What is gaslighting?
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/11/2022
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation that causes you to doubt yourself and question your reality.
When someone is the victim of gaslighting, not only do they begin to doubt their feelings, but they also start questioning facts, events, and the actions or intentions of other people. A person who is being gaslighted often ends up feeling like they’re “going crazy.”
Where Does the Term “Gaslighting” Come from?
The origin of “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play called “Gaslight” and its subsequent movie adaption by George Cukor in 1944.
In the film, Gregory (played by Charles Boyer) tries to convince his wife, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman), that she’s going crazy so he can steal her late aunt’s jewels. In one instance, Gregory dims and brightens the gaslights in the apartment as he searches for the jewelry. When Paula tells her husband she heard footsteps and saw the gaslights flickering, he insists that she only imagined it.
When people use the term “gaslighting,” they’re referring to similar forms of emotional abuse. Although the film “Gaslight” popularized the term in reference to the emotional abuse of a husband toward his wife, gaslighting can occur between individuals of any gender in all sorts of relationships and power dynamics.
- Lying: At the root of gaslighting is the distortion of the truth. Gaslighters will lie to you, often convincingly, making you question what is real. Even if you have facts and figures that prove them wrong, they will never admit it.
- Denying: You can try to call out a gaslighter for their manipulative behavior, but it won’t get you very far. People who engage in gaslighting will 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 simply refuse to listen to you 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 to their refusal to engage in hard topics 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 that you’re “overreacting.”
- Discrediting: Gaslighters may try to discredit you directly to your friends and family. Other times, they’ll simply try to convince you that no one believes you to prevent you from reaching out to others for support.
- Deflecting: If you try to bring up a problem, a gaslighter will often try to change the subject to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
- Blaming: Gaslighters shift blame onto their victims. For example, if you tell a gaslighter, “What you said hurt my feelings,” they’ll often reply with, “Can’t you take a joke? What is your problem?” Suddenly, you’ll feel the need to apologize, even though they were the one who hurt your feelings in the first place.
- Ingratiating: Sometimes, a gaslighter will try to confuse you by using compliments and professions of love as a cover for their actions.
- Projecting: Often, gaslighters will 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 individuals in any sort of relationship, whether romantic, familial, professional, etc.
- Medical gaslighting: When a doctor or other healthcare professional dismisses a patient’s health concerns and withholds treatment or fails to administer a basic standard of care
- Political gaslighting: When a politician uses manipulation tactics to push blatant falsehoods and discredit verifiable information in order to amass power; can be used as a form of propaganda
- Institutional gaslighting: When systems and institutions are set up to purposely deny problems or abuses and cast doubt on victims’ sanity; can occur in workplaces, churches, schools, sports, governments, etc.
- Historical gaslighting: Occurs when historical tragedies or atrocities are downplayed or outright denied in order to avoid responsibility or restitution toward victims
The signs and symptoms of gaslighting may be difficult to spot from within the situation itself. That’s because the goal of gaslighting is to weaken your ability to trust yourself, so you feel like you can only rely on your gaslighter for an objective view of reality.
Below are common symptoms of being gaslighted. If you’re unsure whether these symptoms apply to you, go through the list with a trusted friend or family member.
Symptoms of Gaslighting
- Regularly second-guessing yourself
- Feeling confused
- Questioning your sanity
- Making excuses for the gaslighter’s behavior
- Trouble with decision-making
- Constantly apologizing
- Feelings of anxiety or depression
Another way to determine if you’re being gaslighted is to evaluate the person’s behavior. Many gaslighters employ the same tactics and use similar phrases to wear down their victims. Common gaslighting 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 crazy.”
- “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.”
- “You’re nuts.”
Gaslighting is a learned behavior. Some people learn it by being a victim of or witness to 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 simply adopt the same patterns of behavior that they experienced in their families of origin.
However, that doesn’t mean that people who are unintentionally gaslighting shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. People who rely on gaslighting in their relationships can learn healthier forms of communication and conflict resolution in professional therapy.
Certain personalities may be drawn toward abuse tactics as a way of controlling other people. This can be the result of serious mental health disorders, especially narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and psychopathy. People who gaslight may experience authoritarian impulses and a desire to have power over other people.
No matter their reasons, it’s important to be clear: People who gaslight others are engaging in abuse. It can be difficult for intentional gaslighters in particular to improve in therapy—often, they will simply 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, hopefully, to trusted friends and family.
- Keep a record: If you’re unsure if you’re experiencing gaslighting, keeping a record of some kind can help you confirm what is happening. You can keep a journal of major events or disagreements with your gaslighter and refer to your record to determine if the gaslighter is undermining your reality.
- Prioritize your own safety: Emotional abuse can quickly escalate to physical harm or violence. If your situation is no longer safe, you can seek free, confidential help 24/7 from the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
- Honor your feelings: It can be emotionally 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 the power of your abuser. By speaking with trusted friends or family members, you can receive 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 that they’ve done anything wrong. Your goal shouldn’t be to convince or reform them. Instead, your goal should be 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 professional therapist can help you process your experience and strengthen your mental health.
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.