How to Recognize Gaslighting - A Form of Psychological Manipulation

  Monday, April 26, 2021
  Gaslighting  
Contributed by Dr. Carrie Jackson

You’ve probably seen the term gaslighting before. It was even named one of the most popular words by Oxford Dictionaries in 2018. Gaslighting refers to actions of undermining another person’s reality by denying their truth, the environment, or their feelings. It can be a subtle manipulation technique, or it can be more recognizable. In this article, you’ll learn about what gaslighting is, how to recognize it, and how to heal from it.

Where Did the Term Gaslighting Come from?

The term gaslighting came from a 1944 thriller called Gas Light, written by Patrick Hamilton. In the film, the husband Gregory manipulates his wife into disbelieving her own reality. The film culminates in one scene where Gregory makes the gaslights in the house flicker, and when his wife questions why the gaslights are flickering, insists that it is not really happening and is all in her mind. As a result, the wife felt that she was crazy and experienced significant emotional trauma. Thus, the phrase gaslighting came out of this behavior of a husband placing doubts on his wife’s reality. 

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting can best be described as psychological manipulation. It is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser uses manipulation tactics that leads to the victim doubting themselves and their reality. Gaslighting can exist in any relationship but it most commonly happens in romantic relationships. Inherent to many relationships that have gaslighting is a power differential where one person feels that they have the upper hand on the other or uses gaslighting to gain the upper hand. Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting as it does not discriminate against people of gender, age, or race. Throughout this article, we will highlight types of gaslighting as well as signs for gaslighting.

Why Do People Use Gaslighting?

People often become gaslighters in relationships because it is a way for them to gain control in the relationship. Those who gaslight may not even be aware that they are doing it. More likely, they witnessed gaslighting as a child or teenager, have seen how to do it, and have learned that it works. Through gaslighting, people are often able to stop conflict and reduce anxiety by gaining control over the outcome of a situation or argument. The gaslighter is able to place the blame on the target and deflect any responsibility for their role in the conflict. Ultimately, this leads the other person to feel more hooked and have an intense desire to right their supposed wrongs and please their partner.

Who Gaslights?

Anyone can be a gaslighter. People who gaslight may have been diagnosed with personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder. Others may just have narcissistic personality traits, where they are self-centered and focus only on themselves. People with narcissistic traits with these types of traits tend to need admiration from others, believe that they are special or different from others, and lack empathy for other's well-being. Other people who use gaslighting may not do so because of their personality traits but may do so because it is something they learned when growing up. They may be unaware of this interpersonal style they have developed as it was considered the norm in their household. Regardless of what led someone to become a gaslighter, anyone can become a gaslighter the same way anyone can become a victim of gaslighting. For some people who are gaslighters, they may use gaslighting in certain situations or relationships, and not in others.

Types of Gaslighting

Gaslighting can occur in any type of relationship, but most often is found in romantic relationships, marriages, or partnerships. These relationships are close and the gaslighter is often able to manipulate the victim without others knowing because of this. In relationships, a gaslighter may use this manipulation tactic when they have done something wrong such as lying or being unfaithful. They may try to convince their partner that they are the ones who are making things up or going crazy. When the victim does attempt to confront the gaslighter, the gaslighter often projects blame onto the victim. This is why it can be so challenging to leave a relationship where gaslighting is occurring. The victim feels helpless and hopeless that these arguments are their fault, and they may even cling more towards the abusive person.

Gaslighting can happen in friendships too. Friends who love to gaslight are often gossipers who talk about people behind their backs. These gaslighters may attempt to get close to you, only so that they can learn more about your vulnerabilities and later use them against you. Even if they don’t have secrets about you, they may end up making up information about you. The goal is for them to create drama in their relationships to place the blame on someone who is innocent while removing the blame from themselves. Gaslighting in friendships can cause just as much emotional damage as in romantic relationships. 

It’s not uncommon for gaslighting to be a manipulation tactic that parents use against their child. Often, a narcissistic parent will use gaslighting to create guilt in their child in order to maintain power and control over their household. Parents who use gaslighting do not offer unconditional love. They offer love only when it is beneficial to them and their goals. If you grew up in this type of household, you may have felt that your parents frequently varied between extreme punishment and frequent praise. If you had a sibling, one of you may have been more often the subject of the gaslighting. As a child, there is a power difference where your parents ultimately had more power than you in this relationship. Because of this power differential, they were able to exploit it and your innocence by encouraging your trust of them.

Gaslighting at work can be stressful and lead to challenges with your mental and physical health. In the workplace, gaslighting occurs when one employee belittles another employee and is dismissive of them. It can happen between a supervisor and their employee, as the supervisor has greater power over the employee and is able to use that to their advantage. Some examples of workplace gaslighting include your supervisor telling you they gave you a job when they didn’t or reporting you for mistakes you know you didn’t make. Gaslighters are work tend to be persistently negative, frequently gossip, use sarcasm, and criticize others in public forums. Workplace gaslighting can lead to extremely hostile work environments as well as concerns for financial stability. 

Medical gaslighting is a lesser-known form of gaslighting. This type of gaslighting can occur when a medical professional, such as a doctor, dismiss a patient’s health concerns. These medical professionals may state that the physical symptoms someone is experiencing are all in their head and are not real. Commonly, medical professionals may attribute physical symptoms to mental health conditions or illness without looking into possible medical causes. Women and patients of color are much more likely to experience this form of gaslighting. This may lead to these groups of people being less likely to seek medical care because they too are questioning if it is due to physical or mental health causes. 

Gaslighting can also be directed towards members of a specific racial or ethnic group. Racial gaslighting happens when someone minimizes the experience of racial or ethnic discrimination. The gaslighter may question an experience of racism, and question if it truly was racism. Gaslighters may also undermine the messages of activists by criticizing how they are conveying message. For example, they may state that the activist is too emotional. Racial microaggressions are another type of gaslighting that are subtle comments that often leave the person questioning the intent. This form of gaslighting forces the victim to question their reality of experiencing racism and discrimination. These gaslighting strategies undermine the experience of the person experiencing racism. 

Political gaslighting is another insidious form of gaslighting. When a political figure or leader manipulates others by dismissing their concerns, they are gaslighting their followers in an effort to control them. They may also downplay their wrongdoings and the shortcomings of their political agenda and administration. Similarly, political gaslighters may deny their previous actions and insist that they are wrong and incorrect about what they believe to be true. When they do make mistakes, they will attempt to hide them and blame the errors on you or their opponents, in an effort to make you doubt your sanity. Gaslighting in politics can lead to confusion over the facts. When experiencing political gaslighting, it’s important to look at the objective facts of the situation.

How to Recognize Gaslighting

Gaslighting can be hard to spot because it can often be subtle and develop over time. Gaslighting has been described through the metaphor of a frog burning in boiling water.  If you drop a frog in warm water and slowly increase it to boiling, the frog will not jump out and will burn alive. For people who are experiencing gaslighting, it may start off with small and subtle comments. As the intensity and negativity are increased over time, the water will become hotter. By the time you realize that you are already in boiling water, gaslighting may have significantly taken its toll on your mental health. There are signs that you can notice in yourself as well as the abusive person that can be subtle clues you may be experiencing gaslighting. To avoid reaching that point, here are some signs of gaslighting to look out for.

1. Feeling confused and second-guessing yourself.

If you are starting to question your own reality, that may be a sign that you are experiencing gaslighting. The goal of gaslighting is to make someone question their own reality and sanity. In fact, gaslighters will directly tell the victim that they are incorrect in their reality. This will often lead to you second-guessing yourself more often than usual in interactions with the gaslighter. Additionally, you may start to question yourself overall. You may be feeling confused about many things going on in your life such as your dreams, goals, and what truly interests you. Feeling confused and unsure of your reality is often a sign of gaslighting. 

2. Difficulty making decisions.

People who are experiencing gaslighting often have difficulty making decisions. This is because the person that is gaslighting them puts doubts in their mind about their decisions. You may have difficulty making decisions about smaller things in your life (e.g., where to get dinner) especially when the decision involves the person that is gaslighting you. You’re worried about what they will think of your decision and if they will approve of it. Even if they aren’t involved in the decision, you’ve probably lost some self-confidence when it comes to trusting yourself and the decisions you can make.

3. People telling you that you’re too sensitive.

A common gaslighting technique is to tell someone they are being too sensitive. This is a way for the manipulator to place the blame on you. They are letting you know that it isn’t a problem with what they are saying or doing, but it is a problem with you because you’re unable to handle it. Other common phrases to hear from gaslighters are “You’re overreacting”, “I didn’t do that”, “You’re so dramatic”, and “Just calm down.”

4. You find yourself constantly apologizing to the abuser.

At this point, you’re not even sure what you are apologizing for. But you feel this need to prove to the abusive person that you are sorry for your actions and want to make it right with them. Again, this goes back to the abuser making you feel like it is your fault what they have been doing. Gaslighters are great at placing the blame on you for your wrongdoings. 

5. Begin withdrawing from friends and family.

You may even start withdrawing from your friends and family if you used to spend a lot of time with them. Your life begins to revolve around the person who is manipulating you and you don’t want to do anything to upset them. When friends and family ask you how things are going, it’s not uncommon for you to also try to avoid telling them the truth or lying about how bad things really are. You are questioning your sanity and think the problem is with you, and this can be difficult to share with friends and family.

6. You’re defensive of the abusive person.

Even though you know something isn’t right, you start to defend the actions of the gaslighter. You’ll make excuses for their behavior or say that it was your fault how they reacted to behaved towards you. You feel that if you weren’t so sensitive or so demanding with your needs, they may not have reacted the way that they did.

7. You have a sense that something is off but you can’t tell what it is.

After a while of experiencing gaslighting, you will have this feeling that something is off. There is a reason for your unhappiness, but you can’t put your finger on it. You notice that you are feeling less fulfilled than usual and have a sense of dread but everything in your life is going okay. At least you think everything in your life is going okay. Gaslighting can lead you to feel let down and hopeless, and being unsure of yourself or the reason why you’re feeling so upset.

8. Feeling like you can’t do anything right.

With gaslighting, everything is always portrayed as your fault. Even when you try to do things differently, the gaslighter ends up having a problem with your new behavior. This leads to you feeling hopeless about what you can do at this point when nothing you do ever seems to be right.

9. You feel on top of the world and then it all comes crashing down.

There are periods where you are feeling like you are the happiest you have ever been, and you are in a perfect relationship (platonic or romantic). You are feeling that things have actually changed this time for good. And then the next thing you know, the rug is pulled from beneath your feet and you’re back on the bottom. This back and forth pattern of interacting is common for gaslighters to use. It’s a way that they can keep you controlled by giving you enough love and affection so that you don’t leave them. It’s another reason you will find yourself questioning if things are really that bad or if it’s all in your head.

10. They blatantly lie to you.

Lying is one of the gaslighter’s ultimate manipulation tactics. They will outright lie to you about something you know is untrue. The way they tell the lie may even convince you that you are in the wrong and have misheard them. When gaslighters lie, they are setting you up to question your reality and what you know to be true.

11. They use your vulnerabilities against you.

They know your deepest, darkest secrets because they have become close to you. And in times of conflict or when you accuse them of their wrongdoing, they are likely to use them against you. They may attack you on some of your insecurities or they may question your worth. They know that these character attacks will weaken you and weaken your argument.

12. They tell you not to trust those close to you.

Gaslighters love to isolate you from your support system. If they perceive your close friends and family as threats, they may begin with making small but negative comments about them to show their disapproval. When you spend time with these friends and family, the gaslighter will likely guilt you about going to spend time with them. Over time, this behavior will lead to you questioning the support system you have built. Once you are doubting your support network, the gaslighter may go as far as to say they are not good friends or family members and you can’t trust them. This is what they want. They want you to feel alone and that the only person you can depend on is the gaslighter.

13. They project their insecurities onto you.

Gaslighters deep down are vulnerable and insecure themselves. Because of this, they may project their own problems and insecurities onto you. If they are worried about their financial stability, they may be critical of the way you manage your money. This is a harsh way that they can elevate their sense of self-esteem while degrading yours.

14. They withhold affection.

Another manipulation technique gaslighters may use is withholding physical affection in an effort to mess with your feelings and emotions. Victims of gaslighting often feel a need to be physically close to their partners. It is a sign they may use for how their relationship is going and how the gaslighter feels about them right now. Gaslighters know that physical affection is important to their victims. When they disapprove of the actions of the victim, they may withhold hugs, kisses, and intimacy in order to express this disapproval. At the same time, they will not be forthcoming with you about their reasons for withholding affection. In turn, this leads to more confusion on your end. You find yourself questioning if you are the reason they are withholding affection from you and if this is a sign of a larger problem within your relationship.

15. They shut down and stop communicating altogether.

Once their typical communication tactics aren’t working, they may shut you out altogether. They may say things such as, “Do we really have to talk about this problem again?” Instead of talking about issues and discussing the conflict, they may stop talking with you completely, walk away, or even leave where you can’t access them. In extreme situations, they may block you from calling them or texting them. This will lead to you regretting bringing up conflict and discussing it with them. It’s a way for the gaslighter to again divert attention from them and place it back on them. 

What are the Effects of Gaslighting?

Gaslighting can have significant mental health effects on those who have experienced it. In the long-term, gaslighting can lead to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Those who experience gaslighting can have feelings of doubt and low self-esteem, as they have questioned everything about themselves because of the gaslighting. Even after leaving the relationship, someone who has experienced gaslighting may go on to feel the effects of gaslighting. The person may still invalidate their own emotions or feelings, or internalize the things that the abuser has said to them. 

Gaslighting can often affect people in their ability to form new relationships. When forming a new relationship, you may be on guard and on the lookout for abusive behavior, similar to what you just experienced. You may be hyperaware of cues and signs that may reflect gaslighting. It takes time to realize that not everyone will be abusive. This is a process that takes time to overcome. Another reaction that may occur is to continue to become codependent in relationships. In your previous gaslighting relationship, you became accustomed to reliance on one person. You may even feel that this is normal behavior. As you form new relationships, you may continue to rely heavily on others and seek external validation from them. The effects of gaslighting can be devastating, but there is hope for those who have experienced it.

Recovering from Gaslighting

Recognizing that you are experiencing gaslighting is the first step. This form of emotional abuse can be so difficult to spot that it may take time before you realize what you have experienced. After you have recognized the challenging situation you are in, you are probably feeling that you are ready to make some changes. Here are some steps to take if you are the victim of gaslighting.

1. Write everything down.

Gaslighting makes you question your own sanity about what you are experiencing. You may find yourself leaving conversations wondering if you were actually correct or if you misheard or misinterpreted the conversation. When you write things down after they happen, you’re able to gain some clarity on the truth of the situation. This can allow you to truly understand and separate truth from fiction. 

After you write everything down, take a look at it and truly analyze it. From an outside perspective, what would you think if you saw this conversation or situation happening? What parts of the conversation were truth, and what parts veered away from the truth?

2. Deny their lies.

If you are still dealing with a gaslighter, try denying their lies and see how they respond. They will likely continue to tell you that you are in the wrong and it is all in your head. You may even have written proof that you are in the right after you have been writing down the proof of the arguments you have been having. If this is the case, you can respond to their lies in a neutral manner. Say something like “Okay, well this is what I know happened and it is my truth.” Do not try to argue or reason with the gaslighter. This will only add more fuel to their fire and ignite their desire to manipulate you.

3. Block contact from the gaslighter.

Blocking all contact with someone may seem like a drastic move. You may be thinking you can handle having them as friends on social media or having their phone numbers on your phone. Gaslighters thrive off their connection with you to remain powerful. Cutting off their power by blocking all contact with them is the only way to get rid of them. As soon as you become more difficult to contact, you may notice that they try even harder to get in contact with you. They may ask friends or family members about how you are doing. They are in panic mode when they aren’t able to manipulate you because you have cut them off. Stay strong in your boundaries and continue not to speak to them. They will eventually become bored and move onto someone else. 

4. Avoid stalking your gaslighter’s new life.

After you have cut off all contact with the gaslighter, don’t be surprised if they move on quickly and fast. They will likely make it known that they are dating someone new, or have a new best friend. Gaslighters are notorious for showing their new relationships off on social media. They do this because once you are gone, they no longer have anyone else to manipulate and feed off of. If you do notice your gaslighter is with someone new, keep in mind that what looks like a perfect relationship on the outside likely isn’t. Gaslighters typically don’t change their behavior, and the person they are with is likely experiencing the same gaslighting you were too.

5. Know you won’t get closure.

Wanting closure is one of the reasons people eventually go back to contacting their gaslighter. They think that if only they could have closure, they would have a better and deeper understanding of how and why things ended. Look into the real reasons you are wanting closure. Are you wanting them to apologize for how they treated you? Are you wanting to discuss the things that went wrong in your relationship and how you can make them better? These are not the people with who you will ever find closure through a conversation. They will likely continue to blame you and deflect responsibility for their wrongdoing. That’s okay. The closure comes in many forms, and healing without them is one of the best ways to get closure.

6. Journal about your feelings.

Take some time to write down how you truly feel about what is going on in your life. After being the victim of gaslighting, you have likely disconnected from yourself and your experiences. Because of this, it is harder to identify your true feelings about what is going on. You will also probably feel more than just one feeling. Allow yourself the opportunity to feel sadness, happiness, relief, and grief at the same time. These feelings are all normal as you are going through the loss of a relationship.

Starting a daily journal can be a great opportunity to reconnect with yourself and your feelings around various situations. You will begin to gain clarity on the emotions you are experiencing, what things bring you happiness, and what things make you sad. This will help with your healing process too as a way to process your day-to-day feelings. Healing is not linear, and you’ll likely notice ups and downs along the way. Keeping a journal can be a good way to keep track of the changes.

7. Reclaim your identity.

After becoming a victim of gaslighting, you may have lost who you are. Journaling is a great way to reconnect with your identity and who you are, without input from someone else. During this time, it may be helpful to return to some of the things that you value. If you are connected with a church or spiritual group, you may wish to return to service more regularly. Perhaps you are involved in a hobby or sport that you haven’t participated in since your relationship. Moving back into these things will help with regaining your sense of identity and self-esteem.

8. Validate your own feelings.

Gaslighters invalidate the experience and feelings of their victims. Beginning to acknowledge and accept your own feelings since someone else didn’t, is an important step. It can be hard to accept your feelings after someone constantly belittled you for feeling them. When you notice challenging feelings, allow yourself to feel them. Journal about them and any reactions you have that come up when you’re experiencing certain feelings. By tracking your emotions this way, you’ll begin to learn more about the patterns of your emotions, triggers for feelings, and helpful strategies of dealing with them.

9. Show some self-compassion.

This is a really tough situation that you are in. You may find yourself blaming yourself for staying in a relationship or situation that was abusive. Gaslighting is difficult to spot, so forgive yourself for staying in a situation that you now know was unhealthy. Keep in mind that there were likely positives of the relationship and manipulation that made you stay. When you are not feeling your best, putting negative judgments on yourself only makes the situation worse. Now is the time to approach yourself with a nonjudgmental stance. Give yourself the kindness and compassion you need to make it through the tough time.

10. Practice mindfulness.

Another way to get in touch with your emotions, aside from journaling, is to practice mindfulness. Gaslighting can distance us from our thoughts and feelings, and in some cases, give us an out-of-body experience. Gaslighting can also lead to confusion and feeling like you have a lack of clarity in your mind. Mindfulness exercises involve being aware of how you are feeling in the present moment, in order to increase your mental clarity. They can be very helpful to take a step back and get in touch with yourself again. Some ways of building mindfulness in your daily life include meditation, yoga, and deep breathing. All of these exercises take time, but you don’t need to engage in them for long in order to feel their positive effects. If you are crunched for time, you can also simply notice, observe, and accept the thoughts you are having.

11. Talk to your close friends and family.

You may have become more isolated since experiencing gaslighting. Reach out to your closest family members and friends for support during this time. It may have been challenging to be honest with them when you were going through it. But it can be helpful to be open and honest with them about what you have gone through. They can give you a reality check on what the facts are in the situation that you are in.

It’s also important to reach out to your friends and family because you may have lost some of your social support during your relationship with a gaslighter. You became dependent upon the gaslighter and neglected many of your other relationships. Now is the time to return to those relationships to rebuild them. Having a solid social support network will help you with the healing process and reduce the chances of you finding yourself in a similar situation again.

12. Educate yourself on the signs of gaslighting.

After reading this article, you’ve already learned more about what to look out for in situations of gaslighting. Learning more about gaslighting and the early signs in different relationships can help for the next time you meet a gaslighter. As you begin to form new relationships, look out for these signs so you are protected against the manipulation of a gaslighter. You will be well-prepared to walk away if you notice any of these warning signs.

13. Seek out professional support.

If you find that your mental health challenges are too much for you to manage on your own, now is a good time to reach out to a therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist. Gaslighting can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and PTSD. Therapists and mental health professionals are trained to help people who have experienced emotional abuse and gaslighting. If you already have a therapist, consider sharing with them your feelings about your relationship. If you don’t yet have a therapist knowing where to start with finding a therapist can be challenging. For help with knowing where to find a therapist, look at this guide on all the options you have available for mental health support. If you already have a therapist and feel like they are unable to help you with recovering from gaslighting, we also have a guide on how to dump your current therapist to find another one. 

You Will Make It Through

Experiencing gaslighting can be an emotionally painful experience. Healing from gaslighting is different for everyone. You will be continuously learning about yourself, your needs, and how to trust yourself to make the right decisions in interpersonal relationships. We hope this article provided some information about the signs of gaslighting and how to being your recovery.

About Dr. Carrie Jackson

Dr. Carrie Jackson is a contributor of JournalOwl. Her primary interests are to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments for children and adolescents, providing specific information to parents and individuals with ADHD.

Carrie is a graduate of West Virginia University with a doctoral degree in Psychology, and a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology. Carrie has worked as a therapist and evaluator at several children’s hospitals, providing care and treatment to clients with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and anxiety. She has also worked with children with chronic medical conditions, providing supportive mental health care to children with cancer and burn survivors. 

Although originally from South Carolina, Carrie has lived in two countries and four states. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and trying new recipes.

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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