The phrase “to gaslight” refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are as people.
The phrase originated from a 1938 mystery thriller written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton called Gas Light, made into a popular movie in 1944 starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the film, husband Gregory manipulates his adoring, trusting wife Paula into believing she can no longer trust her own perceptions of reality.
In one important scene, Gregory causes the gaslights in the house to flicker by turning them on in the attic of the house. Yet when Paula asks why the gaslights are flickering, he insists that it’s not really happening and that it’s all in her mind, causing her to doubt her self-perception. Hence the term “gaslighting” was born.
Most of us have been gaslighted at some point in our lives, making it important to learn how to spot the technique, shut it down, and minimize the psychological impact on our daily lives. When left unexamined, gaslighting can have a devastating and long-term impact on our emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical well-being.
Gaslighting in interpersonal relationships often develops or builds on an existing power dynamic. While it’s most common in romantic settings, gaslighting can happen in any kind of relationship where one person is so important to the other that they don’t want to take the chance of upsetting or losing them, such as a boss, friend, sibling, or parent. Gaslighting happens in relationships where there is an unequal power dynamic and the target has given the gaslighter power and often their respect.
How do you recognize that gaslighting is happening?
Take a look at the list below. If any part of the list resonates with you, you may be involved in a gaslighting relationship and need to look further.
You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times per day.
You often feel confused and even crazy in the relationship.
You’re always apologizing.
You can’t understand why you aren’t happier.
You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior.
You know something is wrong but you just don’t know what.
You start lying to avoid put-downs and reality twists.
You have trouble making simple decisions.
You wonder if you are good enough.
While all of these symptoms can occur with anxiety disorders, depression, or low self-esteem, the difference with gaslighting is that there is another person or group that’s actively engaged in trying to make you second-guess what you know is true. If you don’t typically experience these feelings with other people but do with one particular individual, then you might be a victim of gaslighting.
Some common phrases you might hear from your gaslighter are:
You’re so sensitive!
You know that’s just because you are so insecure.
Stop acting crazy. Or: You sound crazy, you know that, don’t you?
You are just paranoid.
You just love trying to throw me off track.
I was just joking!
You are making that up.
It’s no big deal.
You’re imagining things.
You are always so dramatic.
Don’t get so worked up.
That never happened.
You know you don’t remember things clearly.
There’s no pattern. Or: You are seeing a pattern that is not there.
There you go again, you are so ungrateful.
Nobody believes you, why should I?
In what context are you hearing these phrases? Typical triggers that create a stressful environment that can lead to gaslighting include topics such as money, sex, your families of origin, or habits you came into the relationship with.
What to do if you’re getting gaslighted
It can be excruciatingly difficult to pull oneself out of a gaslighting power dynamic. But it is possible. The antidote to gaslighting is greater emotional awareness and self-regulation — both the knowledge and the practice.
Using these emotional skills, gaslightees come to learn (or accept if they already knew and were caused to forget) that they don’t actually need anyone else to validate their reality, thereby building self-reliance and confidence in defining their own reality. They will also learn that is possible to manage those uncomfortable feelings of standing in their own certainty in opposition to a gaslighter. This can be especially challenging if the gaslightee is a victim of abuse and requires a significant shift in mindset and skills through therapy.
Here are steps that have helped my clients over the past two decades:
1) Identify the problem. Recognizing the problem is the first step. Name what is going on between you and your spouse, friend, family member, colleague, or boss.
2) Sort out truth from distortion. Write down your conversation in a journal so you can take an objective look at it. Where is the conversation veering off from reality into the other person’s view? Then after you look at the dialogue, write down how you felt. Look for signs of repeated denial of your experience.
3) Figure out if you are in a power struggle with your partner. If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again and can’t seem to convince them to acknowledge your point of view, you might be getting gaslighted.
4) Engage in a mental exercise to encourage a mindset shift: Visualize yourself without the relationship or continuing it at much more of a distance. Importantly, cast the vision in a positive light, even if it causes you to feel anxiety. Think down the road when you will have your own reality, social support, and integrity.
5) Give yourself permission to feel all your feelings. Accept and acknowledge that what you feel is okay. I recommend tracking your feelings.
6) Give yourself the okay to give something up. Part of what makes it painful and challenging to leave a gaslight relationship is that the gaslighter may be the one “someone” you have committed to, such as your best friend, your mom, your sister or brother. It’s okay to walk away from toxicity, regardless of the source.
7) Talk to your close friends. Ask them if you seem like yourself and do a reality check on your spouse’s behavior. Ask them to be brutally honest.
8) Focus on feelings instead of right and wrong. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to be right or spend endless hours ruminating about who’s right. But determining who is right and wrong is less important than how you feel — if your conversation leaves you feeling bad or second-guessing yourself, that’s what you need to pay attention to. Having a sense of psychological and emotional well-being in a relationship is more important than who is right or wrong in any conversation.
9) Remember that you can’t control anyone’s opinion, even if you are right. You may never get your friend or your boss or your partner to agree that you aren’t too sensitive or too controlling or too anything. You need to let go of trying, as maddening as this can be. The only person whose opinion you can control is your own.
10) Have compassion for yourself. Give yourself some grace. This is really hard even when you are not in a compromising dynamic. But when you are not feeling confident and strong, it’s even harder to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, kindness, and love. It will be a healing influence and help you move forward in your decision making. Now is a time for self-care.
Gaslighting is not the same as sensitivity
It’s important to separate gaslighting from genuine disagreement, which is common, and even important, in relationships. Not every conflict involves gaslighting, and, of course, there are healthy and helpful ways to resolve conflicts. Gaslighting is distinct because only one of you is listening and considering the other’s perspective and someone is negating your perception, insisting that you are wrong or telling you your emotional reaction is crazy/ dysfunctional in some way.
Nor are victims of gaslighting just being overly sensitive. People can be more susceptible to emotional harm than others for a variety of reasons, but gaslighting isn’t about individual personality differences. It’s about knocking one’s understanding of reality off balance.