What Is Gaslighting? A Sneaky Kind Of Emotional Abuse
Updated November 05, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn
Have you ever been made to feel like you are too emotional or that the things you believe to be true are only your mind playing tricks on you? Do you know someone who constantly makes you feel anxious, makes you question your own sanity or leaves you feeling like you constantly need to apologize? If this sounds familiar, you may be a victim of gaslighting.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is the act of manipulating someone using psychological efforts to make them question their own sanity. It is a severe form of emotional abuse that often leads them to question their own memories, thoughts or events that have happened. If the behavior is not stopped, it can result in a victim doubting and losing their own sense of identity and self-worth.
Gaslighting can occur in any type of relationship, whether personal or professional. It is a common technique used by abusive spouses or intimate partners, narcissists and people who try to control large groups of people such as cult leaders. The effects of gaslighting can often be devastating.
The term gaslighting comes from a stage play that eventually became a film. The 1944 movie Gaslight tells the story of a woman who married young. Her husband was manipulative and controlling. In his attempts to control her, he began to manipulate her environment in ways that made her question her sanity. The lights in the home in the film were gas. The husband would dim the gas lights and make them flicker and would deny that anything was happening when she mentioned it. He would tell her she was crazy and that nothing was wrong with them. The emotional trauma she experienced was severe. In the end, the woman found someone who helped her prove that she was not losing her mind and that the events were happening and not her imagination, and she left the marriage.
Abuse comes in many forms and it does not discriminate because of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Abuse can be physical, mental, emotional, sexual or financial. Being yelled at, hit, threatened, or constantly berated are a few examples of abuse. Having sex or money withheld are also ways people can be abused. These are the more obvious forms of abuse. Gaslighting, on the other hand, is not as easy to detect. In fact, victims are often so overwhelmed by the abuser’s behavior and the self-doubt that it causes that it may take a long time to realize what is happening and to get help.
Signs of Gaslighting
Gaslighting may take on different forms and often happens in stages. Some of the most common signs of gaslighting include:
Denial to confuse you: The abusive person denies they said something, even if there is proof of their lie. Even if you know what you heard or saw, and if the abusive person knows you heard or saw it, a person who is gaslighting will deny the reality of a situation and try to make a victim feel as if they imagined everything.
Lies about you: They tell lies and act shocked if you confront them with the truth. People who gaslight victims are generally not sneaky about lies, but rather tell lies with such fervor it can leave you questioning why you ever doubted them.
Actions speak louder than words! If you are involved with someone who tries to gaslight you, pay attention to what they are doing, not what they are saying. They commonly use words to twist the truth and to make you question your own sanity. Observe their actions and trust your gut instinct.
Fake praise or appreciation: A person who gaslights others will often use fake praise or acts of appreciation leaving you wondering if they are truly abusive or if you misunderstood. Most often, this is simply an attempt to throw you off balance emotionally. One sign of fake praise or appreciation is to pay attention to what you are being praised for. Gaslighters typically offer signs of appreciation if your actions accomplished something that served them or their agenda.
Projection: This is the act of accusing someone else for your own shortcomings or faults. For example, if a gaslighter is cheating in a relationship, they may accuse you of being unfaithful. This is a ploy gaslighters often use to take the focus off themselves and their poor behavior.
Manipulation: People who are gaslighters are typically master manipulators. One way they try to manipulate victims is to use friends or loved ones against them. In many cases, the friend or loved one is not even aware of what the gaslighter is saying or doing. For instance, a gaslighter may tell you things to make you think others don’t really care for you like, “They don’t care about you. If they did, don’t you think they’d come around more often?” or “She knows you will never find anyone like me.” These kinds of statements are often enough to make victims isolate from others who may be helpful or supportive. This gives the gaslighter even more control over a victim’s life.
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What makes a person think that it’s okay to manipulate or confuse someone else and how can you identify them? While there is not a gaslighter personality disorder. Rather, there are personality traits that may signal to you that a person is a gaslighter.
Gaslighters often exhibit what many refer to as an authoritarian personality. People with this type of personality typically see no faults in themselves but find it very easy to point out the faults or shortcomings of others.
It is not uncommon for gaslighters to have a clinical personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder, often referred to as sociopathy or psychopathy is a personality disorder that is characteristic of lack of empathy or concern for others, manipulation, and mind control. While not everyone with antisocial personality disorder is physically violent, some are. If you believe you are in a relationship with a sociopath or psychopath, it is important to seek help and establish a plan of safety to protect yourself.
Narcissistic personality disorder is another personality disorder that is common among gaslighters. People with narcissistic personality disorder have an inflated sense of self-esteem. They tend to make everything about them and being easily offended if others do not pay them special attention who appear to adore them. A narcissistic gaslighter will likely manipulate any situation she can to make it benefit them in some way. They may pretend to be helping their victims, but in fact, their behavior usually has an agenda that is self-serving.
What’s the Agenda Behind Gaslighting Behavior?
Gaslighting behavior is often fueled by a person’s desire to have control or gain things they want without having to work for those benefits or taking responsibility for their actions. Some people who gaslight others may convince themselves that what they are doing to you is for your good and that you should appreciate them. Although their behavior may suggest otherwise, they often feel intense anxiety with the thought of losing you. Unfortunately, as much as targets of gaslighting want to feel loved or wanted, gaslighters generally don’t reciprocate those feelings. Their emotional connection is more rooted in control and manipulation than anything loving or caring.
Whether your gaslighter understands what they’re doing or not, their behavior can be damaging to you if you don’t get help. Gaslighters don’t want their victims to think for themselves, make decisions or have their own friends or personal life. Putting yourself ahead of them is out of the question. Gaslighters want total control and they are usually very skilled at getting it. If you are in a relationship with a person who is gaslighting you, seek help and guidance to protect your emotional well-being.
Gaslighting in Relationships
Although gaslighting can happen in any relationship, it is more common in marriages or committed relationships. In these types of relationships, couples generally spend more time together which gives a gaslighter more opportunity to manipulate and control a victim without the interference of others.
A gaslighter who is unfaithful in a relationship may try to convince their partner that they are crazy or imagining things, even if the partner is sure they saw an inappropriate text message or heard a conversation to suggest otherwise. When victims try to confront a gaslighter, they often employ tactics to make them second-guess what they saw or heard. The old saying, “I really don’t want you, but I don’t want anyone else to have you” is a good example of how a gaslighter works. Their desire to have a person in their life is more of a control issue than a love issue. If a victim of gaslighting leaves, an abuser has to find someone else to groom and condition to the abuse.
Gaslighting in relationships that are not romantic can happen too. Adult children may make their parents feel like they are incapable of caring for themselves and that no one is available to offer them support to convince them to be admitted to a nursing home. The parent may be independent and still capable of self-care and provision, but the adult child who is gaslighting may not want to be bothered and uses tactics to make them question their ability to remain self-sufficient. They may move things in the home to a different place to confuse the parent and then act like the parent is forgetful. This may occur because the gaslighter doesn’t want the eventual responsibility of caring for an aging parent or because he wants control of the parent’s home or other possessions.
Gaslighting at Work
Gaslighting at work can cause disruptions in your work performance and have a negative impact on your emotional and physical health. When someone gaslights you at work, it may cause you to lose focus and have trouble performing your duties. The intense stress of being gaslighted can cause you to make mistakes you’ve never made before or avoid required meetings.
Examples of gaslighting at work include:
- The gaslighter tells you they told you to do a job, but you know they never did.
- The person gaslighting you moves things in the work environment and then tries to convince you that you moved it yourself or imagined where it originally was.
- Someone gaslights you by reporting you for not doing your job correctly when you know you didn’t make the reported mistakes.
Gaslighting Techniques to Watch Out For
People who gaslight someone tend to use specific techniques. These include:
- Countering: telling you that you remember something incorrectly
- Trivializing: making you feel like your thoughts and feelings don’t matter
- Withholding: keeping money or affection from you
- Stonewalling: refusing to listen or engage with you in conversation
- Blocking: changing the subject
- Diverting: questioning the validity of your thoughts
- Forgetting: pretending to forget things that happened
- Denying: telling you something never happened
- Faking compassion: telling you they’re doing something harmful for your good
- Discrediting: convincing others, you’re insane or unstable
- Reframing: twisting your thoughts, behaviors, and experiences to favor their perspective
Gaslighters generally have no problem using short sentences and phrases that pack a big punch. These statements are typically used to make you question your own memory, thoughts, or abilities. Learning to recognize signs of gaslighting and knowing when to seek help can help you protect yourself from long-term emotional trauma. If you hear the following statements often, you may be a victim of gaslighting. “I don’t want to hear that.”
- “You need to stop trying to confuse me.”
- “You’re wrong.”
- “You remember it wrong.”
- “Where did you get that crazy idea?”
- “Your imagination is getting the best of you.”
- “It didn’t happen that way.”
- “You know I’m right.”
- “You’re too sensitive.”
- “I only do it because I love you.”
- “You get angry so easily.”
- “You’re too sensitive.”
- “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
- “You’re making that up.”
- “Calm down!”
Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors Associated with Being Gaslighted
When someone gaslights you, your thoughts, feelings, and actions may change dramatically. While you once may have felt confident or self-assured, you may now feel like you can’t trust your mind. Take some time to upon how your thoughts toward yourself or others may have changed since being a relationship with someone who gaslights you.
“A trained therapist can help you understand what you’ve experienced and helped you to set boundaries or get out of the relationship altogether. You don’t need to figure it out by yourself, and you should seek help.”
The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes what to watch for. Here is a quick checklist to guide you:
- Do you second-guess yourself often?
- Do you find yourself wondering whether you’re too sensitive?
- Do you feel confused a lot of the time?
- Do you feel like you’re ‘going crazy?’
- Do you notice that you apologize to someone often?
- Do you wonder why you can’t seem to be happy when you have so much?
- Do you make excuses for the gaslighter?
- Do you have an overwhelming sense that something’s wrong, even if you don’t know what it is?
- Do you often lie to avoid your partner’s, boss’s, or co-worker’s criticisms?
- Is it hard for you to make simple decisions?
- Do you feel hopeless?
- Do you feel like a loser who can’t do anything right?
- Do you question whether you’re good enough for your partner or job?
How to Deal with Gaslighting
If you are the victim of gaslighting, it’s important to understand that this is abuse. It is an emotional abuse tactic that can leave you feeling unsure about yourself, others, and life in general. If victims of gaslighting do not get help, it can have a long-lasting effect on both mental and physical well-being. Additionally, being victimized by a gaslighter may leave you questioning if it is possible to have any healthy relationship.
If you believe you are the victim of gaslighting, there are some things you can do to help yourself.
Dealing with Gaslighting In Relationships
Gaslighting in relationships can be even more difficult than gaslighting at work, especially if you’ve been in the relationship for a long time. Whether you’re a newlywed just finding out that your new husband is a gaslighter or if you’ve been married to someone for years without realizing it, you may feel overwhelmed by the realization of what is happening to you.
If you are dating someone who is manipulating you, it is best to end the relationship and seek counseling to help you deal with the emotional trauma. While the option that may seem obvious to others is to leave the relationship immediately, if you are married to or live with a gaslighter, you may not feel like you can leave right away.
Keep a journal of things that happen. Write down your thoughts and feelings. If possible, find a trusted friend or family member that you can confide in to discuss your concerns.
You may not be able to change a gaslighter, but you can do things to strengthen and protect yourself. It’s important to understand that, no matter what a gaslighter tells you, their behavior is not your fault. It’s okay to set boundaries and expect them to be respected. Be prepared, though, a gaslighter may try to insinuate that you are crazy for needing boundaries and tell you that if you love them you wouldn’t set rules. This is a manipulation tactic. Stay steady and don’t accept their manipulative behavior. Online therapy has been proven to reduce symptoms caused by trauma.