Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves.
The term gaslighting derives from the 1938 play and 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she has a mental illness by dimming their gas-fueled lights and telling her she is hallucinating.
In this article, we look at common examples, signs, and causes of gaslighting. We also discuss how a person can respond to gaslighting and when to seek help.
Gaslighting often develops gradually, making it difficult for a person to detect. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, techniques a person may use to gaslight someone include:
- Countering: This describes a person questioning someone’s memories. They may say things such as, “you never remember things accurately,” or “are you sure? You have a bad memory.”
- Withholding: When someone withholds, they refuse to engage in a conversation. A person using this technique may pretend not to understand someone so that they do not have to respond to them. For example, they might say, “I do not know what you are talking about,” or “you are just trying to confuse me.”
- Trivializing: This occurs when a person belittles or disregards the other person’s feelings. They may accuse them of being too sensitive or of overreacting when they have valid concerns and feelings.
- Denial: Denial involves a person pretending to forget events or how they occurred. They may deny having said or done something or accuse someone of making things up.
- Diverting: With this technique, a person changes the focus of a discussion and questions the other person’s credibility instead. For example, they might say, “that is just another crazy idea you got from your friends.”
- Stereotyping: An article in the American Sociological Review states that a person using gaslighting techniques may intentionally use negative stereotypes of a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age to manipulate them. For example, they may tell a female that people will think she is irrational or crazy if she seeks help for abuse.
While anyone can experience gaslighting, it is especially common in intimate relationships and in social interactions where there is an imbalance of power.
A person who is on the receiving end of this behavior is experiencing abuse.
Intimate partner relationships
An abusive partner may accuse someone of being irrational or crazy in order to isolate them, undermine their confidence, and make them easier to control. For example, they might continuously tell someone they are forgetful until the person starts to believe it is true.
Abusive caregivers may use gaslighting to shame or control children. They may accuse them of being too sensitive to belittle their feelings or of misremembering events from when they were younger.
According to the CPTSD Foundation, medical gaslighting occurs when a doctor or medical professional dismisses or trivializes a person’s health concerns based on the assumption they are mentally ill. They may tell the person their symptoms are “in their head,” for example.
A 2009 study found that doctors were twice as likely to attribute coronary heart disease symptoms in middle-aged women to mental health conditions than middle-aged men.
According to an article in Politics, Group, and Identities, racial gaslighting occurs when people apply gaslighting techniques to a group of people based on race or ethnicity.
For example, a person may deny that a specific group experiences discrimination despite evidence that says otherwise, or they might criticize civil rights activists for being too emotional to undermine their message.
An article in a forthcoming issue of Buffalo Law Review states that political gaslighting occurs when a political figure or group uses lies, denials, or manipulates information to control people.
Examples include downplaying or hiding things their administration has done wrong, discrediting political opponents based on mental instability, or using controversy to divert attention from important events.
According to an article in the Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing, institutional gaslighting can occur at a company or organization. The organization may deny or hide information, lie to employees about their rights, or portray whistle-blowers who uncover problems in an organization as incompetent or mentally ill.
People on the receiving end of gaslighting often find it difficult to realize they are experiencing abuse. They may not question the abusive person’s behavior because they are in a position of authority, or because they feel reliant on them.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline indicate that a person experiencing gaslighting may:
- feel confused and constantly second-guess themselves
- find it difficult to make simple decisions
- frequently question if they are too sensitive
- become withdrawn or unsociable
- constantly apologize to the abusive person
- defend the abusive person’s behavior
- lie to family and friends to avoid having to make excuses for them
- feel hopeless, joyless, worthless, or incompetent
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting occurs because someone wants to gain control over someone else. It is a behavior someone learns by watching others. An abusive person may feel that they are entitled to control other people, or that their feelings or opinions matter the most.
Some abusive people also have personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Many people use the term narcissist to describe a self-centered or vain person. But while anyone can have narcissistic traits, one 2020 article indicates that people with NPD have long-term symptoms such as:
- a constant need for admiration or attention
- a belief that they are special or better than everyone else
- a lack of empathy
Gaslighting has a significant impact on mental health, so it is essential for people who experience gaslighting to make sue they look after theirs.
Gathering evidence may remind a person that they are not imagining things. This evidence may also become useful later on if a person decides to pursue legal action against the abusive person.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline offer ideas on how to gather proof. These include:
- Keeping a secret diary: This allows a person to track events, including the date, time, and details of what happened.
- Talking to a trusted family member, friend, or counselor: This may help someone gain an outside perspective on the situation and to create an external, additional record of information.
- Taking pictures: This can also help someone “fact check” their memories and remind themselves that they are not imagining things.
- Keeping voice memos: Using a cell phone or device to describe events is a quick way for someone to record something that just happened in their own words. Always check state laws on recordings before using them in court.
It is vital for someone who lives with an abusive person to make sure any proof they gather is private and that they erase their search history after looking up information on gaslighting or abuse. A person can:
- store evidence in a hidden location
- buy a second phone or a cheap voice recorder
- keep devices locked away
- send records to a trusted individual so that a person can delete personal copies
People can also create a safety plan, which includes ways to protect themselves from physical and emotional abuse before, during, and after leaving the relationship or situation. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a safety plan may include:
- safe places and escape points
- the contact details of people someone can call upon for help
- self-care activities that help someone to cope
- a plan for safely leaving the abusive situation
According to a set of recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in domestic relationships, acts of emotional abuse, such as gaslighting, tend to occur alongside other types of abuse.
Over time, gaslighting may escalate into physical violence. Anyone who believes they are experiencing abuse from a partner or family member should seek support.
A person can contact domestic abuse organizations for advice and help with creating a safety plan. For the mental health impact of gaslighting, a person may find it helpful to talk confidentially to a therapist that has experience helping people in abusive relationships.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:
- phone, at 800-799-7233
- live chat, at thehotline.org
- text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522
Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for people of color, here:
Gaslighting is a form of abuse that causes someone to doubt their sanity or perceptions. It usually takes place in relationships and social interactions where there is a power imbalance.
A person experiencing gaslighting may become confused, withdrawn, anxious, or defensive about the abusive person’s behavior. They may not realize the behavior is abusive.
People experiencing gaslighting can find safe ways to document evidence of the abuse and create a safety plan to protect themselves from harm. A domestic abuse organization or mental health professional may be able to help someone leave or recover from abuse.