What is gaslighting?
Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 12/12/2022
Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation. When you’re the victim of it, you start doubting yourself and your reality, questioning facts, events, and the actions or intentions of other people. You may end up feeling like you’re “going crazy.”
Where does the term come from?
The concept originated in a 1938 play, “Gas Light,” and movie adaptations that followed. In the 1944 film version, “Gaslight,” a husband tries to convince his wife she’s mentally ill so he can steal her late aunt’s jewels. In a famous scene, he dims and brightens the gaslights in the apartment as he searches for the jewelry. When his wife tells him she heard footsteps and saw the gaslights flickering, he insists she only imagined it.
When people use the term “gaslighting,” they’re referring to similar forms of emotional abuse. The film popularized the term in reference to a husband’s emotional abuse of his wife, but gaslighting can occur between people of any gender, in all sorts of relationships and power dynamics.1
Common gaslighting tactics
- Lying: The root of gaslighting is distorting the truth. Gaslighters will lie to you, often convincingly, and make you question what’s real. Even if you have facts and figures to prove them wrong, they won’t admit it.2
- Denying: You can try to call out a gaslighter for manipulative behavior, but you won’t get very far. People who gaslight rarely admit to their abuse. They’ll also deny the reality of your feelings, saying you’re “overly sensitive” or “being dramatic” instead of apologizing for hurting you.
- Withholding: Gaslighters will refuse to listen or engage in certain conversations. They’ll use phrases like “I don’t understand” to make you feel like you’re the problem instead of admitting they won’t communicate in good faith.
- Belittling: To a gaslighter, your perspective, feelings, and experiences are trivial. They’ll downplay their abuse as “not that bad” and try to convince you you’re “overreacting.”
- Discrediting: Gaslighters may try to discredit you to your friends and family. They may also try to convince you that no one believes you to keep you from reaching out to others for support.
- Deflecting: If you bring up a problem, a gaslighter will often change the subject to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
- Blaming: A gaslighter shifts blame onto their victim. If you tell them, “What you said hurt my feelings,” they may reply, “Can’t you take a joke? What’s your problem?” Suddenly you’ll feel the need to apologize, even though they were the one being hurtful.
- Ingratiating: A gaslighter may use compliments and affection as a cover for their actions.
- Projecting: Often, gaslighters project their own insecurities or mistakes onto their victims. For example, a gaslighter may become overly possessive and jealous of their partner after cheating on them.
Examples of gaslighting
- Relational gaslighting occurs between people in any sort of relationship (romantic, familial, professional, etc.).3
- Medical gaslighting takes place when a doctor or other healthcare professional dismisses a patient’s health concerns, withholds treatment, or fails to provide a basic standard of care.4
- Political gaslighting can be used as a form of propaganda. It happens when a politician uses manipulative tactics to push blatant falsehoods and discredit verifiable information in order to gain power.5
- Institutional gaslighting happens when systems are set up intentionally to deny problems or abuses and cast doubt on victims’ mental health.6 It can occur in workplaces, religious institutions, schools, governments, and other organizations.
- Historical gaslighting occurs when historical tragedies or atrocities are downplayed or outright denied in order to avoid responsibility or restitution for victims.7
- Racial gaslighting upholds and perpetuates a white supremacist mindset by labeling anyone who pushes back against it—especially people of color—as mentally unstable.8
What does it feel like to be gaslighted?
The signs of gaslighting may be difficult to spot from inside the situation, since gaslighters weaken your ability to trust yourself.
Here are common signs of being gaslighted. If you’re unsure whether they apply to you, go through the list with a trusted friend or family member.
- Regularly second-guessing yourself
- Feeling confused
- Questioning your mental health
- Making excuses for the gaslighter’s behavior
- Having trouble with decision-making
- Constantly apologizing
- Experiencing anxiety or depression
Another way to determine if you’re being gaslighted is to evaluate the person’s behavior. Many gaslighters use similar tactics and language to wear down their victims. Common phrases include:
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “It was just a joke! Lighten up.”
- “I never said that.”
- “That never happened.”
- “Quit making such a big deal out of nothing.”
- “I can’t believe you’re still hung up on that.”
- “You’re such a drama queen.”
- “Everyone thinks you’re nuts.”
- “No one believes you.”
- “Here we go again.”
- “You’re so sensitive.”
- “You’re lucky I put up with you, you know that?”
- “I’m the only person who will be honest with you. You should be grateful.”
Why do people gaslight?
Gaslighting is a learned behavior. Some people learn it from being gaslighted or witnessing gaslighting themselves, often in childhood. Others want to learn how to manipulate other people and intentionally seek out new tactics.
People who gaslight others may not be doing it intentionally. Many people adopt the same patterns of behavior they experienced in their families of origin—but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held responsible. People who rely on gaslighting in relationships can learn healthier forms of communication and conflict resolution with the help of a therapist.
Certain personalities may be drawn to abuse tactics as a way to control other people. This can result from serious mental health disorders, especially narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and psychopathy. People who gaslight may experience authoritarian impulses and want to have power over others.
No matter the reasons behind it, remember this: People who gaslight others are engaging in abuse. It can be difficult for intentional gaslighters to improve in therapy—often they’ll try to manipulate or invalidate their therapist.
Strategies for overcoming gaslighting
- Name it: Being honest with yourself about your situation is often the first step toward healing. If you’re experiencing gaslighting, it’s important to admit it to yourself—and ideally to trusted friends and family.
- Keep a record: If you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing gaslighting, keeping a record of some kind can help you confirm what’s going on. You can track major events or disagreements in a journal and refer to it to figure out if a gaslighter is trying to undermine your reality.
- Prioritize your own safety: Emotional abuse can escalate quickly to physical harm or violence. If your situation is no longer safe, you can access free, confidential help 24/7 from the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
- Honor your feelings: It can feel overwhelming to realize that a person you once looked up to or trusted is manipulating you. There are no “wrong” feelings when it comes to overcoming gaslighting.
- Share your truth: Widening your circle of trust is critical in weakening your abuser’s power. By speaking with trusted friends or family members, you can get support from people who love you and want to build up your ability to trust yourself, not tear it down.
- Set healthy goals: Your gaslighter may never admit they’ve done anything wrong. Your goal shouldn’t be to convince or reform them. Instead, aim to focus on your own emotional healing and physical, mental, and emotional safety.
- Seek professional help: It can be difficult to escape abusive situations and heal from them on your own. A therapist can help you process your experience and strengthen your mental health. Browse our directory to find a mental health professional near you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.