Gaslighting: A Sneaky Kind Of Emotional Abuse
Updated January 02, 2019
Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC
Gaslighting is one of the most difficult types of emotional abuse to recognize. Most kinds of emotional abuse are easy to spot if you can look at the situation rationally rather than emotionally. Someone puts you down constantly, criticizes every move you make, shames you, blames you, calls you names, refuses to show you affection until they get what they want, punishes you, stonewalls you, or keeps you away from friends and family - all in an attempt to control you.
Gaslighting is different, though. Instead of abusing you in obvious ways, the gas lighter controls you by manipulating, hiding, and distorting the facts of your situation. You become confused and disoriented because the gaslighter has caused you to doubt your sanity. Being controlled by someone else is never easy. Being gas lighted is especially hard to deal with simply because it's such a sneaky form of abuse. The person who gaslights you wants to control you, just like with other types of abuse. They just don't want you (or anyone else) to know they're doing it.
What Is Gaslighting?
So, what is this thing called gas lighting, and why does it have such an unusual name? The answer lies in the origin of the term.
The gaslighting term gets its name from a 1938 stage play that became the 1944 movie, 'Gaslight,' and Its origin is related to the gaslight Chicago and other cities had long ago. In the movie, Ingrid Bergman plays a character named Paula. Paula marries at a young age. Her husband wants to control her, so he manipulates her environment to make her think she is losing her sanity. One thing he does is make the gaslights flicker while telling her they are burning steadily.
In the end, Paula is rescued by another man. However, many women and men who are gaslit in real life have no choice but to rescue themselves or continue to live with the abuse. The first things they can do to free themselves from gaslighting are to understand exactly what gaslighting is, learn how to recognize it, and find out what to do about it.
A gas lighting definition from the early 1900s would simply answer the question 'What is gas lighting as a building feature?' Then, it was the perfect way to define gas lighting. That isn't what most of us think about now when we ask, 'What is gaslighting?' Instead, we're thinking of a gaslighting definition that explains what it is as a psychological phenomenon, whether we've seen it in a gaslighting meme or experienced it for ourselves.
To define gaslighting as it's used now, we first need to understand the gaslight verb is an active verb. It's something someone does, not just something that exists. It may be hard to accept that your partner would want to control you in such a harmful way. However, even when the gaslighter isn't fully aware of how they're manipulating you, they are aware on some level that they want to control your behavior.
The gaslight definition in Google Dictionary is:
'Manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their sanity.'
Gaslighting Urban Dictionary
Perhaps surprisingly, gaslighting urban dictionary entries are more complete than many other dictionaries. A top definition in the Urban Dictionary describes gaslighting this way:
'A form of intimidation or psychological abuse, sometimes called Ambient Abuse where false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their memory, perception and quite often, their sanity. The classic example of gaslighting is to switch something around on someone you know they're sure to notice, but then deny knowing anything about it, and to explain that they 'must be imagining things" when they challenge these changes.
'A more psychological definition of gaslighting is 'an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and providing false information to, the victim - having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their memory and perception.'
A top way to define gaslight Urban Dictionary entry puts it more simply:
'To manipulate events and situations to make a person believe that he or she is crazy.'
GAS Psychology vs. Gaslighting Psychology
Gaslighting psychology covers all aspects of the type of abusive manipulation a gaslighter does to his or her victim. GAS psychology may seem to be the same thing, and it is relevant to being gaslighted. General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) is the way the body reacts to stress, both in the short-term and long-term.
Typically, the short-term effects of stress are minimal in gaslighting, because you don't realize what's happening until it's been going on for a while. You may experience the long-term GAS effects if someone is gaslighting you over a long period. These effects include ulcers, headaches, bowel problems, and mental illness, to name a few.
What Does Gaslighting Mean For Your Life?
The meaning of gaslighting as a psychological means of manipulating and controlling you presents you with what may be one of the greatest challenges of your life. If someone gaslights you, you have to break free from the cloud of confusion they've put you in, so you can use your mind effectively to see the gaslighting meaning of what they do and end their abusive influence on your life.
Why would someone gaslight you? Why does someone think it's okay to do that? It may be a persistent part of their behavior to control others by any means necessary to get what they want. While no particular gaslighter personality has been identified, certain personality disorders are common among those who gaslight others.
They may have an authoritarian personality. These people admit to no faults because they see themselves as absolutely right and others as absolutely wrong. If you're unfortunate enough to be gaslighted by someone with an anti-social personality, your troubles may be just beginning, because sociopaths can become violent when they don't get what they want. Also, in gaslighting, narcissism can be evident in the way the gaslighter makes everything about their own needs and desires. Narcissists who gaslight someone may frame their actions as being helpful to their victim, but they all revolve around building their ego.
What's Behind Gaslighting Behavior?
Often, gaslighting behavior is a direct means for a gaslighter to get what they want without ever taking responsibility for their actions or even the precipitating desires. Other gaslighters may not realize their behavior is causing any problems for you. They may convince themselves that they are controlling you for your good. Or, they may feel intense anxiety about losing you, so they close off your avenue of escape, either consciously or without realizing what they're doing.
What Does It Mean To Gaslight Someone?
Step back to the question of why your abuser thinks it's okay to gaslight someone. Gaslighting someone may or may not be consciously intentional. Whether your gaslighter understands what they're doing or not, they know that they don't want you to think your own thoughts, make your own decisions, or live your own life without putting them ahead of yourself.
They also know that, in some way, your thoughts and behaviors feel like a problem for them. They don't think of you as an independent adult who is capable of thinking for yourself and entitled to your perspective. Or, they don't want you to. They may not know the word or understand the gaslight meaning of what they do, but they know how to do it. No matter how you slice it, they want to rule you.
Gaslighting examples abound in human relationships. Whether it's at work, at home, or out in your community, you can be manipulated by someone if you don't learn how to protect yourself from gaslighting. The following examples of gaslighting show how gaslighting can destroy your self-confidence and your belief in yourself.
Gaslighting In Relationships
Gaslighting is most often seen in marriage, but it can happen in any close relationship between two people. One gaslighting example is when a husband convinces his wife she's imagining seeing him with another woman. He tells her that he wasn't there, and she must have seen someone who looks like him. When she reiterates what she saw, he tells her she's always bad at recognizing people or that she isn't very observant. He knows he was with the woman, but he doesn't want her to know it. He wants to keep her in the marriage. Why? Perhaps he needs her to tend to the children, keep the houses clean, or entertain business colleagues. Maybe he thinks he loves her. The problem is that his actions show he doesn't love her in any mature, healthy way.
Gaslighting in relationships other than romantic ones can happen, too. Consider the elderly mother whose child convinces her that she needs to be admitted to a nursing home. She still takes care of herself and still remembers to do what she needs to do, but her son has convinced her that she can no longer trust her mind. How does he do it? He may do it by moving things around in her home and telling her he doesn't know where they are. Or, he might do it by telling her she remembers something incorrectly. Why does he do it? Some children want their parents in nursing homes, so they can stop worrying about them, even if the parent is still capable of making their own decisions. Other children want the parent's home, car, possessions, or control of their money. No matter what the cause, gaslighting is inexcusable.
Gaslighting At Work
Gaslighting at work can threaten your well-being for as long as you stay at that job. When someone gaslights you at work, you may have trouble performing your duties. The intense stress of being gaslighted can cause you to make mistakes you've never made before or avoid required meetings.
Examples of gaslighting at work include:
- The gaslighter tells you they told you to do a job, but you know they never did.
- The person gaslighting you moves things in the work environment and then tries to convince you that you moved it yourself or imagined it was where it originally was.
- Someone gaslights you by reporting you for not doing your job correctly when you know you didn't make the reported mistakes.
Signs Of Gaslighting
The reason it's so hard to recognize the signs of gaslighting is that it's your mind the gaslighter is playing with. After someone has used gaslighting tactics on you long enough, you begin to wonder if you can even trust the information you're getting from your five senses, much less your thoughts. You can distinguish gaslighting from common behavior by knowing about gaslighting techniques and gaslighting phrases to watch for and understanding what it's like to be gaslit.
People who gaslight someone tend to use specific gaslighting techniques to convince them they are confused. These include:
- Countering, by telling you that you remember something incorrectly.
- Trivializing, by making you feel like your thoughts and feelings don't matter.
- Withholding, by pretending they don't understand what you're saying.
- Stonewalling, by refusing to listen or engage with you in conversation.
- Blocking, by changing the subject.
- Diverting, by questioning the validity of your thoughts.
- Forgetting, by pretending to forget things that happened.
- Denying, by telling you something never happened.
- Faking compassion, by telling you they're doing something harmful to your good.
- Discrediting, by convincing others, you're insane or unstable.
- Reframing, by twisting your thoughts, behaviors, and experiences to favor their perspective
Certain phrases come up often in relationships where someone is being gaslighted. These gaslighting phrases and others like them can convince you that your mind isn't trustworthy. If you hear these often when you know deep inside that they're unfair statements, it may be time to seek help:
- 'I don't want to hear that.'
- 'You need to stop trying to confuse me.'
- 'You're wrong.'
- 'You remember it wrong.'
- 'Where did you get that crazy idea?'
- 'You imagine'
- 'It didn't happen that way.'
- 'You know I'm right.'
- 'You're too sensitive.'
- 'I only do it because I love you.'
- 'You get angry so easily.'
- 'You're too sensitive.'
- 'I have no idea what you're talking about.'
- 'You're making that up.'
- 'Calm down!'
Thoughts, Feelings, And Behaviors Associated With Being Gaslighted
When someone gaslights you, your thoughts, feelings, and actions may change dramatically. Where once you felt self-assured, you may now feel like you can't trust your mind. Take some time to examine how these parts of you have changed since being with the person or in the situation. The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes what to watch for. Here is a quick checklist to guide you:
- Do you second-guess yourself often?
- Do you find yourself wondering whether you're too sensitive?
- Do you feel confused a lot of the time?
- Do you feel like you're 'going crazy?'
- Do you notice that you apologize to someone often?
- Do you wonder why you can't seem to be happy when you have so much?
- Do you make excuses for the gaslighter?
- Do you have an overwhelming sense that something's wrong, even if you don't know what it is?
- Do you often lie to avoid your partner's, boss's, or co-worker's criticisms?
- Is it hard for you to make simple decisions?
- Do you feel hopeless?
- Do you feel like a loser who can't do anything right?
- Do you question whether you're good enough for your partner or job?
How To Deal With Gaslighting
If you've read this far, you've probably figured out the answer to 'Is gaslighting abuse?' Of course, it is! In fact, people who have endured gaslighting for many years may always find it challenging to have healthy relationships, stay employed, or have any self-confidence at all after leaving the situation. The real question is how to deal with gaslighting before it reaches that point. Here are a few suggestions for dealing with gaslighting in work and relationships.
There are several ways you can combat at-work gaslighting. Some of these are:
- By keeping detailed records of your own with verbatim quotes.
- By asking to have verbal instructions put into an email and sent to you.
- By avoiding fights with narcissists.
- By realizing that being the target of a gaslighter isn't your fault.
- By keeping private information to yourself.
- By bringing along a witness when the gaslighter wants to talk to you alone.
- By knowing if the gaslighter's behavior is illegal.
Gaslighting in relationships can be even more difficult than gaslighting at work, especially if you've been in the relationship for a long time. Whether you're a newlywed just finding out that your new husband is a gaslighter or you've been married to someone for years without realizing it, you very well might have to leave them to regain your sanity. The best option is to avoid narcissists, authoritarians, and manipulators while you're still in the dating phase. However, if your gaslighter is another member of your family, there are still things you can do if you know how to stop gaslighting in a relationship. Some examples are:
- Study intuition and develop a strong belief in your intuition.
- Realize that the gaslighter's manipulations have nothing to do with who you are.
- Understand that you can't change someone who gaslights You can only change yourself.
How To Get Help To Overcome Gaslighting
If you are just beginning to 'get' the gaslighted meaning, it may be difficult to understand what this means to you and your situation. First, know that a relationship or work situation in which you're gaslit is toxic. You might be able to stay in the relationship or situation if something changes, but that's highly unlikely. If it doesn't, you're putting your physical and mental health at risk to continue in it.
Licensed counselors, available now at BetterHelp.com, are a great resource if you want to know how to define gaslight in more personal terms and explore how gaslighting affects your life. Talking to a counselor is the surest way to identify instances of gas-lighting behavior. With the counselor's support, you can regain the self-confidence that the gaslighter took away from you. You can learn to love who you are, trust your sanity, and set your sights on a happier life.