You may think you’ve heard the term “gaslighting”, but it’s actually just your mind playing tricks on you. You might even be going crazy. Better to just let us explain to you what the phenomenon really means. Those are all the kinds of things we might say if we really were trying to gaslight you – because the truth is, you probably have heard of this type of behavior, even if you’re not totally clear on what it is, exactly.
Originating from the title of the 1938 thriller play Gas Light, the term has shot up in usage and popularity in recent years: pretty much anybody on a social media platform has likely been accused of it at some point, and it was even named Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2022.
But such ubiquity does not necessarily make for clarity – and there’s still a lot of confusion out there about what “gaslighting” actually refers to. So what is it? How does it work? And how can you protect yourself against it?
What is gaslighting?
In the original play, the gaslighter – though the word was not coined as a psychological term until nearly three decades later – is a man named Jack Manningham. The story follows his attempts to convince his wife, Bella, that she is going insane: he “hides a brooch and blames his wife for losing it, and moves a painting and tells her she did it without remembering,” wrote The Lancet Psychiatry’s Laura Thomas in Movies of the Mind.
“Increasingly cut off from friends and relatives, she notices that sometimes the gas lights in her room dim, as if somewhere in the house a new lamp has been turned on,” Thomas continued. “When the servants tell her no new lamp has been lit, she begins to think perhaps she really is losing her mind.”
The term’s modern use is no different. “Gaslighting” refers to a specific type of manipulation in which one person aims to get another to question their own reality. Despite the word’s origin, it doesn’t only occur in romantic relationships: gaslighting can turn up anywhere a power imbalance exists, be it between friends, colleagues, or even political figures and their voters.
Furthermore, “it is always dangerous,” Robin Stern, Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect, told NBC News. “The danger of letting go of your reality is pretty extreme.”
Once gaslighting takes hold, the victim will begin to question objective reality in favor of the picture presented by their abuser; they will no longer trust their own judgment or memories – even their own sanity – becoming more and more dependent on the person manipulating them.
Eventually, victims may find themselves experiencing a wide range of genuine mental health issues – albeit not the ones their abuser insists they have. Instead, anxiety, depression, disorientation, low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypervigilance, and suicidal thoughts can all be experienced by people as a result of gaslighting.
What makes the situation more complex is the fact that gaslighting isn’t always done with malicious intent – or even any intent at all, Stern said. It may be the result of a person’s upbringing, she explained: perhaps you were raised by parents whose worldview was so black-and-white that, when you finally meet somebody with an alternative outlook, you assume they must have some kind of disorder. Other times, the gaslighting may take the form of euphemistic language, or deep-seated medical biases.
However, even done unwittingly, gaslighting is no less damaging to the victim and their sense of reality.
“The most distinctive feature of gaslighting is that it is not enough for the gaslighter simply to control his victim or have things go his way,” wrote Andrew D. Spear, an associate professor of philosophy at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, in a 2019 paper. “It’s essential to him that the victim herself actually come to agree with him.”
Examples of gaslighting behaviors
Part of what makes gaslighting so dangerous is just how difficult it is to identify. “It’s meant to confuse you,” explained Paige Sweet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan who studies gaslighting in relationships and in the workplace, in an article by Forbes Health.
“It’s making someone seem or feel unstable, irrational and not credible,” she said, “making them feel like what they’re seeing or experiencing isn’t real, that they’re making it up, that no one else will believe them.”
Like a lot of abuse tactics, it can start very subtly. You may simply “think of the gaslighting interaction as a strange behavior or an anomalous moment,” Stern wrote back in 2009, but ultimately write it off as nothing to really worry about. Perhaps the gaslighter even has a point, she explained – one common technique is to hook a victim into an alternate reality with something that’s objectively true, and then twist the facts to suit their narrative.
“Think about it – you tell your boss, for example, you are unhappy with the assignments you have been getting; you feel you are being wrongly passed over for the best assignments,” she wrote. “You ask him why this is happening. Instead of addressing the issue, he tells you that you are way too sensitive and way too stressed.”
“Okay, well maybe you are sensitive and stressed, but that doesn't answer the question of why you are being passed over for these better assignments,” she continued. “You can't stand that your boss sees the situation like that, and you work even harder on the assignments you find boring, even demeaning, just to prove that you are not overly sensitive and stressed out.”
That said, the National Domestic Violence Hotline highlights five techniques a gaslighter may employ against their victims: there’s withholding, when a manipulator refuses to listen or says they don’t understand; countering, when a gaslighter questions their victim’s memory of an event; blocking or diverting, when the abuser changes the subject or questions the victim’s thinking; trivializing, or making the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant; and forgetting or denial, where the manipulator pretends to have forgotten what actually happened or denies something they previously agreed to.
For example, Sweet explained, “Ebony’s partner would steal her money and then tell her she was ‘careless’ about finances and had lost it herself,” while “Adriana’s boyfriend hid her phone and then told her she had lost it, in a dual effort to confuse her and prevent her from communicating with others.”
A gaslighter will try to convince you you’re crazy or irrational – perhaps utilizing institutional biases like racism or sexism to support their case. “When I asked women about their partners’ abusive tactics, they often described being called a ‘crazy bitch,’” Sweet wrote in a 2019 paper on the subject. “This phrase came up so frequently, I began to think of it as the literal discourse of gaslighting.”
Other times, a gaslighter may dress up their abuse in faux concern for their victim, telling them they’re “concerned by how bad your memory is getting,” for example, or trying to convince them that abusive actions were done “out of love,” psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family therapist Tina B. Tessina told Insider. Alternatively, maybe they’ll try to flip the narrative, claiming that they are the one being abused – maybe even accusing their victim of actually being the gaslighter.
“While confusing and shocking in its lack of logic, the behavior is effective in distracting and throwing off the other person,” clinical psychologist Seth Meyers explained in Psychology Today. “The gaslighter uses this manipulation – accusing the other of gaslighting – to colloquially beat the other to the punch.”
It’s important to recognize that gaslighting doesn’t just involve lying outright – though that’s an intrinsic part of it. A gaslighter will use a range of tactics to make you, and others, doubt your version of reality: they may discredit you to others, cutting off your support network; they will often respond to being called out for abusive behavior by minimizing, denying, or twisting it into something else.
“When someone is gaslighting you, you may second-guess yourself, your memories, recent events, and perceptions,” explains VeryWell Mind. “After communicating with the person gaslighting you, you may be left feeling dazed and wondering if there is something wrong with you. You may be encouraged to think you are actually to blame for something or that you're just being too sensitive.”
What to do if you’re experiencing gaslighting
While it can be difficult to identify, once you realize somebody is gaslighting you, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.
Since gaslighting relies on getting a victim to doubt their version of reality, reaching out to friends and family can be a powerful tool – which is why abusers often try to isolate their victims from precisely those support networks.
“He said, ‘You are crazy. No one loves you. You are here with me. You don’t have anyone else here,’” one victim of gaslighting told Sweet.
However, with the support of outside sources – “don’t just tell one person, ‘I think I’m experiencing this,’” Sweet told Forbes Health, “tell multiple people in your social network so they can back you up and verify your experience of reality” – it can be easier to believe your own memories and experiences.
Keeping a journal can also be a good tactic, and for the same reason: it stops a past event from being your memory versus theirs, and offers evidence from the time about what happened and how you felt about it.
“Work on preserving evidence of your experiences,” advises VeryWell Mind. “Keep a journal, save text conversations, or keep emails so that you can look back on them later and remind yourself that you shouldn't doubt or question yourself.”
As difficult as it may be – and it probably will be, especially if it’s within a romantic or parental relationship – the most effective way to end gaslighting behavior is to end the relationship. As treasured as that person may be to you, they’re not worth your sanity, Stern told NBC – and to save yourself, you may have to cut them off, potentially completely.
“You may have a lot of wonderful things going on in that relationship,” Stern admitted – but “having compassion for yourself is super important.”
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current