It's a sophisticated form of psychological and emotional abuse where an individual makes a targeted human being question their perception of reality, memory, judgment, sometimes even doubt their sanity, which significantly lowers their self-esteem and, in some cases, leads to even worse consequences.
If you have already heard the term "gaslighting", but you're not sure where it came from, you're in the right place. It originates from the play Gas Light (1938). Some years later, in 1944, this play was adapted into a movie with the same title. The plot is the following: a husband starts telling his young, loving, and naive wife (and everybody around) that she’s acting in strange, irregular ways, becoming forgetful and fitful. Over time, the woman begins to think she is going crazy. In both the play and the movie, the abuser ends up in prison. In real life, unfortunately, the ending is not always that happy.
When gaslighting happens, it involves consistent attempts to confuse the victim. And, in fact, very often, these attempts turn out to be successful. The abuser uses lies, denial, and other tactics to destabilize the gaslightee.
This phenomenon is very common in love relationships. But gaslighting also happens in other kinds of relationships. A mother, a sibling, a boss, or a friend can be a gaslighter, too. This kind of emotional manipulation is very widely used by politicians, too. In other words, gaslighting happens wherever the abuser has more power than the victim.
People who are being gaslit may not have the courage to leave and be on their own. In some cases, the victim leaves at some point but then they return because gaslighters often use the smart strategy to apologize and promise to change. So the gaslightee decides to give the relationship one more chance believing that the apologies are sincere. This can repeat multiple times but nothing changes, the abuse goes on and on.
Another interesting fact is that nobody is born a gaslighter like individuals are born, for instance, extroverts or introverts. This kind of psychological manipulation is something a person learns living in society. People see it and understand that it's a powerful tool to control someone weaker than them. Gaslighting, in many cases, is a technique picked up from their parents' relationships or any other relationship they witnessed in their childhood. That's why it's often a cycle that repeats for generations. And sometimes, only a psychotherapist can help solve and stop this.
As strange as it may seem, in some cases, the emotional abuser doesn't realize that their behavior is manipulative. They are gaslighting their partner, employee, or friend unconsciously, exactly because they grew up around an unhealthy relationship and picked up this bad “habit”.
In the majority of cases, gaslighting starts out with seemingly insignificant offenses. It's a long process, not just a single event. Like any other kind of psychological abuse, it begins slowly and increases over time. For the abuser, it's a way to feel in charge: they psychologically devastate the gaslightee, keeping them hooked. It works especially well if the victim is desperate to please their parent, friend, or partner.
But even small and seemingly instances of an individual questioning their own judgment or reality — caused by the deliberate intent of someone else — can get bigger over time. It can get very serious if someone ends up in a situation of not being able to live their daily life feeling safe, having healthy self-esteem, make sound decisions.
It may be hard for some gaslightees to figure out what's wrong in their relationship, but their intuition keeps telling them that something is “off” here. They may be reluctant to open up to friends and relatives about it or even to admit this fact though. And this is particularly dangerous because the abuser may use the gaslightee's fear to say something that doesn't correspond to reality to keep isolating them from other people and manipulating them.Obvious lies
In most cases, deep down inside, the victim knows perfectly that their partner, boss, or parent tells lies, but the gaslit individual is confused and not sure how to act because the abuser always says it with a straight face. And if the gaslightee tries to "rebel" and tell the manipulator that, in their opinion, they are lying, it will make no sense. Most likely, the abuser will do nothing but deny it and try to make the gaslightee feel stupid. In fact, the gaslighter's ultimate goal is to make their employee, partner, or child feel disoriented, foolish, crazy.And speaking of crazy...
The abuser calls the gaslightee crazy
This is a very effective tool used by these manipulative individuals. They do whatever they can to make others, like, for example, mutual friends, relatives, colleagues, question the gaslightee's sanity. And if the abuser succeeds at it, these people will never believe the victim in case they try to tell them one day that the gaslighter is abusing them.Denial of facts
Let's imagine a situation where the victim remembers perfectly that the abuser promised them to do something. But the gaslighter denies the obvious. And they do it repeatedly. It makes the gaslightee start questioning their memory and reality: “What if I'm just having memory problems, what if he (or she) has never said any of that stuff?” And the more often the manipulator does it, the more the gaslightee starts doubting obvious facts and accepting the false and distorted reality imposed upon them by the person who is abusing them.The victim is not trusting themselves anymore
Individuals who are being gaslit by their partners, parents, or bosses, stop trusting themselves at some point, and they start having difficulty making their own decisions. Because whatever decision they make, it's considered wrong by the manipulator, especially if this decision regards the gaslighter whom they try to make happy by all means. But even if those decisions have nothing to do with the abuser, victims feel like there's nothing they're doing right.The gaslightee is always tense because of continuous criticism
It often happens that gaslightees feel like if they speak freely to their parent, boss, or partner, they will be immediately criticized. They don't feel safe at all, they continuously feel anxious and on edge instead. They know too well that whatever they say, the gaslighter will contradict and/or ridicule them. Only when the gaslightee is away from the manipulator – alone, with family, or close friends – they feel a bit relieved, confident, and free at least for a little while.The victim is apologizing all the time
This is a very common sign of this kind of emotional abuse. The victim finds themselves always saying they're sorry, even in situations when they have absolutely nothing to apologize for. If someone's usual answer to whatever their partner, boss, or parent says is “I’m sorry,” it's a serious red flag to look out for. It means that the gaslightee doesn't feel safe.The gaslightee is always finding excuses for the abuser's behavior
Some gaslightees feel ashamed of how powerless they are in this relationship. So they either prefer to pretend that everything is okay, or they invent different excuses for the manipulator's behavior, telling friends and family things like, “I think it's my fault” or “I must be acting too sensitive”. Very often, victims of this kind of psychological abuse won't understand or admit what's happening because: in some instances, they don't want to look for another job or lose their partner. In some other cases, it's just not easy for them to step out of their comfort zone.The victim constantly seeks acceptance from the abuser
Even though treated poorly by the manipulator, the person who is being gaslit would do anything to gain the manipulator's acceptance. The victim may actually become more and more compliant, often because they desperately hope to be treated a little bit better and ease the relationship tensions. The gaslightee knows that their gaslighter can take away their acceptance from their employee or partner, but they also have the power to give it back to them, so the victim always hopes to gain it back.The gaslighter confuses the victim with morsels of praise
From time to time, the abuser who usually cuts the victim down gives them breadcrumbs of reinforcement for something they do. This makes the gaslightee feel confused because they start thinking something bad that happened was just a temporary issue, and everything's back to normal now (obviously, then “something bad” repeats over and over again). In fact, this is done by the manipulator to control the victim, keep them on edge, and to make them question their judgment.The gaslighter attacks the victim's foundation
Emotional abusers spot the weaknesses of their partners, family, or employees, things that are dear to them, and use those things against them in their attacks. For example, a woman's boyfriend knows how much she loves her children. In this case, their parenting style will probably be the first thing the gaslighter will attack. They may tell the gaslightee that she's a horrible parent, even though the woman knows it's so far from being true.The abuser uses family and friends against the gaslightee
The gaslighter knows very well who will be on their side no matter what, so they say to the victim these people dislike them. Here are some examples of such phrases: “My best friend has always told me he didn't like you” or “My mom thinks you're stupid, too.” Of course, in many cases, none of those people have ever actually said any of that. This is just a tactic used by the manipulator to make the victim believe that they have nobody to trust and nobody loves them.The abuser makes the gaslightee feel isolated
And by making the person they abuse question who they can trust, the gaslighter puts them in isolation and making the victim believe the only one they can trust is them, the abuser, which gives them total control over the gaslightee. It becomes an unhealthy dynamic where the victim can only turn to the gaslighter who they actually can't trust because this person is emotionally tormenting and abusing them.The victim feels defeated
In many cases, the gaslightee starts getting a feeling as if they were doing it all wrong, so they feel undeserving and defeated. This often results in the victim trying to comply with every abuser's request because the individual who is being gaslighted is afraid of making a “wrong” choice. “Wrong” in this context, obviously, means doing the opposite of what your boss, parent, or partner wanted. Which is actually their ultimate goal.The abuser projects their bad behavior onto their victim
If the manipulator is cheating on the individual they are gaslighting, they accuse the gaslightee of being the cheater. If 99% of everything the gaslighter says is a lie, they keep affirming their victim is a chronic liar.
In most cases, this is done on purpose, so that the gaslightee is distracted from their boss's or partner's wrongdoings because they are too focused on defending themselves. And that's exactly what the abuser wants.
Gaslighting is often used by narcissists. It's actually one of their favorite manipulative techniques. The narcissist gaslighter's goal is to make the gaslightee feel confused about the legitimacy of their emotions and interpretations. Narcissists let their partners or employees know that they don't understand life very well. Only narcissists are the ones who think things correctly, that's why they have to keep everyone around them in line. So the gaslighting narcissist will look for certain cues that they see in their victim and they'll let them know there is something wrong about them. They will tell the victim they need to change their way of thinking and start seeing the world the way the narcissist does.
Let's suppose that the victim is having a discussion with the narcissist gaslighter and confronting them: “There's something you need to know/understand, so we can have a fair exchange, let's try our best to have an adult-to-adult conversation”. The narcissist's answer, most likely, will be “If we ever have any kind of adult conversation, it definitely won't come from you – you think like a kid”.
Narcissists don't have empathy, so they want to feel superior to others. They are always looking for an angle to show people who surround them that they, narcissists, are the ones who will always be in control.
There are many examples of this kind of abuse: the gaslighter denying that some incidents occurred, belittling the gaslightee's emotions and feelings, or disorienting the victim.
For instance, if a gaslighter’s partner is asking where they been when they come home very late, the abuser responds by accusing their victim of caring way too much about punctuality. And then say something like “I think there's nothing wrong with me telling you there’s something wrong with you!”.
It’s the gaslighter's smart way to end the conversation because the abuser knows that, most likely, the gaslightee will try to avoid the conflict.
Here's another example, this time in a working environment: a person who works in an office remembers that before going to lunch, approximately an hour ago, they logged out of their laptop. But when they come back they notice that the last login was about twenty minutes ago. They tell their boss they suspect someone somehow logged on to their computer and tried to access their Facebook account. And the boss answers, "I don't care. You know it's not okay to check your social media during working hours in the first place, right?" When the employee tries to insist on finding out who might have done it and ask their boss if they saw anybody around their desk, the boss says, "No, not at all. I think you need help. Because you're paranoid."
The more we, our friends and family are aware of these manipulative techniques, the earlier we can identify them and stop the abuse. Sometimes, when a gaslighter's partner, parent, or friend decides to stop acting like a victim and change the way the abuser interacts with them, positive change is possible. For example, establishing rigid boundaries can be crucial when it comes to keeping this kind of manipulation at bay. But it can be hard to achieve because the abuser will most likely resist it and continue to buffer the victim from their reality.
If an individual is being gaslighted, experts strongly recommend they immediately see a therapist. A good support group can help, too. But this group must consist of people you can really trust.
In case you, some of your friends or relatives think they are victims of gaslighting, are some more tips on how to stop the abuse:
Gaslighting is one of the numerous kinds of psychological and emotional abuse. Over time, it tends to damage the victim's self-esteem. An individual who's being abused starts questioning their memory and sanity, they begin seeing themselves as less worthy and end up completely losing their sense of self-respect. It can have really catastrophic effects on the mental health of a person who is being gaslighted.
Gaslighting victims often find themselves living with:
If you think you or a friend/relative/colleague of yours is being gaslighted, immediately find a psychotherapist. In extreme cases (if the victim has a completely distorted perception of reality), you should also contact an organization fighting domestic violence, remembering to make sure the victim is safe and the abuser can't monitor communications between you and them.
Never underestimate the potential danger of gaslighting. According to some researchers, verbal and psychological abuse is as harmful as physical abuse, so it should be stopped as soon as possible. You or your friends don't have to stay in an abusive or toxic relationship, everybody has the right and deserves to feel safe, to be happy. And remember – if someone is being gaslighted, it's never their fault.