What Is Gaslighting?

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Gaslighting is a form of subtle psychological abuse that causes victims to feel as though they’re “crazy.” As a result, the victim of gaslighting will begin to question their reality and believe that they're the only source of any problems within the relationship.

It can take place in a variety of circumstances, but most commonly gaslighting occurs in intimate relationships. 

Origin

In 1938, a play called Gas Light (known in the U.S. as Angel Street) introduced the concept of gaslighting. The play tells a story of a man who convinces his wife that she is insane so that he can access her inheritance.

The husband tries to undermine her sense of self. He confuses and distorts her reality, and he causes her to think she can’t trust her own judgment.

He hides a brooch and then blames his wife for losing it. He moves a painting and tells her that she did it without remembering. He often tells her she is “unwell” and convinces her she is too unwell to go out with family and friends.

He also dims the gas lights in her room at random times and tells her this is all in her mind. She begins to think that she must be losing touch with reality.

Gaslighting Is Abusive Behavior

In 1969, an article in The Lancet popularized the idea of gaslighting even further. The psychology scholars who wrote the article legitimized gaslighting as a form of abuse.

Today, the term gaslighting is used to describe mind-manipulating strategies that cause people to question their own sanity.

Gaslighting is not an official mental health diagnosis, but it has gained credibility as a real problem.

In 2015, the word gaslighting was included in part of a criminal domestic violence law enacted in the United Kingdom. For the first time, laws recognized that domestic violence isn’t always as obvious physical or sexual abuse. Instead, it can involve isolating a victim, controlling every aspect of their lives, or undermining their mental health.

Examples of Gaslighting

Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., wrote a book called Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—And Break Free which made the term even more common. In her book, she says her research found that these are the common strategies gaslighters use to convince victims that they’re losing touch with reality:

  • They tell blatant lies. They want you to question everything. So they lie about all things, big and small.
  • They deny saying things they said. Despite that you may have proof that they said something, they’ll insist they never did just so you’ll question your reality.
  • They wear you down. They persist at gradually wearing their victims down over time. They work so slowly that most victims don’t even realize it’s happening.
  • They use what’s important to you as ammunition. Whether they know you value your kids above all else, or they know your career is very important to you, they attack the foundation of your being.
  • Their behavior doesn’t match their words. What they say is meaningless. They act completely contrary to their words by their behavior.
  • They use positive reinforcement to confuse you. They cut you down to cause you to lose confidence. But then they offer praise as a way to convince you that they aren’t so bad.
  • They confuse you. Gaslighters want to confuse you about everything. But at the same time, they want you to look toward them as a sense of stability.
  • They project onto others. They might constantly accuse you of doing the things that they’re doing, like using drugs or cheating.
  • They try to align people against you. They may try to convince you that your loved ones “know you are worthless” or “think you are bad.” This makes it difficult for you to know who to trust.
  • They call you “crazy." They question your sanity and tell other people that you are “crazy.” If you eventually reach out for help, other people might question whether to believe you if the perpetrator has already tried to convince them that you have lost touch with reality.
  • They tell you everyone else is lying. They may say that everyone in your group of family and friends is lying. They may also say the media lies as a way to manipulate you. They want you to have to rely on them for the “correct” information.

Sociological Aspects

In a 2019 research paper, author Paige Sweet argues that gaslighting isn’t just a psychological phenomenon; it’s also a sociological one.

The author points out how gaslighting works when it is used in relationships that involve unequal power dynamics. It also works when perpetrators mobilize gender-based stereotypes, intersecting inequalities, and institutional vulnerabilities against victims.

Gaslighting is common in domestic violence situations, especially when women are isolated. It can amplify the dangers for abused women and prevent them from accessing resources that could help them escape the abuse.

The author states that “gaslighting exposes how the association of women with irrationality exacerbates existing gender and sexual inequalities.” The study found that women who were victims of gaslighting reported that their partners called them “crazy” any time they showed emotion, which made them second-guess themselves.

Examples of Psychological Abuse

Interviews with women who have been involved in abusive relationships found that the perpetrators often used tactics to confuse women.

One woman said her ex-partner used to lie about what color skirt she wore the day before in an effort to convince her she couldn’t keep track of things.

Another woman in the study said her ex-husband used to invent stories of her infidelity. He would try to convince her he had proof that she was cheating on him.

Several women said they were hospitalized due to their distress. And once they were released, their partner’s used it against them by saying things like, “See, I told you that you were crazy.”

While anyone can be a victim of gaslighting, the author suggests men are more commonly perpetrators against women.

Breaking Free

Researchers have found that many people need to get away from the perpetrator in order to see things more clearly. Separation from the perpetrator helps them learn that they can trust their sense of reality, and it helps them gain clarity in what happened to them.

If you suspect you might be a victim of someone who is gaslighting you, seek professional help. Talk to your physician, or reach out to a trained mental health professional for assistance.

A Word From Verywell

Being the victim of someone who is gaslighting you can be confusing, embarrassing, and frustrating. And, it may cause you to do some things you wouldn't normally do.

But an unhealthy environment can do that to you. And getting help can be the key to creating the positive changes you need to be your best.

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Article Sources
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  1. Thomas L. Gaslight and gaslightingThe Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5(2):117-118. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(18)30024-5

  2. Barton R, Whitehead J. The Gas-Light PhenomenonThe Lancet. 1969;293(7608):1258-1260. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(69)92133-3

  3. Sarkis S. Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People-and Break Free. NY, NY: Da Capo Press; 2018.

  4. Sweet PL. The Sociology of GaslightingAmerican Sociological Review. 2019;84(5):851-875. doi:10.1177/0003122419874843