Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group causes someone to question their own self, intuition, memories, or perception of reality. People who experience gaslighting may often feel confused, anxious, or as though they cannot trust themselves.
Typically, gaslighting occurs in relationships as a way of gaining power and control over someone else. It works by breaking down a person’s trust in themselves while increasing how much they trust or depend on the abusive person. Gaslighting occurs most often in romantic relationships. Although, it can occur in other situations, as well.
The term “gaslighting” has become a buzz word in recent years. In 2022, Merriam-Webster made “gaslighting” the word of the year. However, the term has been around for decades. “Gaslighting” comes from the name of a 1938 play and 1944 film, Gaslight, in which a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she has a mental illness.
Examples of gaslighting.According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting can happen in a variety of ways. Some examples include:
Denial. Denial involves a person refusing to take responsibility for their actions. They may do this by pretending to forget what happened, saying they did not do it, or blaming their behavior on someone else.
Trivializing. This occurs when a person belittles or disregards how someone else feels. They may accuse them of being “too sensitive” or overreacting in response to valid and reasonable concerns.
Countering. This is when someone questions a person’s memory. They may say things such as, “Are you sure about that? You have a bad memory,” or “I think you are forgetting what really happened.”
Withholding. This involves someone pretending they do not understand the conversation, or refusing to listen, to make a person doubt themselves. For example, they might say, “Now you are just confusing me,” or “I do not know what you are talking about.”
Diverting. With this technique, a person changes the focus of a discussion by questioning the other person’s credibility. For example, they might say, “That is just nonsense you read on the internet. It is not real.”
Stereotyping. An article in the American Sociological Review says that a person may intentionally use negative stereotypes about someone’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age to gaslight them. For example, they may say that no one will believe a woman if she reports abuse.
Where can gaslighting occur?
Gaslighting can occur in various situations. Some examples are listed below:
In relationships, an abusive person may use gaslighting to isolate their partner, undermine their confidence, and make them easier to control. For example, they might tell someone they are being “dramatic” or “irrational” until the person starts to think it must be true.
Abusive parents or caregivers may gaslight children to undermine them. For example, when a child cries, they may say they are “too sensitive” to shame them and make them stop crying.
According to the CPTSD Foundation, medical gaslighting is when a medical professional dismisses a person’s health concerns as being the product of their imagination. They may tell the person their symptoms are “in their head” or label them a hypochondriac.
Institutional gaslighting may occur within a company, organization, or institution, such as a hospital or school. For example, they may portray whistleblowers who report problems as “irrational” or “incompetent”, or deceive employees about their rights.
Signs of gaslighting.
People who experience gaslighting can find it difficult to recognize the signs. They may trust the abusive person or believe that they truly do have a poor memory. However, if a person often feels unsure, second-guesses themselves, or relies on someone else to confirm their memories or help them make simple decisions, this may be due to gaslighting.
Some potential signs that someone is experiencing gaslighting include:
- Feeling uncertain of their perceptions.
- Frequently questioning if they are remembering things correctly.
- Believing they are “irrational” or “crazy.”
- Feeling incompetent, unconfident, or worthless.
- Constantly apologizing to the abusive person.
- Defending the abusive person’s behavior to others.
- Becoming withdrawn or isolated from others.
Long-term effects of gaslighting may contribute to anxiety, depression, and trauma.
What to do when gaslighting happens to you.
Gaslighting has a significant impact on an individual’s mental health, so people who experience it need to make sure they get help. There are several ways to protect oneself from this form of abuse. Some helpful things to do if you are experiencing gaslighting include:
Keeping a secret diary. In a diary or journal, a person can record the date, time, and details of what happened soon after they experience it, and they can refer back to it later.
Talking to someone trustworthy. Confiding in a friend, family member, or counselor may help someone gain perspective on their situation. The person can also act as a witness to events.
Taking pictures. Photographs can also help someone “fact check” their memories.
Keeping voice memos. A device that can record sound can work as a quick way for someone to describe events in their own words.
This type of evidence can also be useful if a person decides to pursue legal action against the abusive person or organization. However, check state laws on recordings before using them in court.
Safety plans are tools people can use to protect themselves from abuse. Depending on the situation, here are some ideas that may be helpful:
- A list of safe places to go.
- Escape routes so a person can flee.
- Emergency contact details.
- Ideas for self-care to help a person cope.
- A plan to safely leave the relationship, home, or situation.
When to seek help.
Anyone who believes they are experiencing abuse of any kind should seek support. Over time, emotional abuse may escalate into physical violence. Even if the abuse does not become physical, gaslighting and similar behaviors can significantly undermine a person’s self-esteem and mental health.
If you or someone you know are in immediate danger or domestic violence, please call 911 or seek other emergency help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also available 24/7 for support at 800-799-7233.
Contact a domestic abuse organization for advice and help with creating a safety plan. Therapy can also be extremely helpful in situations of gaslighting to help process and work through thoughts, feelings, anxiety, depression, and the trauma experienced. When you are ready to talk to a professional counselor, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Davis, S. (2020.) Medical and Mental Gaslighting and Iatrogenic Injury. https://cptsdfoundation.org/2020/06/08/medical-and-mental-health-gaslighting-and-iatrogenic-injury/
Sweet, P. L. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851–875. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122419874843
“Conflict”, Courtesy of Getty Images, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Pointing the Finger”, Courtesy of Adi Goldstein, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Upset”, Courtesy of Blake Cheek, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License
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