What is Gaslighting, Exactly?
“Then I realized he was gaslighting me,” one of my psychotherapy clients said to me. “What should I do? Does this mean I should leave him?”
I’ve been hearing the term “gaslighting” more and more recently both from my clients and in the media. While it is encouraging to see more awareness around the importance of healthy communication and safe relationships, I can see that there is also a great deal of confusion surrounding the term and what it actually means.
Like my client, you may be wondering what gaslighting actually is and what to do about it if someone in your life is doing this to you. Let’s take a closer look at how to spot gaslighting behavior and how to respond to it so that you can increase your awareness and empower yourself to respond to gaslighting in a way that helps you cultivate healthy and happy relationships.
What exactly is gaslighting?
Let’s begin by defining our term. Gaslighting originated from a 1938 play, Gas Light, (later adapted into film) where a husband manipulated his wife into believing she is insane in order to steal from her. For example, she is convinced that the gas-powered lights in the home are becoming dimmer, but he tells her that she is imagining it along with the footsteps and noise she says she hears. The things she sees and hears are, in fact, very real because her husband is the source of them, but he convinces her over time that she is only imagining them.
Gaslighting takes its definition from this play and refers to a situation where one person tries to convince another that their perceptions and experiences aren’t true. For example, someone might say to you, “I never said that — you’re imagining things,” when in fact they did actually say it, but now you find yourself wondering if you were making too big of a deal out of something or you misheard them the first time.
When someone does this over and over again, the other person starts to doubt their perceptions and experiences and begins to lose trust in themselves. This most often happens in a relationship where there is some kind of power differential: doctor/patient, supervisor/supervisee, romantic relationship where someone has a stronger or more forceful personality. This can be incredibly damaging to someone’s self-worth and can be a powerful tactic in an abusive relationship.
How does it show up in a relationship?
Gaslighting can be present in a relationship in one of two ways: as a serious pattern, or as a communication weakness. If gaslighting is a serious pattern in a relationship, one person is solely focused on establishing themselves as more powerful by denying the other person’s reality.
For example, if you’ve been experiencing painful medical symptoms, but your doctor repeatedly tells you, “It’s all in your head,” or, “Just try to think about it and it will go away,” that provider is demonstrating a serious pattern of dismissing the reality of his or her patients.
If gaslighting is a communication weakness, it is present in the relationship (usually during conflict or stressful situations), but without an established pattern. For example, your friend may claim, “I didn’t mean it,” in order to avoid being connected to actions that negatively impacted you. But if you point out their gaslighting behavior, the person will take responsibility and make a genuine effort to change and be more honest.
If you think about it, most of us at some point or another have not been at our best and tried to downplay the impact of our actions on another person. No one is perfect, and learning healthy communication skills takes time.
But this kind of communication weakness is different from a serious pattern of gaslighting, where the other person is seeking to manipulate and control the other over time without taking responsibility or making an authentic effort to cultivate healthy relationship behaviors.
What should a healthy relationship look like?
Actions speak louder than words: If someone says they care about you, but repeatedly tears you apart in the way they treat you, they are not taking responsibility for their words and the impact they are having on you.
It can be tempting to accuse someone of gaslighting when they disagree with us, especially if it is about a topic we feel especially passionate about. But it is important to remember that people we love and respect can share opinions or beliefs that are different from ours without invalidating our own experience or denying our reality. Yes, it can be uncomfortable to hear the differing opinions of others, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are trying to control you. Look for evidence of respect, open dialogue, and curiosity to help you discern whether or not gaslighting is present in the dynamic.
Remember, a pattern of gaslighting has no place in a healthy relationship. If someone — whether it is a romantic partner, family member, friend, healthcare provider, supervisor, or someone else — is gaslighting you and will not take responsibility for their behavior and make an effort to change, you are faced with a serious decision to make. If left unchecked, gaslighting can pummel your self-worth and make you susceptible to staying in an abusive or unhealthy relationship.
Authentic and healthy relationships are not built on a foundation of power, manipulation, or control. Healthy and strong boundaries, social support, and other resources can help protect you from remaining in a relationship built on gaslighting.
If you are in an abusive relationship and are looking for resources, here are just a few:
- If you are in imminent danger: Call 911 (in the U.S.)
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Text “START” to 88788
https://www.thehotline.org/ (you can live chat on the website)
https://www.safehorizon.org (you can live chat on the website)