What Is Gaslighting?

What Is Gaslighting?


Gaslighting means to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity (Google).

The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play, “Gas Light.” The movie “Gaslight” was more widely known in 1944. A husband manipulates his wife to make her believe she is losing her grip on reality, so he can commit her to a mental institution and take her inheritance. Robin Stern, PhD says, “Not all real-life examples are so diabolical.”

Gaslighting is a tactic used to gain more power. It causes the victim to question his or her own reality.

Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting. It is a common technique used by abusers, dictators, cult leaders, and narcissists.

Gaslighting is done slowly, so the victim is unaware of how much he or she has been brainwashed.

The people who gaslight generally use the following techniques:

  1. They tell huge, blatant lies. The victim is usually aware that it is a lie, but it is told with a straight face. The lies are blatant because the one doing the gaslighting is setting up a precedent. Once the huge, blatant lie is told, the victim is not sure if anything said is true. The goal is to keep the victim off-kilter and unsteady.
  2. They deny saying something, even when there is evidence it was said. The victim is positive they said they were going to do something, however, it is outright denied. This makes the victim start to question their own reality – maybe the person did not say it after all. The more this is done, the more the victim starts to accept the reality of the abuser.
  3. They use ammunition that is near and dear to the victim. They know how important the victim’s children are and they know how important the victim’s identity is to them. These may be the first things attacked. The abuser will tell the victim they never should have had children. They will say the victim would be a worthy person if they did not have a long list of negative traits. They attack the very foundation of the victim’s being.
  4. They wear the victim down over time. One of the insidious things about gaslighting is that it is done slowly over time. A lie here and there, a snide comment now and then…and then things start to ramp up. Even the most intelligent, most self-aware people can be subjected to gaslighting – it is that effective. It is the frog in the pot analogy: The heat is turned up slowly, so the frog is not aware that it is soon boiling.
  5. Their actions do not match their words. When dealing with someone who gaslights, observe their actions, not the words they are saying. What is being said means nothing; it is just talk. What is actually being done is the issue.
  6. They use positive reinforcement to cause confusion. This person cuts down the victim, saying that they do not have value. Then suddenly, they are praising the victim for something they did. This adds to the sense of uneasiness. The victim believes the abuser is not so bad after all. This is a calculated attempt to keep the victim off-kilter – and again, to question their own reality. The victim needs to pay attention to what they are being praised for, because it is most likely something that served the abuser.
  7. Gaslighters know confusion weakens people. Gaslighters are aware that people prefer to have a sense of normalcy and stability. The goal it to uproot this sense of safety and make the victim constantly question everything. Humans have a natural tendency to look to the one that will help them feel more stable – the gaslighter.
  8. They project. Gaslighters are drug users or cheaters and they are constantly accusing the victim of their hang-ups. This is done so regularly that the victim begins to defend themselves and they are distracted from the gaslighter’s behavior.
  9. They attempt to align people against the victim. They are master manipulators and find people that will stand by them no matter what, and they use others against their victim. They will say things like, “This person knows that you’re not right,” or “This person knows that you’re useless too.” This does not mean that these people said these negative things. Gaslighters are consistent liars. When this tactic is used against the victim, it makes the victim feel like they do not know who to trust or turn to – and they are led back to the gaslighter. Isolation gives gaslighters more control.
  10. Gaslighters tell others that the victim is crazy. This is one of the most effective tools the gaslighter uses because is it dismissive. They know if they question the victim’s sanity, people will not believe the victim when he or she tells people the gasligher is abusive or out-of-control. This is a master technique.
  11. They tell the victim that everyone else is a liar. By telling the victim that everyone else (family, the media, or friends) is lying, it makes the victim further question their reality. They have never known someone with the audacity to say such things, so they must be telling the truth, right? It is a manipulation technique, it is not the truth. It makes people turn to the gaslighter for the correct information, which is not at all correct.

Stern is the associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of “The Gaslight Effect,” says “The danger of letting go of your reality is pretty extreme.”

‘The Gaslight Effect’

It may start with offenses that seem small, however, the problem is these instances cause a person to question their own judgement or reality due to the deliberate intent of someone else. This effect can snowball. This can lead to a person being unable to function in their daily life. It takes away one’s sense of being clear-minded, keeps them from focusing, making sound decisions, and having a sense of well-being.

Gaslighting occurs in personal and professional relationships and by public figures. Stern even states that President Donald J. Trump and his administration have exhibited gaslighting behaviors.

Gaslighting usually happens in a power dynamic, but it’s not always intentional or malicious.

The target is afraid to change the relationship or leave the gaslighting dynamic because of the threat of losing the relationship or being seen as less than they are, according to Stern.

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT, a marriage and family practice therapist in private practice and author of “Codependency for Dummies and Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You,” explains that if gaslighting is happening to a loved one,

you’re going to WANT to believe the other person – and the gaslighter may use that against you.

Targets, or victims, change their perceptions to avoid conflict, adds Lancer. However, the gaslighter may not be acting with malicious intent. He may not even realize he is gaslighting another person, says Stern.

Gaslighting Without Malicious Intent

It could be a result of one’s upbringing. Maybe his parents had cut-and-dry beliefs and that is how they, and now the gaslighter, view the world. Sometimes when people see things differently, the gaslighter believes that worldview is wrong. Some people have a worldview that does not allow them to question what they are seeing or understanding to be true.

For example: “Maybe you’re upset because you think your boyfriend is always flirting with other girls. What you don’t see is that it’s the girls that are flirting with him and he’s just being polite. But your worldview doesn’t allow you to question that maybe you’re getting the situation wrong. You make him think you know more about relationships and there’s something wrong with him, that he’s not able to see the ‘error’ in his ways.”

If people are questioning themselves often, they should be aware of any gaslighting that may be happening. Gaslighting can start in slight and subtle ways. It also involves two people or groups of people who seem to care about one another.

An example of subtle gaslighting would be a mother who constantly disapproves of her daughter’s decisions. Eventually, the daughter begins to question her decisions, suspecting that her mother would not approve. The mother may bot be intentionally trying to control her daughter’s decisions, but by being critical she is controlling her daughter.

Another example would be when a popular high school student causes another student to question his feeling, or judgement. When the latter student asks the popular student why he did not sit at the lunch table, the popular student responds, “Why are you being so sensitive? It’s not that big of a deal. I didn’t realize you didn’t have a seat.”

How Gaslighters Operate

Here are some techniques a gaslighter may use to manipulate another person, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s fact sheet.

  1. Withholding: refusing to listen or says they do not understand;
  2. Countering: when the abuser questions the victim’s memory of an event;
  3. Blocking/Diverting: the abuser changes the subject or questions the victim’s thinking;
  4. Trivializing: making the victim’s feelings or needs seem unimportant;
  5. Forgetting/Denial: when the gaslighter pretends to forget what happened or denies something he previously agreed to do.

Often, a gaslighter will start with something that is true that the target is sensitive about to hook him. For example, a coworker may try to say that the victim is not pulling his own weight at the office and may bring up the fact that the victim complains all the time about something personal. The victim may have complained about that something specific once or twice, but it does not affect work performance, according to Stern.

Warning Signs

  • The victim is constantly second guessing him/herself;
  • Ruminating about at perceived character flaw;
  • Feel concerned about a relationship, for example, “I thought I had this great husband, but I just feel crazy all the time;”
  • In a confrontation with the gaslighter, the victim suddenly finds his/herself in a argument they did not intend to have, the victim is not progressing in the argument or is repeating his/herself and not being heard;
  • The victim will feel unclear about his/her own thoughts, feelings, or beliefs;
  • The target is always apologizing;
  • The victim is often making excuses for his/her partner’s behavior;
  • The target is not happy;
  • Aware that something is wrong, but unsure as to what that may be.

What to Do If the Victim of a Gaslighter:

  1. Identify the problem. According to Stern, the first step is to recognize there is a problem. “Once something has a name you can begin to address is specifically and granularly.” Writing down specifics from a conversation that can be referred to later can be helpful in separating fact from fiction.
  2. The target needs to give his or herself permission to feel what they are feeling. Gaslighters make people question their own thoughts, perceptions, values, and feelings.
  3. The victim must allow themselves the freedom to make a sacrifice. The abuser is someone the victim cares about, looks up to, or has a relationship with. Stern says, “You may have a lot of wonderful things going on in that relationship, but it’s not worth it if it’s undermining your reality.” In order for the victim to regain his or her sense of self, it may be necessary to give up some of those wonderful things.
  4. Start with small decisions. Say no. Do not engage in an argument that is a power struggle.
  5. Get a second opinion.
  6. The victim must have compassion for him or herself. Stern says, “Maybe tomorrow your partner will be great, but focus on what you’re feeling in the moment. Recognize when you have those feelings: Right now this feels like sh-t. He’s driving me crazy.”

Even if the person is not gaslighting intentionally, or with malicious intent, it is dangerous for the victim to lose their sense of self. It can take years of therapy to heal the wounds caused by gaslighting. Tread carefully.

By Jeanette Smith


Google Definitions
Psychology Today:
11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting
NBC News: What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you?

Top Image Courtesy of Jane Fox’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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