According to Medical News Today, Gaslighting is a form of abuse that involves a person deliberately causing someone to doubt their sanity. This may cause feelings of confusion or powerlessness. The long-term effects of gaslighting include trauma, anxiety, and depression.
The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight. In the movie, an abusive husband brightens and dims gas powered lights, then insists that his wife is hallucinating. This causes her to doubt her sanity.
Today, gaslighting describes any interaction where a person or entity manipulates someone into feeling they cannot trust their own memories, feelings, or senses.
Jean Kim, MD at Psycom stated that a person on the receiving end of gaslighting may truly believe that they are not mentally well, that their memories are not accurate, or that their mind is playing tricks on them. This makes them feel dependent on the abusive person. Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse wherein a person uses verbal and behavioral tricks to convince another person they are losing their mind or—at the very least—cannot trust their own judgment. Why? To gain control.
“Gaslighters are master manipulators,” says Tampa-based psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, LMHC, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. “They lie or withhold information, pit people against each other, and always place blame elsewhere, all the while gaining control over those they are gaslighting.”
According to the American Psychological Association, the term “once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally.”
Examples of Gaslighting
Some examples of common gaslighting tactics include:
Countering: This tactic involves an abusive person questioning someone’s memory of events, even though they have remembered them correctly.
Withholding: This describes someone who pretends not to understand something, or who refuses to listen.
Forgetting: This involves an abusive person pretending they have forgotten something or denying that something happened.
Trivializing: This refers to an abusive person making someone’s concerns or feelings seem unimportant or irrational.
Diverting: This technique occurs when an abusive person changes the subject, or focuses on the credibility of what someone is saying rather than the content. Some people also call it “blocking.”
In abusive relationships, gaslighting often occurs gradually. Initially, a person may not seem abusive. But, over time, they may use statements, such as:
“You are wrong, you never remember things correctly.”
“You are imagining things.”
“Stop overreacting,” or “you are too sensitive.”
“I do not know what you are talking about.”
“I do not understand, you are just trying to confuse me.”
Gaslighting also occurs outside of intimate relationships.
A 2017 article in Politics, Groups, and Identities states that racial gaslighting occurs when a person or entity portrays people who speak out against racial oppression as irrational, crazy, or deluded.
Long-term Effects of Gaslighting
Over time, a person who is a victim of gaslighting may start to believe that they cannot trust themselves, or that they have a mental health disorder. This gaslighting may lead to:
All of these can have a long-term impact on someone’s mental health and self-esteem. They may also make it more difficult for the individual to leave an abusive situation.
If the gaslighting takes place in a relationship, it could become part of a broader pattern of coercive control. Coercive control is emotional abuse that gives the abuser control over their partner’s life.
According to the Crown Prosecution Service in the United Kingdom, other elements of coercive control include:
- monitoring someone’s activities, mobile phone, or emails
- controlling all of the finances
- using insults and threats to scare another person
- manipulating someone into unwanted sexual activity
Coercive control is not illegal in the United States. However, emotional abuse often escalates to physical abuse, so a person experiencing gaslighting early in a relationship might be at risk of physical violence later.
What to do
Establishing proof of gaslighting can help a person identify that their memories and feelings are real, and that someone is manipulating them.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are a few ways a person can collect proof:
Journaling: A person who suspects gaslighting can keep a journal in a secure location and record the date and time events occur.
Voice memos: Recording incidents with a cell phone or other device can help keep track. If a person’s device is not safe to use, they can consider purchasing a separate voice recorder and concealing it somewhere safe.
Photographs: Taking photographs provides someone with visual proof. For example, they can take a picture of where they leave their keys so that they know if a partner is hiding them to make them late. If a cell phone is not safe, a person can purchase a disposable camera and hide it instead.
Email: If it is not safe for a person to keep proof of gaslighting in their home, they could ask a trusted friend or family member if they can store it. After gathering the proof, a person can send it via email and then delete it from their own devices.
Recovery from Gaslighting
Gaslighting may take place for years or decades before a person realizes what is happening. As a result, recovering from gaslighting takes time. A person may need to try several approaches to rebuild their sense of self.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline advise that people remember they are not responsible for the abusive behavior, avoid arguing about what is true with the abusive person, and practice listening to their thoughts, feelings, and instincts again.
It may be difficult to do this to begin with. People may benefit from having support from a therapist with training on abuse recovery and trauma.
Rebuilding relationships with family and friends may also become part of recovery. This step can be difficult if an abusive person told others lies to discredit or isolate someone. However, it may help with recovery to have social support.
Support groups may also help with this process of recovery.
This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.