What Is Gaslighting?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated June 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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 may be 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 these forms of psychological abuse and how you can respond to them.

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What is gaslighting & what are the different forms?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines the verb gaslight in the following way: “to manipulate another person into doubting his or her 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. 

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, when gaslighting causes an individual to feel that they can’t trust themselves, they’re less likely to leave a relationship. While it’s often referred to in intimate or romantic partnerships, gaslighting can also occur in platonic, familial, or work relationships. There are common gaslighting techniques used by abusive partners, people with narcissism, and those who try to control groups of people, such as cult leaders, to gain power. It can even take place in professional settings, as one can see with examples like workplace gaslighting and medical gaslighting.

Gaslighting may take different forms and often happens in stages. Remaining cognizant of the signs of gaslighting can help you identify it and limit its effects. Some of the most common signs of psychological manipulation and gaslighting include:

  • Countering: Telling you that you misremember something to exert control and increase self doubt
  • 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 own feelings
  • Diverting: Questioning the validity of your thoughts and your own judgment
  • Forgetting: Pretending to forget things that happened causing the other person to feel confused or question your own reality
  • Denying: Telling you that your own perception of something is wrong or that an event you remember never actually happened
  • Faking compassion: Telling you that the harmful thing they’re doing is for your own good
  • Racial gaslighting: Trying to undermine or minimize someone’s experiences of racism
Where this behavior comes from
Abusers often use gaslighting to manipulate and exert control over the person they’re abusing by questioning the victim's memory and making them doubt their reality. Employing this tactic can sometimes be a sign that they have a mental illness or mental health challenges. Certain personality disorders, including narcissistic, antisocial, and borderline personality disorders, may make a person prone to using gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of abuse, and it’s never the survivor’s responsibility to try to help an abuser see the error of their ways and get help. That said, the abuser may be unlikely to change their hurtful 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 how a husband manipulates his wife’s environment in ways that make her question her judgment and sanity. For instance, this abusive partner questions whether the gas lights in their home aren’t flickering, even though he was intentionally making them do so by turning each gas light down. The wife experiences severe emotional distress, but by the end of the film, she starts to question her partner’s abusive behavior. Eventually, she finds someone who helps her prove that her experiences are real, and she then leaves her marriage.
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The negative effects
Over time, gaslighting can cause serious harm to a person who experiences it. They may come to doubt their own 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).

How to handle gaslighting from an abusive partner or family member

If you’ve noticed signs and symptoms of being gaslighted by a romantic partner, boss, colleague, friend, or family member, know that you are not alone. One of the first steps to recovering may be to understand that this is abuse, even if the person gaslighting you does not realize it. 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 might take to defend yourself.

Keep track of evidence
Saving voicemails, texts, emails, and notes can help you remind yourself later of what the person really said or what really happened. This strategy can assist you in standing up to gaslighting tactics used by your abusive partner that make you doubt your memory or interpretation of events. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, documenting the abuse can also help you prove you were experiencing manipulative behavior, if necessary. 
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 hurtful behaviors to you. Although it may be difficult in the face of direct manipulation, maintaining strong ties with people outside of the gaslighting relationship may 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 abusive unhealthy relationships with emotionally unstable people can be difficult, but it’s sometimes 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 may be helpful. If it’s a working relationship, speaking with a supervisor or someone in human resources can be a helpful next step. If you’re making a plan to leave a relationship in which emotional abuse or other forms of domestic violence are present, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has tips and resources that can help you do so safely. 
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Seek the help of a mental health professional

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 someone is gaslighting you since it can be subtle—especially early on. Also, you may be in a difficult situation with your abuser, which may make it even harder for you to leave or take other steps to defend yourself.

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. A therapist can also help you understand the sources of a loved one’s gaslighting behavior, such as narcissistic personality disorder. 

Meeting with a therapist may be helpful even if you’re no longer in a relationship in which you experienced gaslighting to help you gain perspective on your experience. Gaslighting can affect a victim's thoughts, and blame shifting can make you feel responsible. Working with a mental health professional may be able to 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

Online therapy tends to be 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 with BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people recover from gaslighting. 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.

Peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that online therapy can be as effective as other forms of therapy in treating a variety of conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
See below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from individuals in similar situations.
Counselor Reviews
"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships, and gained the skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I like how direct she is; it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her for a year!!!"

"Dr. Hahn is extremely insightful, helpful, and listens attentively. I would recommend her to anyone who is having relationship issues or going through difficult times."

Takeaway

Gaslighting is a type of abuse that consists of making another person doubt their own perceptions. It can be a painful and deeply harmful behavior. Getting familiar with the signs—even when they’re subtle—may help you recognize gaslighting behaviors and take action if you notice that you or a loved one may be experiencing this type of abuse. 

If you’ve experienced gaslighting or some other form of abuse, you don’t have to face every bad memory alone. Take the first step toward healing from gaslighting and seek support from a BetterHelp therapist.

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