotten a lot of attention in the press and social media recently, and for good reason; it’s an unfortunately common and harmful way that people treat each other. Hopefully, you now feel better able to recognize gaslighting when it happens and respond effectively to it, including if you yourself have gaslighted someone before. People who gaslight can learn to get their relationship needs met in healthier ways, and people who are gaslighted can draw boundaries to keep themselves from being abused in relationships. We all deserve healthy and happy relationships with healthy and happy boundaries.

References

  • ​Abramson, K. (2014). Turning up the lights on gaslighting. Philosophical Perspectives, 28(1), 1-30.

  • Bateman, A., & Fonagy, P. (2008). 8-year follow-up of patients treated for borderline personality disorder: Mentalization based treatment versus treatment as usual. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 165(5), 631–638.

  • Brodie, Z. P., Goodall, K., Darling, S., & McVittie, C. (2018). Attachment insecurity and dispositional aggression: The mediating role of maladaptive anger regulation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(6), 1831–1852.

  • Ferraro, K. J. (2006). Neither angels nor demons: women, crime, and victimization. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

  • Hester, M., Jones, C., Williamson, E., Fahmy, E., & Feder, G. (2017). Is it coercive controlling violence? A cross-sectional domestic violence and abuse survey of men attending general practice in England. Psychology of Violence, 7(3), 417–27.

  • Petric, D. (2022). Psychology of abusive human behavior. Open Journal of Medical Psychology, 11(2), 29-38.

  • Stark, C. A. (2019). Gaslighting, misogyny, and psychological oppression. The Monist, 102(2), 221-235.

  • Stern, R. (2018). The gaslight effect: How to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life. New York: Harmony Books.

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