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What is Gaslighting?

article

Sarah Winnig, MA

Gaslighting is a type of manipulation that causes a person to doubt their own beliefs, sanity, or memory.


Gaslighters undermine the trust a person has in their reality. They create a world in which the victim’s point of view is untrustworthy, dysfunctional, or wrong.

Rather than a single event, gaslighting tends to occur over weeks or years. The gaslighter steadily chips away at the victim’s self-confidence and well-being. Over time, the victim’s self-doubt can lead them to feel confused, scared, and unhappy.

Gaslighting can occur in romantic relationships, friendships, families, and in the workplace.

Gaslighting Examples

Why Do People Gaslight?

Gaslighting is often used as a method of control over another person. When someone begins to doubt their own memory or sanity, they may come to depend on the gaslighter to make sense of things. In this way, the gaslighter is elevated to a position of power or authority.

Additionally, gaslighting invalidates the victim’s point of view. The victim is made out to be wrong or not to be trusted, so that the gaslighter always has the upper hand in the relationship. The gaslighter becomes the only one in the relationship who can be trusted.

How Does Gaslighting Work?

The gaslighter convinces the victim they are wrong, misremembering, or are mentally unwell. They might say things such as “that never happened” or “you’re crazy.” Initially, the victim may not be convinced. However, the gaslighter is persistent, and over time the victim comes to believe the gaslighter’s point of view.

Common Gaslighting Tactics
  • Denial: The gaslighter tells the victim an event or conversation didn’t happen, or didn’t happen the way the victim saw it.
    • “I never said that.”
    • “That’s not how it happened at all!”
  • Distraction: The gaslighter interrupts the victim or tries to change the subject.
    • “Can we talk about something else instead?”
    • “Hey, let’s go get something to eat first.”
  • Ignoring or avoidance: The gaslighter refuses to engage in conversation with the victim or address their concerns.
    • The gaslighter turns up the volume on the TV to drown out the victim.
    • The gaslighter leaves the house and doesn’t return for hours.
  • Minimization or trivializing: The gaslighter makes light of a serious situation or accusation.
    • “Whatever, it was nothing.”
    • “It’s not a big deal anyway.”
  • Projection: The gaslighter accuses the victim of the very behavior in which they are engaging.
    • “I’m not having an affair. Maybe you’re the one with something to hide!”
    • “Sounds like you might be lying about something.”
  • Put-downs: The gaslighter insults and degrades the victim so they come to doubt themselves.
    • “You’re an idiot; you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
    • “You sound crazy when you talk like that.”
  • Sabotage: The gaslighter undermines the victim in order to make them seem incompetent.
    • Throwing away the victim's mail so they can't pay a bill on time.
    • Damaging the victim's car so they cannot leave the house.
  • Threats: The gaslighter threatens a negative outcome for not trusting them or their perspective.
    • “If you can’t see things my way, this relationship is over.”
    • “You’ll get the kids taken away if you keep saying that!”
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Gaslighters often enlist others—friends, children, or other family members—to bolster support for their tactics. For example, they may tell others that the victim is “crazy” and is not to be trusted.

The Experience of a Gaslighting Victim

A victim of gaslighting is likely to feel deep self-doubt. Additionally, they may feel confused, hurt, and sad.

Victims of gaslighting may...
Question their beliefs Feel they are “going crazy” Doubt their memory
Have trouble making decisions Feel confused, scared, or unhappy Have low self-esteem
Have trouble explaining their situation Feel dependent on the gaslighter Feel their emotions are not valid
Victims might think or say...
“I’m not sure what I think anymore.” “I guess I must have gotten it wrong.”
“I can’t tell what’s real anymore.” “I don’t even know what’s going on.”

How to Defend Against Gaslighting

  1. Keep a journal to record your reality. Document events and conversations from your own perspective while they are still fresh in your mind.
  2. Review the situations in which you were gaslit. Recall events from your own perspective, not the gaslighter’s.
  3. Trust yourself, again and again. Your memories, thoughts, and beliefs are valid. Learn to overcome doubt and trust yourself once again.
  4. Talk to people you trust. Share your situation with others who understand and support you.
  5. End your relationship with the gaslighter. Healthy relationships involve honesty and safety. If you feel unsafe in your relationship, separate yourself from the gaslighter.