Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person causes someone to question their sanity, memories, or perception of reality. People who experience gaslighting may feel confused, anxious, or unable to trust themselves.

The term “gaslighting” comes from the name of a 1938 play and 1944 film, “Gaslight,” in which a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she has a mental illness.

In this article, we look at gaslighting, including common examples, signs, and causes. We also discuss how a person can respond to this behavior and how to seek help.

An infographic listing examples of gaslighting.Share on Pinterest
illustration by Diego Sabogal.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting can happen in a variety of ways. Some examples include:

  • Countering: This is when someone questions a person’s memory. They may say things such as, “Are you sure about that? You have a bad memory,” or “I think you are forgetting what really happened.”
  • Withholding: This involves someone pretending they do not understand the conversation or refusing to listen to make a person doubt themselves. For example, they might say, “Now you are just confusing me,” or “I do not know what you are talking about.”
  • Trivializing: This occurs when a person belittles or disregards how someone else feels. They may accuse them of being “too sensitive” or overreacting in response to valid and reasonable concerns.
  • Denial: Denial involves a person refusing to take responsibility for their actions. They may do this by pretending to forget what happened, saying they did not do it, or blaming their behavior on someone else.
  • Diverting: With this technique, a person changes the focus of a discussion by questioning the other person’s credibility. For example, they might say, “That is just nonsense you read on the internet. It is not real.”
  • Stereotyping: A 2019 article suggests that a person may intentionally use negative stereotypes about someone’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age to gaslight them. For example, they may say that no one will believe a woman if she reports abuse.

Gaslighting is a method of gaining control over someone else. It works by breaking down a person’s trust in themselves while increasing how much they trust or depend on the abusive person.

In relationships, gaslighting often begins gradually. The abusive person gains their partner’s trust, sometimes with an initial “honeymoon period” in which there is no abusive behavior.

Then, the person begins suggesting that their partner is unreliable, that they are forgetful, or that they are mentally unstable.

Over time, this can cause people to question if their partner is right. The more this happens, the more power and influence the abusive person has.

Unable to trust themselves, the person may start to rely heavily on their partner to recall memories or make decisions. They may also feel they cannot leave the relationship.

Gaslighting can occur in any type of interaction, but it is especially common in:

Intimate relationships

In relationships, an abusive person may use gaslighting to isolate their partner, undermine their confidence, and make them easier to control. For example, they might tell someone they are irrational until the person starts to think it must be true.

Child-parent relationships

Abusive parents or caregivers may gaslight children to undermine them. For example, when a child cries, they may say they are “too sensitive” to shame them and make them stop.

Racial gaslighting

According to a 2021 article, racial gaslighting is when people apply gaslighting techniques, such as manipulation, to an entire racial or ethnic group in order to discredit them.

For example, a person or institution may say that an activist campaigning for change is irrational or “crazy,” or they may deny biases if someone confronts them about microaggressions.

Workplace gaslighting

According to a 2023 article, workplace gaslighting is a process that occurs in a work environment from someone in a position of power, such as a supervisor, toward a subordinate.

The authors suggest workplace gaslighting is people-oriented and may consist of trivialization, when a leader tries to undermine their subordinate’s fears, realities, or perspectives, and affliction, when a leader directs negative emotions or pain onto their subordinate.

Gaslighting can also occur within a company, organization, or institution, such as a hospital. For example, they may portray whistleblowers who report problems as irrational or incompetent, or deceive employees about their rights.

People who experience gaslighting can find it difficult to recognize the signs. They may trust the abusive person or begin to believe they are at fault in some way. For example, they may become convinced they have a poor memory, are oversensitive, or have misinterpreted a situation.

However, if a person often feels unsure, second-guesses themselves, or relies on someone else to confirm their memories or help them make simple decisions, this may be due to gaslighting.

Some potential signs that someone is experiencing gaslighting include:

  • feeling uncertain of their perceptions
  • frequently questioning if they are remembering things correctly
  • believing they are irrational or “crazy”
  • feeling incompetent, unconfident, or worthless
  • constantly apologizing to the abusive person
  • defending the abusive person’s behavior to others
  • becoming withdrawn or isolated from others

Gaslighting may contribute to anxiety, depression, and psychological trauma, especially if it is part of a wider pattern of abuse.

Although it can be difficult for affected people to know if they are experiencing gaslighting, gathering proof could help them obtain reliable evidence and recognize the above signs. Proof may include:

  • Keeping a secret diary: In a well-hidden diary or journal, a person can record the date, time, and details of what happened soon after they experience it.
  • Talking with someone trustworthy: Confiding in a friend, family member, or counselor may help someone gain perspective on their situation. The person can also act as a witness to events.
  • Taking pictures: Photographs can also help someone “fact check” their memories.
  • Keeping voice memos: A device that can record sound can work as a quick way for someone to describe events in their own words.

Be sure that the gaslighter does not become aware of any recorded evidence. Keep it well hidden or at a trusted loved one’s property to avoid this.

Gaslighting is a behavior that people learn by watching others. A person who uses this tactic may have learned it is an effective way of obtaining what they want or controlling people. They may feel entitled to have things their way or that the wants and needs of others do not matter.

Sometimes, people with personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) exhibit abusive behavior. A 2023 article states that people with NPD have:

  • a consistent need for admiration and attention
  • a belief that they are better than everyone else or special in some way
  • a lack of empathy

This combination of symptoms can lead to unhealthy relationships. However, gaslighting is not always due to a mental health condition. Anyone can engage in this behavior.

Gaslighting has a significant impact on mental health, so people who experience it need to make sure they look after theirs. There are several ways to protect oneself from this form of abuse.

Gathering evidence

Gathering evidence of events may help someone prove to themselves that they are not imagining or forgetting things.

Evidence can also be useful if a person decides to pursue legal action against the abusive person or organization. However, check state laws on recordings before using them in court.

It is vital to make sure any proof that a person gathers of the abusive behavior remains private, particularly if they share a home or workspace with the perpetrator. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a person can try:

  • regularly erasing their search history
  • storing evidence in a hidden or locked place
  • keeping devices locked away
  • buying a second phone or a cheap voice recorder
  • sending copies of records to a trusted friend, as this allows a person to delete their own copies

Confiding in a friend, family member, or counselor may help someone gain perspective on their situation. That person may also be able also act as a witness to events.

Safety planning

Safety plans are tools people can use to protect themselves from abuse. Depending on the situation, they may include:

  • a list of safe places to go
  • escape routes so a person can flee
  • emergency contact details
  • ideas for self-care to help a person cope

Anyone who believes they are experiencing abuse of any kind should seek support. It is not uncommon for emotional abuse to escalate into physical violence.

Even if the abuse does not become physical, gaslighting and similar behaviors can significantly undermine a person’s self-esteem and mental health.

Contact a local domestic abuse organization for advice and help with creating a safety plan. To address the mental impact of gaslighting, a person may find it helpful to talk confidentially with a therapist who has experience helping people in abusive relationships.

Help is available

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
  • text, by texting START to 88788

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:

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Below are some commonly asked questions about gaslighting.

What exactly is gaslighting someone?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person causes someone to question their sanity, memories, or perception of reality.

What’s the difference between gaslighting and manipulation?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where one person manipulates another person into doubting their own perceptions, memories, and sanity.

Alternatively, manipulation, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), can be defined as behavior designed to exploit, control, or otherwise influence others to one’s advantage.

Gaslighting is just one tactic or behavior, among many, that a person may use to manipulate others.

What’s the difference between gaslighting and narcissism?

Gaslighting involves one person manipulating another into doubting their own perceptions, memories, and sanity. It is a form of emotional abuse and is not limited to romantic relationships. It can occur in familial, professional, and social contexts.

Narcissism, meanwhile, is a personality trait that exists on a spectrum. It is characterized by a sense of entitlement, grandiose self-views, a sense of superiority, and a lack of empathy for others. While not all narcissists engage in gaslighting, they may use it as a tactic to manipulate others.

Gaslighting is a type of abuse that causes someone to doubt their perceptions or sanity. It can occur in any kind of relationship but often involves an imbalance of power.

People who experience gaslighting may feel confused or as though they cannot do anything right. They may question their memories or worry that they have a mental illness. They may also defend the abusive person’s behavior and feel reliant on them.

Finding safe ways to document events, create a safety plan, or leave a relationship are important ways to protect oneself from gaslighting, as well as other forms of emotional abuse.

If someone is concerned that their partner is gaslighting them, a domestic abuse organization or mental health professional can help.

Browse safely

If you are concerned that someone may be monitoring your online activity, be sure to clear your browser history after reading this article. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has additional tips on internet safety.

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