Learn / What Is Gaslighting? Signs, Effects, and How to Protect Yourself
Gaslighting is a manipulative psychological tactic used to control others. The person gaslighting aims to make you feel “crazy” by undermining you, acting like you’re lying, or that you’re making things up.
Their adamant denial and blame-shifting can make you distrust yourself, even to the point of feeling like you’ve lost your grip on reality. The person gaslighting may try to make you seem untrustworthy to other people too.
Gaslighting can happen in romantic relationships, friendships, and between family members. Gaslighting isn’t always meant to cause harm, either. Some people may do it accidentally. But others use it as a tactic of manipulation.
Gaslighting is an attempt to make the other in the relationship feel or seem “crazy”1. It’s considered a subset of psychological abuse2. The gaslighter tries to create a surreal reality, one they control, to make the other feel like their beliefs and observations are both wrong and potentially nonexistent.
The term arose from a movie adaptation of the play Gas Light, where a husband isolates his new wife and manipulates her into believing she’s gone insane. He dims the gas lights in their home only to insist she’s imagining it, claiming that as proof she’s gone insane. The wife eventually believes him.
Victims of gaslighting commonly feel confused1, disoriented, and like their reality has become distorted. This is what the gaslighter often intends. They gain control by “micro-regulating victims’ lives, self-concepts, and sense of reality”1. Over time, the victim may believe their gaslighter’s lies and view them as the only person who can define their reality.
Gaslighters often separate their partner from the outside world2. They may lie and say no one wants them around, or that their friends are all no good. This makes their victim more vulnerable to manipulation, since no one else can point out their behavior and offer support.
Not all gaslighting is done with ill-will. Sometimes, friends, family, and those you care about can unintentionally make you feel unheard or like your ideas aren’t important. It’s also possible to respectfully disagree with someone.
Two people can disagree or have different views in healthy, respectful ways. For example, you may disagree with someone’s opinion while still respecting their autonomy and beliefs. You both keep your opinions and work towards a middle ground.
A gaslighter, instead of accepting the other’s different belief, would cruelly question the thoughts, emotions, and sanity behind their belief. Their goal is to “prove” the other’s opinion is wrong and not based in reality … because the gaslighter creates their own.
You can firmly plant yourself in reality by knowing and recognizing the signs of gaslighting.
You can look for these signs of gaslighting3 in your partner and in other relationships in your life.
Gaslighters often resort to specific strategies4 to challenge your reality. These include
The victim of gaslighting, or the gaslightee, may experience serious effects5, like anxiety, low self-confidence, constant underlying fear, confusion, codependency, lack of trust, and psychological trauma.
If you’ve been severely gaslit, you may even believe you are psychologically sick. Your gaslighter could convince you that your family thinks the same and wants you to get help. In your isolation and confusion, refuting their lies gets harder and harder.
Even after you leave the relationship, the effects of gaslighting may stick around. You may need professional help to navigate how it makes you feel and how it’s affected your sense of self. A therapist can guide you through the journey and help you process the experience.
Gaslighting is a common abusive tactic in romantic relationships, but it can happen in friendships, families, and in the workplace. Your options for navigating gaslighting often depends on its context.
If your coworker uses gaslighting to undermine and embarrass you, you could talk to higher-ups to address the gaslighter’s behavior. Depending on the scope of their gaslighting, however, your boss or other coworkers may already believe the gaslighter’s lies. In that case, you can look into other jobs and leave the situation.
Gaslighting from a parent or sibling may not be abusive in intent. Your mom, for example, may disregard your feelings about something without meaning to hurt you. Her beliefs overpower yours, but in that example, she’s not actively trying to cause harm. Depending on the situation, you could rectify your relationship through couples and family counseling.
Online gaslighting may occur more easily because anyone can claim anything, and say someone’s wrong for nearly any reason. Politicians, celebrities, and influencers could have this effect whether they know it or not. Deleting your social media, unfollowing certain accounts, and not following specific news sources are the quickest ways to escape this gaslighting.
Your romantic partner may use gaslighting to hide their abuse1 and maintain control over the relationship. They may say they never hit you, that you’re making it up, and that you need them to define your reality since you’re lying about being hit.
They could gaslight you into believing you’re a bad partner, parent, or generally unstable, to invalidate your existence. A gaslighter also uses gaslighting to keep their partner from leaving the relationship. If you feel like your partner defines your reality, leaving them may feel impossible.
You can protect yourself from gaslighting in any context by recognizing it and learning how to respond.
Gaslighting may start small, with little offenses you barely notice. But you can immediately strategize your protection as soon as you catch their abuse.
You can create an arsenal of evidence to secure your reality by taking screenshots, recording conversations, and writing down abusive actions. If needed, you can also use your evidence to prove the gaslighter’s behavior—either to themselves or others.
Being assertive can help you feel more sure of yourself and confident in your reality. You can respond to gaslighting attempts with simple but strong replies, like:
Keep your friends and family close. They can help you feel more secure in your beliefs and experiences. Your loved ones can also point out gaslighting behavior and help you catch it before you become deeply entangled in their distortions.
Putting more space between you and the gaslighter gives them fewer opportunities to gaslight. If you can, spend less and less time with the person to lessen their influence. Set hard boundaries. You can tell them you’ll continue the conversation when they can be honest and respectful. Block them if you need to.
As an example, you could agree to see them once a week at most and keep your visits short. Only communicate when you decide to. Don’t text them if they use text conversations to gaslight you.
Setting boundaries isn’t always possible, especially in romantic relationships. In those cases, you may need to fully walk away.
Other forms of abuse may accompany gaslighting, like physical or sexual abuse. Abusers may use severe gaslighting to hide their other abusive behaviors. If you feel unsafe in your relationship, whether romantic or otherwise, you may need to leave.
A therapist can help you navigate this process safely. If you need immediate help, call your country’s emergency number or talk to the national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (or text “START” to 88788).
Any form of psychological abuse can damage your sense of self and the way you see the world. That’s why getting professional help for the effects of gaslighting can help you both now and in your future.
A therapist can help you recognize gaslighting if you’re currently experiencing it. They can also help you create a plan to leave abusive relationships or set stronger boundaries. And as you close the chapter on your gaslighter, a therapist can help you process the experience and heal from its traumas.
With their help, you can rebuild your self-confidence and self-efficacy. You can learn to trust others, including yourself. You can remove blame from yourself and see gaslighting as an issue of the perpetrator, not you. You can heal.
Sweet, Paige L. The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Association, 2019, https://www.asanet.org/wp-content/uploads/attach/journals/oct19asrfeature.pdf.
Sweet, Paige L. “How Gaslighting Manipulates Reality.” Scientific American, https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican1022-56. Accessed 30 Aug. 2023.
Tero Article | Gaslighting: A Hidden Psychological Abuse. https://www.tero.com/articles/gaslighting.php. Accessed 30 Aug. 2023.
“What Is Gaslighting?” The Hotline, https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-gaslighting/. Accessed 30 Aug. 2023.
Chase Avera, Dr. Amanda L. Gaslighting: What Is It And How Do We Fight Back? Middle Georgia State University, Apr. 2023, https://www.mga.edu/news/2023/04/what-is-gaslighting-and-how-to-fight-back.php.
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