Gaslighting: How To Recognize It And What To Do About It
Content Warning: This article mentions trauma-related topics which could potentially be triggering. If you or someone you know is or may be experiencing abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, available 24/7, at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. Live chat is also available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Even though the signs can sometimes be subtle, gaslighting can be damaging and even dangerous to those who experience it—especially over the long term. That’s why it’s helpful to be familiar with common gaslighting tactics to take action if you feel that you or a loved one is experiencing them. Let’s look at how to recognize this behavior and how you can respond to it.
What Gaslighting Looks Like
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines gaslighting as the act of manipulating another person into doubting their perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events. It can be a severe form of emotional abuse that can result in survivors losing their sense of self-worth or identity. While it’s often referred to in romantic relationships, gaslighting can also occur in platonic, familial, or work relationships. It’s a common technique used by abusive partners, people with narcissism, and those who try to control groups of people, such as cult leaders.
Gaslighting may take different forms and often happens in stages. That said, some of the most common gaslighting techniques include:
Countering: Telling you that you misremember something to exert control and make you doubt yourself.
Trivializing: Making you feel like your thoughts and feelings don't matter or that you’re just being overly sensitive.
Withholding: Keeping money or affection from you.
Stonewalling: Refusing to listen or engage with you in conversation.
Blocking: Changing the subject when you try to clarify a situation or express your feelings.
Diverting: Questioning the validity of your thoughts.
Forgetting: Pretending to forget things that happened.
Denying: Telling you that something you remember never actually happened.
Faking compassion: Telling you that the harmful thing they’re doing is for your own good.
Where Gaslighting Behavior Comes From
Abusers often use gaslighting to manipulate and exert control over the person they’re abusing. Employing this tactic can be a sign that they have mental health issues of their own. Certain personality disorders are prone to using gaslighting, including narcissistic, antisocial, and borderline. Gaslighting is never okay, and it’s never the survivor’s responsibility to try and help an abuser see the error of their ways and get help. That said, the abuser is generally unlikely to change their behavior unless they seek help from a mental health professional.
Why Is It Called “Gaslighting”?
The term "gaslighting" comes from a play that was eventually turned into a film. The 1944 movie Gaslight tells the story of a husband who begins to manipulate his wife’s environment in ways that make her question her judgment and sanity. For instance, he dims the gas lights in their home to cause them to flicker, but then denies that anything unusual is happening when she mentions it. The wife experiences severe emotional distress by the end of the film but eventually finds someone who helps her prove that her experiences were real, and she then leaves her marriage.
The Negative Effects Of Gaslighting
Over time, gaslighting can cause serious harm to a person who experiences it. They may come to doubt their memory, judgment, opinions, or emotions, which can isolate them socially and from loved ones. They may experience a significant drop in self-esteem or even begin to lose their sense of identity.
In the long term, consistent gaslighting can cause a person to experience mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What To Do If You’re Experiencing Gaslighting
If you’ve noticed signs and symptoms of being gaslighted by a romantic partner, family, friend, or boss/colleague, it’s essential to understand that this is abuse. It can damage your mental and even physical health, particularly if you spend a lot of time with the person who is doing it. Here are some steps you can take to defend yourself.
Keep Track Of Evidence
Saving voicemails, texts, emails, and notes can help you remind yourself later of what they really said or what really happened. This strategy can assist you in standing up to gaslighting tactics that make you doubt your memory or interpretation of events.
Lean On Loved Ones
One common tactic of abusers is isolating you from friends and family because they don’t want anyone to point out their bad behavior to you. Although it may be difficult in the face of direct manipulation, maintaining strong ties with people outside of the gaslighting relationship can help keep you in touch with reality and provide you with the support you may need along the way.
End Or Adjust The Relationship
Leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult, but it’s often the only way to end the abuse. When it comes to romantic or platonic relationships involving gaslighting, ending it may be necessary to keep yourself safe. If it’s a familial relationship that you are not willing to fully step away from, setting firm boundaries is usually of the utmost importance. If it’s a work relationship, speaking with a supervisor or HR can be a helpful next step.
Seek The Help Of A Therapist Or Counselor
At first, it may be difficult to see how gaslighting can affect you emotionally or impact your relationships. You may even have trouble recognizing that you’re being manipulated or abused initially, since gaslighting can be so subtle—especially early on. Or, you may be in a difficult situation with your abuser, making it even harder for you to leave or take other steps to defend yourself.
Your safety takes priority; call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, available 24/7, at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788 if you’re experiencing abuse. Live chat is also available on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.
Otherwise, connecting with a therapist may help you get a more balanced perspective on your situation and gain the confidence to make the best decisions for you.
Therapy Can Help
Meeting with a therapist can also be helpful if you’ve experienced gaslighting in the past, even if you’re no longer in that relationship. A mental health professional can help you work through complicated emotions related to the situation, rebuild self-confidence, and manage any symptoms you may be experiencing. You can do this type of therapy either in person or online.
Online therapy is a convenient option that allows you to talk to a therapist from the comfort of home. You don’t have to worry about commuting to an office or being on a waiting list for the next available appointment. When you sign up online, you’re matched with a therapist who can start helping you right away. If you live with the person who is gaslighting you, communicating with your therapist via online chat or text may be a good option, but you can also talk to your therapist via telephone or video chat.
Research suggests that online therapy can be just as effective in treating a variety of conditions, including reducing trauma-related symptoms. If this format appeals to you, BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist. See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from individuals in similar situations.
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Gaslighting can be a painful and deeply harmful behavior. Getting familiar with the signs—even when subtle—can help you recognize and take action if you notice that you or a loved one may be experiencing this type of abuse.
What Is Gaslighting In A Relationship?
Unfortunately, gaslighting often happens in close personal relationships. In romantic relationships, you may see gaslighting as manipulative behavior, like lying or dismissing a partner’s feelings. Gaslighting in a relationship can also involve other abusive behaviors, like violence or sexual aggression, but the gaslighter may deny ever engaging in these behaviors. Additionally, if one person reacts emotionally to the gaslighter’s behavior, the gaslighter may call them dramatic or overly sensitive. Of course, this is often inaccurate. If your partner manipulates you, denies your feelings, and makes you question yourself, don’t hesitate to get help.
What Is An Example Of Gaslighting?
While gaslighting can happen in various kinds of relationships, many people don’t realize that even trusted professionals can engage in examples of gaslighting. Medical gaslighting, for example, is when a medical professional downplays or dismisses a patient’s medical symptoms, often telling patients that their problems are “all in their head.” This sort of conflict and behavior is not acceptable, and if you experience medical gaslighting, it’s essential to stand up for yourself and switch doctors. You don't want to be the target of this kind of rhetoric, and you might question why a doctor would talk to a patient about their body in this way.