Gaslighting: How To Recognize It And What To Do About It
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.
What is gaslighting, and what do different forms of gaslighting look like?
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.
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. 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 gaslighting behavior come 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.
The negative effects of gaslighting
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).
What to do if you’re experiencing 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
"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."
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.
Is gaslighting always on purpose?
No, gaslighting is not always on purpose. It can be something that people do unintentionally to give them a sense of control, or it may be something that they learn from others in their lives. People who gaslight may not understand the impact of their words and actions on other people. That said, just because gaslighting is unintentional doesn’t mean it isn’t real. If you need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE.
How do you explain what gaslighting is?
What is gaslighting? Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting may question what they know to be true as a result. These tactics can take many forms, including the person doing the gaslighting pretending not to understand or refusing to listen to what the other person says, questioning the other person’s memories, changing the subject, trivializing the other person’s needs or feelings, or forgetting or denying things they said to the other person.
Why should we stop gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and control that can significantly affect the self-esteem and mental health of the person experiencing it. Long-term effects of gaslighting include depression, anxiety, and even PTSD.
Can people gaslight without meaning to?
Yes, people who gaslight may do it unintentionally because they may not understand precisely why they are doing what they are doing. Some people who gaslight may have learned it from their parents or someone with another mental health issue during their childhood, and they may not completely understand what it is or its consequences. Other people gaslight because it helps them feel like they are in control. Whatever the reason, some people who gaslight may not realize they are doing it. But just because gaslighting may be unintentional doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Is gaslighting always manipulative?
Yes, gaslighting is a form of manipulation, so the people doing it are likely trying to manipulate a situation or person. Many gaslighting techniques can be used for manipulation: countering, trivializing, diverting, blocking, stonewalling, and forgetting, just to name a few.
How do you stop gaslighting?
If you are experiencing gaslighting in your relationship, it is crucial to understand that it is a form of abuse, whether the other person is doing it intentionally or not. You may not be able to stop or change the other person’s behavior, but there are some things you can do to take care of yourself.
Keep track of evidence. Save any emails, texts, or voicemails to help you remember what the other person said or did so you know what happened. Doing so can help you stand up for yourself later because you won’t have to doubt your memories.
Maintain contact with friends and family. Abusers may try to isolate you from your friends and family, but maintaining ties with people outside of the relationship can help you keep in touch with reality.
Leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult, but it may also be the only way to end the abuse. Whether dealing with someone in a romantic or platonic relationship, a family member, or a colleague, ending the relationship may be the only way to stay safe. Connecting with a therapist can help you maintain perspective on your situation and get the confidence to take the necessary steps to defend yourself.
Why is gaslighting called that way?
“Gaslight” comes from a 1938 play called “Gas Light.” It was adapted into a film in 1944. The play and the movie tell the tale of an upper-middle-class couple, Jack and Bella. Jack tries to make his wife think that she is going insane by doing things like flirting with servants in front of her, disappearing, and convincing her that she is imagining seeing the gas lights dim in the home.
How do you deal with gaslighting?
There are a few ways you can deal with gaslighting. It is essential to realize that gaslighting is psychological abuse; sometimes, leaving the relationship is the only way to stop it. Doing so can be extremely difficult, especially in familial or intimate relationships. There is even medical gaslighting, which occurs when a healthcare provider interrupts you, downplays your symptoms, doesn’t order appropriate testing, or is rude or condescending. Racial gaslighting is also possible, which is “a way of maintaining a pro-white/ anti-black balance in society by labeling those that challenge acts of racism as psychologically abnormal.”
Keep track of evidence so that you can come back to it in the future and remind yourself of what really happened. People who gaslight may try to convince you that what you think happened is not reality, but if you have records, like emails, texts, or voicemails, you can return to them to remind yourself of the truth.
Maintain contact with friends, family, and other people outside the relationship. Abusers may try to isolate you from your support system because it helps them maintain control, but having relationships with people outside of the relationship can help you keep in touch with reality.
Another way to deal with gaslighting is to talk to a therapist. Mental health professionals can help you work on your emotional intelligence, maintain perspective on your own reality, and help you determine the best next step.
How do you tell if someone is gaslighting you?
If someone is gaslighting you, it can be hard to trust yourself, but there are some signs to look for. You may try to convince yourself that you’re overreacting, being too sensitive, or be afraid to speak up your opinion or talk about how you feel because you’ve learned that expressing how you feel makes you feel worse.
If you are a victim of gaslighting behaviors, you may feel like you’re always walking on eggshells. You may be convinced that the people around you think you are crazy or unstable because your abusive partner pretends they do. You may start to have a lot of self doubt and believe that you are stupid, wrong, have a mental illness, or are not good enough because they keep telling you you are.
You may feel confused, worry that you are being too sensitive, spend a lot of time apologizing for who you are or what you do, or be disappointed in yourself for who you have become. You may frequently wonder if you remember things correctly or if something is wrong with you. The person gaslighting you may display a Jekyll and Hyde personality, so you never really know what you’ll get.
How do you prove gaslighting?
You may not be able to prove gaslighting, especially to the person who is engaging in abusive behavior. But the good news is, you don’t have to prove anything about your partner's behavior to do something about it. If you think you are being gaslit, take the necessary steps to care for yourself and talk to a therapist for support.
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