Chances are you have heard the term gaslighting; it was even Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2022. The psychology buzzword has been heavily used (and misused!) in recent years, which can, unfortunately, dilute its meaning. The definition of gaslighting is “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.” But when we look at the word’s origins and application to a specific, covert form of emotional abuse, the term requires a much more in-depth description. Words hold incredible power, so we must define gaslighting correctly to know how to best identify and respond to it when we experience or see it.
The origin of the term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play-turned-movie called Gaslight. The story is about a man, Gregory, who repeatedly manipulates his wife, Paula, about things she sees and hears, including footsteps in the night and the house’s gaslights dimming without being touched. To cover for a crime he has committed, he continues to dismantle his wife’s trust in her senses and perception of reality, ultimately driving her to a tortured questioning of her own sanity.
The first step in protecting yourself from gaslighting is being able to recognize that it’s happening as soon as possible. Once you can spot the techniques, it’s easier to detach from the gaslighter’s manipulation and ground yourself back into your own reality.
If you are experiencing any kind of domestic abuse, help is available.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
- Text START to 88788
- Chat https://www.thehotline.org/
Gaslighting 101: 6 common techniques
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and expert on narcissism, describes gaslighting as a multi-step process that includes denying someone’s reality, perception, or experience and dismantling their self-esteem by attributing their error to something wrong with them.
Gaslighting can include many different techniques. Recognizing the various tactics is essential to avoid falling into the gaslighter’s traps.
- Lying and rewriting history
- Outright denying things they said, questioning the victim’s memory of events
- Blame-shifting, criticizing, bullying, and shaming
- Distraction techniques like tone-policing, changing the subject, pretending not to understand, or refusing to listen at all
- Minimizing and trivializing the victim’s experience, needs, and feelings
- Preying on the victim’s emotions and empathy with gaslighting phrases like “You know how much I love you. I would never hurt you on purpose” or “If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t have married you in the first place or stuck by your side this whole time.”
For example, Chloe and her boyfriend, Kyle, are hosting a dinner party with friends. During the evening, Kyle berates Chloe in front of their friends for overcooking the dinner, despite everyone else saying the meal was excellent. After their guests left, Chloe tried to share with Kyle that she felt embarrassed by his comments. She defended herself by explaining that she followed the recipe and believed everyone enjoyed the meal. Kyle immediately raises his voice, responding, “You’re so naive, everyone was just being nice, but no one enjoyed that dinner. You’re not a good cook, so I’m not surprised you got the recipe wrong. And I don’t know why you’re so sensitive about me telling you the meal was terrible; I’m the only one being honest with you. You don’t know what a real relationship is like because your dad left when you were a kid.”
As you can see, gaslighting is not just lying, a difference of opinion, or challenging someone’s beliefs. Gaslighting is about power and dominance. The gaslighter needs to be right, and needs the gaslightee to feel small and go along with them to maintain control and strengthen their weakened sense of self. Gaslighting is a specific tactic to undermine someone’s sense of reality, weaken someone’s trust in their instincts and emotions, and create a culture of confusion where the gaslighter can define reality however they choose.
It is also important to note that although narcissists often use gaslighting, many people who are not narcissists can gaslight intentionally or unintentionally. When you become aware of and empathetic to the damage gaslighting can cause others, you can change unhealthy and abusive behavior patterns.
The gaslight effect
For the gaslighter to wield this much power, they have to be in a position of influence over the person they are gaslighting, like a romantic partner, parent, boss, medical expert, etc. The gaslightee trusts or needs this person, and their opinion is critical. Remember, the multi-step process of gaslighting is vital for its effectiveness.
As Dr. Robin Stern outlines in her book The Gaslight Effect, individuals caught in a gaslighting cycle aren’t immediately convinced when their reality is first challenged. Those who are being gaslit are eventually bullied or tricked into merging with the gaslighter’s reality. This merging might sound like, “Maybe you have a point after all; I can be overly sensitive about things,” or “You are right that I don’t always trust people easily because of my family history. I shouldn’t have doubted you. I know you love me.”
Many people can be vulnerable to gaslighting, no matter how strong, intelligent, and competent they are. But you may be more vulnerable due to a history of trauma, low self-esteem, a desire to avoid conflict, a strong need for validation from others, idealizing your gaslighter, or having a tendency to overly empathize and explain away problematic behaviors.
How to recognize gaslighting in your relationship
Gaslighting can be challenging to recognize due to the culture of confusion the gaslighter creates. Here are some other signs that you may be experiencing active gaslighting in a romantic relationship:
- You often feel confused and powerless after leaving an interaction that suddenly or surprisingly went off the rails.
- You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times a day.
- You feel ungrateful because although your life looks good on paper, you still aren’t happy.
- You find yourself much more preoccupied with what your partner thinks than what you think.
- Your instincts tell you something is wrong, but you can’t quite name or explain it.
- You start avoiding specific topics of conversation or withholding information from your partner to avoid any potential pushback or conflict.
- You have the sense that you used to be a very different person— more confident, fun-loving, and relaxed- but don’t know when you changed or how to return to that state.
- You constantly question your judgment, second-guess yourself, and struggle to make simple decisions.
- You often feel inadequate, like you’re never good enough or that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.
- You often feel like you’re the problem (due to past trauma or mental health diagnoses) and have disproportionate work to do to resolve your relational issues.
- You often feel numb, stuck, or in survival mode. You avoid feeling anything about your relationship because it would be too overwhelming or confusing to unpack.
What to do if you’re being gaslit
If you suspect you are being actively gaslit by your romantic partner or someone in a position of influence over you, talk to someone you trust. Verify your experience with as much evidence as possible, and consider keeping a journal to document. It is essential to build confidence and trust yourself and your instincts.
It can be difficult to directly challenge a gaslighter, especially when dealing with someone with narcissistic traits. If your gaslighter is a narcissist, you will unlikely be able to convince them to own their behaviors. Calling them out and starting a fight will often only make you vulnerable to more gaslighting behaviors and escalated conflict. In these cases, step back and reconsider your goal. It may be more worthwhile to focus on strengthening your narrative. You’ll likely find more success and solace moving forward with your priorities for your day, week, or year than getting caught up trying to prove yourself to your gaslighting partner.
When you separate yourself from the gaslighting cycle, you can gain the clarity you need to determine your best next steps. You can work towards real change in your relationship with the help of a couples therapist or choose the sometimes necessary path of uncoupling to preserve your health and happiness.
If you’re experiencing gaslighting, a therapist can help.
We can help you identify and address the impact of gaslighting in your relationship. If you’re interested in scheduling an individual counseling appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, contact us to get started.