Gaslighting is a form of abuse that involves a person deliberately causing someone to doubt their sanity. This may cause feelings of confusion or powerlessness. The long-term effects of gaslighting include trauma, anxiety, and depression.
In this article, we look at examples of gaslighting, the long-term effects of gaslighting, and what to do if it is happening.
The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight. In the movie, an abusive husband brightens and dims gas powered lights, then insists that his wife is hallucinating. This causes her to doubt her sanity.
Today, gaslighting describes any interaction where a person or entity manipulates someone into feeling they cannot trust their own memories, feelings, or senses.
A person on the receiving end of gaslighting may truly believe that they are not mentally well, that their memories are not accurate, or that their mind is playing tricks on them. This makes them feel dependent on the abusive person.
Some examples of common gaslighting tactics include:
- Countering: This tactic involves an abusive person questioning someone’s memory of events, even though they have remembered them correctly.
- Withholding: This describes someone who pretends not to understand something, or who refuses to listen.
- Forgetting: This involves an abusive person pretending they have forgotten something, or denying that something happened.
- Trivializing: This refers to an abusive person making someone’s concerns or feelings seem unimportant or irrational.
- Diverting: This technique occurs when an abusive person changes the subject, or focuses on the credibility of what someone is saying rather than the content. Some people also call it “blocking.”
In abusive relationships, gaslighting often occurs gradually. Initially, a person may not seem abusive. But, over time, they may use statements, such as:
- “You are wrong, you never remember things correctly.”
- “You are imagining things.”
- “Stop overreacting,” or “you are too sensitive.”
- “I do not know what you are talking about.”
- “I do not understand, you are just trying to confuse me.”
Gaslighting also occurs outside of intimate relationships.
A 2017 article in Politics, Groups, and Identities states that racial gaslighting occurs when a person or entity portrays people who speak out against racial oppression as irrational, crazy, or deluded.
Examples of racial gaslighting include:
- criticizing how a person expresses themselves to divert attention away from their message
- trivializing or downplaying racist incidents
- denying that documented events took place, such as the Holocaust
Immigrants are also vulnerable to gaslighting.
A person who has recently arrived in a new country may be unfamiliar with its laws, language, and culture. As a result, it is easier for a person or entity to lie to them about their legal rights and what is normal.
Examples of this include when an employer tells employees who are immigrants that they have no right to complain about their working conditions.
It can also include an abusive person telling their partner that immigration authorities are watching them when they are not.
Over time, a person who is a victim of gaslighting may start to believe that they cannot trust themselves, or that they have a mental health disorder. This gaslighting may lead to:
All of these can have a long-term impact on someone’s mental health and self-esteem. They may also make it more difficult for the individual to leave an abusive situation.
If the gaslighting takes place in a relationship, it could become part of a broader pattern of coercive control. Coercive control is emotional abuse that gives the abuser control over their partner’s life.
According to the Crown Prosecution Service in the United Kingdom, other elements of coercive control include:
- monitoring someone’s activities, mobile phone, or emails
- controlling all of the finances
- using insults and threats to scare another person
- manipulating someone into unwanted sexual activity
Coercive control is not illegal in the United States. However, emotional abuse often escalates to physical abuse, so a person experiencing gaslighting early in a relationship might be at risk of physical violence later.
Establishing proof of gaslighting can help a person identify that their memories and feelings are real, and that someone is manipulating them.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are a few ways a person can collect proof:
- Journaling: A person who suspects gaslighting can keep a journal in a secure location and record the date and time events occur.
- Voice memos: Recording incidents with a cell phone or other device can help keep track. If a person’s device is not safe to use, they can consider purchasing a separate voice recorder and concealing it somewhere safe.
- Photographs: Taking photographs provides someone with visual proof. For example, they can take a picture of where they leave their keys so that they know if a partner is hiding them to make them late. If a cell phone is not safe, a person can purchase a disposable camera and hide it instead.
- Email: If it is not safe for a person to keep proof of gaslighting in their home, they could ask a trusted friend or family member if they can store it. After gathering the proof, a person can send it via email and then delete it from their own devices.
Gaslighting may take place for years or decades before a person realizes what is happening. As a result, recovering from gaslighting takes time. A person may need to try several approaches to rebuild their sense of self.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline advise that people:
- remember they are not responsible for the abusive behavior
- avoid arguing about what is true with the abusive person
- practice listening to their thoughts, feelings, and instincts again
It may be difficult to do this to begin with. People may benefit from having support from a therapist with training on abuse recovery and trauma.
Rebuilding relationships with family and friends may also become part of recovery. This step can be difficult if an abusive person told others lies to discredit or isolate someone. However, it may help with recovery to have social support.
Support groups may also help with this process of recovery.
If someone frequently feels confused or questions their sanity because of the comments someone makes, it is probably time to seek help. These feelings could be signs of psychological abuse.
People in gaslighting relationships can call domestic abuse helplines to get advice and to determine if what they are experiencing is abuse.
A doctor or therapist will also be able to help someone with the mental impact of gaslighting.
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 an abusive practice that causes someone to distrust themselves or to believe they have a mental illness. The long-term effects of gaslighting may include anxiety, depression, trauma, and low self-esteem.
Gaslighting often appears in abusive relationships but also takes place in other contexts. People from marginalized groups are especially vulnerable.
If a person believes their partner is gaslighting them, they can take steps to record evidence and seek help from domestic abuse organizations.