Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. People who experience gaslighting may feel confused, anxious, or as though they cannot 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.
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: An article in the American Sociological Review says 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 not reliable, 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.
Gaslighting can occur in any type of interaction, but it is especially common in:
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.
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.
According to the CPTSD Foundation, medical gaslighting is when a medical professional dismisses a person’s health concerns as being the product of their imagination. They may tell the person their symptoms are “in their head” or label them a hypochondriac.
According to an article in Politics, Group, and Identities, racial gaslighting is when people apply gaslighting techniques 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.”
Political gaslighting occurs when a political group or figure lies or manipulates information to control people, according to an article in the Buffalo Law Review.
For example, the person or political party may downplay things their administration has done, discredit their opponents, imply that critics are mentally unstable, or use controversy to deflect attention away from their mistakes.
Institutional gaslighting occurs 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 believe that they truly do have a poor memory.
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 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.
- 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 also operates on a broader scale as a feature of systemic oppression. People in power sometimes use it to damage the credibility of a person or group, which disempowers them.
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 of events may help someone prove to themselves that they are not imagining or forgetting things. The National Domestic Violence Hotline suggests:
- Keeping a secret diary: In a diary or journal, a person can record the date, time, and details of what happened soon after they experience it, and they can refer back to it later.
- Talking to 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.
This type of 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. 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
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
- a plan to safely leave the relationship, home, or situation
Anyone who believes they are experiencing abuse of any kind should seek support. Over time, emotional abuse may 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 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 to a therapist who 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 not a new phenomenon. People have used gaslighting and other types of psychological abuse for many years. But the term “gaslighting” itself is relatively new.
It comes from the title of a 1938 play and 1944 film, Gaslight. In the story, a husband conceals his search for his wife’s aunt’s missing jewels by making his wife doubt herself. He tells her that the sounds in the attic she hears, and the dimming gas lights around their home, are imaginary.
The term “gaslighting” came to represent the type of manipulation the characters portray in the film.
Gaslighting is a type of abuse that causes someone to doubt their perceptions or sanity. It can take place 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 a person is concerned that their partner is gaslighting them, a domestic abuse organization or mental health professional can help.