“You’re only accusing me of that because you’re losing your mind.”
Gaslighting can have devastating effects. This sinister form of manipulation can cause its victims to question their own minds.
We want to help you learn the signs of gaslighting and equip yourself if you feel that you or a loved one have contact with a gaslighter.
Gaslighting is a type of psychological abuse. One person or a group manipulates another, making them question or doubt their own mental health.
Gaslighting tactics undermine your trust in your memories, perception, or judgment.
If you’re experiencing long-term gaslighting, you may come to believe your own memories and thoughts aren’t reliable. Your abuser positions themselves as the only one you can depend on to make decisions on your behalf.
It can be an absolute nightmare.
Where does the term “gaslighting” come from?
In the 1944 film “Gaslight,” an abusive husband isolates his new wife from her friends and begins a campaign of manipulation. This includes dimming and brightening the house’s gaslights at random, convincing her it’s all in her imagination, and making her doubt herself.
The film has a happy ending. The husband is exposed as a jewel thief and arrested, with his wife having the last laugh. (Fun bit of trivia: it also stars a young Angela Lansbury, 40 years before playing Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote.”)
History remembers “Gaslight” not as the film which gave us the star of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” but as the namesake of a particularly sinister form of mental torment. (Dunno if that’s what director George Cukor was going for, but hey. That’s history, folks.)
To help you understand and spot gaslighting, here are some examples you might encounter (or might have encountered already).
Gaslighting in a relationship
This is maybe the most common version that springs to mind. An abusive partner begins subtly undermining their other half’s judgement. They’ll accuse them of being oversensitive or overreacting to issues.
Over time, this develops into outright denying that events happened the way they remember, sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence. They’ll plant false versions of events through seemingly innocent conversation.
This is a long-term process that sometimes takes years. The end goal is to be seen as the only trustworthy, reliable person in the relationship, allowing the abuser to shape the reality and dynamic as they see fit.
Abusers often seek to isolate their victims from sources of support, leaving them particularly vulnerable and feeling alone.
A gaslighter might position themselves as the only one capable of making rational choices regarding the couple’s home or professional lives, and often their finances.
Gaslighting by parents
Parental gaslighting happens more than you may think. It can be as simple as enforcing blanket statements about the child’s character which invalidate their subjective experience.
Telling a child who’s struggling at school that they “shouldn’t be struggling” because they are “a smart kid” is gaslighting.
It can also be done to delay or avoid awkward conversations. A pubescent child dealing with hormone changes being told “You’re just grouchy!” is gaslighting. Parents might use gaslighting to shield their kids from negative emotions, rather than teaching them to understand their feelings.
Even if it’s not deliberately malicious, gaslighting can have catastrophic effects.
Gaslighting at work
Seriously, how much time have you got?
From insecure bosses desperate to protect their position to scheming colleagues trying to get ahead by any means, it’s a broad topic. Groups of toxic co-workers often collude to gaslight individuals and secure their “in-group” status.
No matter how it manifests, workplace gaslighting runs on common themes. Persistent negative narratives with no evidence on which to base them are a sure sign. Abuse presented as banter or in-jokes is another red flag.
Often, a gaslighter in the workplace will use the imbalance in the boss/employee relationship to force their victims to doubt what they know.
At its heart, gaslighting is about power and control. An insecure partner or boss might gaslight if they feel the victim is developing beyond their power and influence.
A parent might have been abused themselves and believe the only way to raise a child is by dictating what is and isn’t real to them.
Gaslighters don’t always do so with openly hostile intent, and they may not even be gaslighting on purpose. The abuser might think they’re using their position of power to provide a good environment or positive leadership for a person.
Regardless of intent, it’s still a relationship dynamic that causes more harm than potential good.
Gaslighting techniques often seem innocent at first, even playful. But they’re part of a long-term cycle of abuse, aimed at creating dependency and enforcing control.
Look out for the following if you suspect you or someone you know might be the target of gaslighting:
- blocking or diverting
- forgetting or denying
Withholding is when a gaslighter refuses to listen to their target’s concerns or pretends they can’t understand them. In effect, they’re withholding their participation in what should be a meaningful conversation.
In extreme cases, the gaslighter might accuse their victim of gaslighting.
“Don’t talk to me about this again!”
“You’re confusing me with this bullsh*t!”
In countering, the abuser confronts (or “counters”) the victim’s memory of events with an accusation or denial.
The gaslighter wears down the victim’s faith in their own recollection over time — even when the victim has evidence and knows their memory is accurate.
“That’s not how it happened. It happened like this.”
“You’re remembering things wrong again, obviously it went down this way…”
Blocking or diverting
These refer to the gaslighter either shutting down their victim’s concerns entirely or redirecting the conversation to a topic that suits them.
Usually this is done after a partner raises a serious point to make legitimate concerns seem ridiculous.
Diverting: “You’ve been watching too many dumb movies.”
“Okay, cool. Anyway, did you see the new “Falcon & Winter Soldier” episode?”
Blocking: “Nah, you just made that up.”
When trivializing, the abuser does their best to make the victim’s concerns seem small and unimportant. This could be accompanied by a form of diverting where the abuser presents their own problems as more significant.
“That’s nothing to get so angry about.”
“What I’ve been through is way more serious, get over it.”
“When did you get so sensitive?”
Forgetting or denying
In forgetting and denial, the abuser pretends not to remember events as they happened or simply claims they never took place.
This gets particularly insidious when the gaslighter uses their own “unreliable” memory to undermine the accurate memories of their victim.
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Maybe that was just a dream you had.”
How can you tell if you’re being gaslit? Given how subtle it can be, tracking the short-term effects of gaslighting can be tricky before they transition into long-term issues.
In the early stage of gaslighting, gaslighters often present their tactics as jokes or genuine concern for the victim’s well-being. If an abuser progresses too quickly, they risk driving their target away before establishing control.
For this reason, the early effects can be subtle. Targets of gaslighting might experience:
- frustration at constant arguments
- clashes with concerned friends or family members
- general irritability, tension, and a lack of concentration
Gaslighting is a long-form method of psychological and emotional abuse. The real goal is to establish control and dependency — which doesn’t happen overnight.
The long-term effects of gaslighting often result in the victim believing they have a mental health disorder.
This is then likely to have a real impact on their mental health. Feelings of anxiety could get worse over time. Dependency on their abuser might lead to feelings of isolation from friends and family. Depression may result from losing control over their lives.
When carried out as part of a wider abusive relationship, gaslighting makes it harder for an abused partner to leave. Given how often emotional abuse progresses to physical abuse, gaslighting may increase an abused partner’s risk of experiencing violence in a relationship.
If you’re experiencing gaslighting, try to remove yourself from the situation before things get worse. Of course, that can be easier said than done. But there are techniques you can learn to spot the signs of gaslighting and protect yourself.
How to counter gaslighting techniques in a relationship
If you suspect you’re being subjected to gaslighting in your relationship, it’s a good idea to begin collecting evidence. The human memory isn’t perfect, even in good faith. Hard proof is more difficult to disregard. So try the following:
- Keep a journal of key events to help prove where you and your partner were on any given day. Be sure to record dates and times in a clear, consistent manner.
- Digital evidence is even better. Photos, videos, and voice recordings are very difficult to argue with.
- Speak to someone you trust, and tell them about what you’re experiencing. Two memories are harder to dispute than one.
- Using cloud storage or emailing evidence to a trusted friend or family member helps reduce the risk of your evidence being discovered or tampered with.
How to leave an abusive relationship
If you suspect you’re in an abusive relationship, get help as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Realize that there are reasons your partner, parent, boss, or other abuser is gaslighting you — but their reasons aren’t your problem. Your priority should always be your own mental and physical well-being.
Speak to a friend or family member to tell them what’s happening if you can. If you can’t, look for a dedicated helpline in your area who can refer you to assistance. If you suspect your phone or computer is being monitored, make use of your browser’s incognito or private browsing mode.
How to recover from gaslighting
Moving on from an abusive relationship where gaslighting took place can be a long process. Give yourself plenty of time to remember what it felt like to trust your own memories, and rely on the evidence of your own senses.
Therapy can help — particularly group therapy or support groups where others have had similar experiences. This could go some way to countering feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Counseling from those with specific experience in dealing with abusive relationships can also equip you with helpful techniques.
You won’t feel as “crazy” in a room full of people who’ve been falsely told the same thing.
Gaslighting is truly vile. Few forms of psychological abuse rival causing someone to question their own minds. It’s especially tasteless today, when focus on mental well-being is long overdue.
If it happens to you, it’s vital you remember that it’s not your fault. Learn the signs, distance yourself from the problem, and remember who you can trust. You’re not on your own!