What is Gaslighting?
A lot has been written over the past six years about gaslighting, which is a form of psychological abuse that leads a victim to doubt their own sanity, perception of the world, and their own feelings. The term comes from a play by Patrick Hamilton in 1938, which was called Gas Light in England and Angel Street in the United States, and which was made into one British and one American film, both called Gaslight, in 1940 and 1944 respectively. Even though the story is 84 years old, I won’t spoil it here by sharing much of its plot. Essentially, though, it centers on a relationship in Victorian times between a man and a woman who begins to doubt her sanity as she has odd experiences in their shared home.
Gaslighting as a term began to appear in academic journals in the 1980s. It has always been a colloquial term and is not officially used as a mental health diagnosis. It is one of many forms of psychological abuse and is particularly challenging to identify. Because of its nature, it is very difficult for someone to recognize they’re being gaslighted (or gaslit, as it is sometimes written and said). Even when someone enters therapy it can be hard to recognize they’re being abused in this way because everything they report to their therapist is influenced by the distorted sense of reality that can result from gaslighting.
The term seems to have entered popular language in 2016 when people ascribed it to then-candidate Donald Trump and his tendency to deny having said things that he had clearly said. Prior to that time, the term had been used rarely in popular culture. An analysis of the terms origin and usage found that “gaslighting” was used by The New York Times for the first time ever in 1995 and then only a total of nine times between then and the middle of 2016. In the second half of that year alone, the same publication used it ten times (Yagoda, 2017).
Since 2016, its popularity has exploded as people work to make sense of how they are treated in all kinds of relationships including romantic, platonic, and collegial. As happens with terms that enter the mainstream, its meaning has been altered somewhat, which can be problematic. People will sometimes refer to the act of lying as gaslighting (Holland, 2021). Lying is usually a piece of it, but people can lie for many reasons that don’t involve a desire to make someone doubt their grasp on reality.
Most of the recent efforts to inform the public about gaslighting have been aimed at helping individuals recognize when they themselves are being gaslighted. Far less, but still some, attention has been paid to helping people recognize when they are the perpetrator (Corna, n.d.). That makes sense, of course. It’s rare for people who are behaving in abusive ways to seek out confirmation that they’re doing so. In fact, it’s rare for people who are behaving abusively to even consider that they’re being abusive.
More importantly for the purposes of this piece, it’s rare for people to behave abusively because they’ve set out with the intention of doing so. Of course, there are cases when someone wants to hurt someone else just for the sake of doing so. More frequently, though, people behave abusively because they don’t know how else to handle difficulties in their lives and relationships. They may be engaging in behaviors that they observed and experienced from others, and their behaviors may be serving them well as they are able to get what they want out of relationships.
Gaslighting may be employed by people who lack self-esteem and struggle with insecurity. In those moments it may serve to prevent them from having their shortcomings identified by others. This may arise in the workplace and may take the form of minimizing the significance of a professional shortcoming or shifting the conversation away from the job performance issue and on to the motivations of the person providing the feedback. If you can convince your boss they’re crazy for caring about a mistake you made, you’ll probably get far less critical feedback in the future and may even avoid the consequences of your actions.
Gaslighting can also be used by people who are fearful for the wellbeing of those they care about. If someone believes that their partner is deciding to do something dangerous or unhealthy, it’s not too much of a stretch to see how they may try to make their partner see even more danger than is present and doubt their own ability to contend with it or even recognize it. This can accomplish the gaslighter’s goal of keeping their loved one safe, but it can also have very negative impacts on the partner’s sense of their own capacity to take on challenges.
The previous paragraphs contain just a couple of examples of motivations for gaslighting behavior and how that behavior might look. There are many more possibilities. So, what signs should we look for to see if we might be engaging in gaslighting?
Lying (Gordon, 2022; Corna, n.d.)
As mentioned earlier, lying in and of itself does not constitute gaslighting. When gaslighting is occurring, however, lying is usually a big piece of it. So how do you respond when people are behaving in ways you don’t like? Is lying about your behavior or theirs a part of your defensive repertoire? How often do you find yourself saying things that you know to be untrue? Sometimes lying becomes so habitual that you may not be consciously making the decision to lie and only realize what you’ve done later. If that ever happens, how do you respond? Do you acknowledge the dishonesty? Do you avoid mentioning it and hope it never comes up again? Or do you double down on the lie even in the face of evidence that disproves it?
Discrediting (Gordon, 2022)
If a boss or coworker is behaving in ways that challenge or frustrate you, do you ever try to rally other people to your side? There can be benefits to venting with coworkers or others but pay attention to the flavor of your venting. If you find yourself working to build a case against another person’s competence, intentions, or sanity, you may be venturing into gaslighting territory. If you find yourself exaggerating or outright lying about your own or someone else’s behavior, you should consider what you’re trying to accomplish. Often this can involve lies of omission. Maybe you tell coworkers that your boss is being unreasonable in their demands of you but you leave out important details about your interactions with them or about the job performance issues they’re raising. Pay attention to whether you’re seeking validation for your feelings or seeking an ally against another person. It can also be helpful to consider how you would feel about others learning about your behavior. Do you want to keep everything between just you and the person you’re in conflict with? Have you taken steps to keep it secret? Have you been critical of someone else for sharing the details of your conflict even if you’ve shared some of the details yourself? If you wouldn’t want an impartial third party to see or hear your interactions, but you persist in doing those actions, it may be a sign that you’re gaslighting someone or at least behaving in unfair or unreasonable ways.
Citing the Concerns of Anonymous People (Gordon, 2022)
There are instances when it can be useful and helpful to share concerns that were told to you by someone who doesn’t want to be named. But if you’re doing that while you’re angry or upset with someone, and if the only concerns you’re sharing are the ones that happen to agree with your point of view, you may be engaging in gaslighting. If you’re exaggerating the concerns, or making them up entirely, there is a strong possibility that you’re gaslighting. This tactic relates closely to discrediting and is especially insidious because it can make the victim doubt any positive interactions they have with other people and lead them to feel isolated and suspicious.
Distraction (Gordon, 2022; Corna, n.d.; Tracy, 2021)
Questions, while often helpful in gaining clarity, can be a gaslighting tool as well. There are times when someone might object to your behavior and they have no reason or right to do so. In those instances, it may be helpful and appropriate to ask them why they care or what they hope to accomplish by challenging you. If your usual first instinct is to question someone’s motivations in challenging you or focus on the way they delivered feedback to you, however, you may be seeking to distract them from the issue at hand and deflecting attention from yourself on to them. This is a common element of gaslighting. Distraction can also take the form of changing the subject rapidly during a conversation, which can confuse and disorient another person and make it harder for them to fully consider what you or they are saying.
Minimization (Gordon, 2022; Corna, n.d.; Tracy, 2021)
We all know how it feels to have our feelings minimized or disregarded. It doesn’t feel good, and it is rarely appropriate. There may be times when you genuinely don’t understand why someone is upset by your behavior. If the relationship is valuable to you, a helpful response is to seek understanding of their point of view. A gaslighting response is to insist that the feelings about your behavior are unwarranted or outlandish. Do you respond to the concerns of others by telling them they’re overreacting? Do you tell other people about this seeming overreaction before you seek to understand the concern?
Challenging Memories (Gordon, 2002; Tracy, 2021)
With very few possible exceptions, people do not have perfect memories. It is not unreasonable to state when you remember something differently than someone else. It is unreasonable, however, to insist that your version of events is definitely true and someone else’s version is definitely false. Arguing fairly requires that we acknowledge the possibility that we are all incorrect in our recollection of something. Often, if we approach a conflict in good faith, we can disagree on many specific details but still find common ground on the most important facts of a situation. If you find yourself highlighting inaccuracies in someone’s recall of specific events, especially if those inaccuracies are irrelevant to the conversation at hand, you may be trying to convince someone that their memory is not to be trusted. How do you respond if you genuinely remember something differently than someone else? Do you seek evidence of what really happened even if reality differs from your recollection, or do you insist on your version of events and cast doubt on the other person?
How to Change
So, what do you do if you recognize your behavior in some of the descriptions above? First, you should prioritize stopping the behavior. You must decide that those tactics are no longer acceptable for you under any circumstances, which might mean you lose arguments and experience embarrassment or other unpleasant emotions. The longer you gaslight the easier it becomes to continue and the harder it becomes to stop.
Seek the help of a therapist who can help you understand the motivations for your gaslighting behavior, possibly identify the underlying cause, and develop strategies to manage conflict and difficult feelings in healthier ways. It may be helpful to develop a list of your personal values and identify the ways that your behaviors are or are not aligned with them. Identifying those values can also help you choose what you want to your response to challenging situations to be. Once you’ve developed a plan and made good progress on finding better ways to cope, it may be appropriate to try to make amends with people you’ve harmed. Because it is difficult to break patterns, and it is likely that there will be instances when you revert to old behaviors, it may not be a good idea to work on repairing past relationships until you’re confident you can consistently engage in healthier ways of coping.
The sad reality is that we all do harm to others on occasion. It’s hard to acknowledge when we’ve done so and take ownership of our actions, but the only thing that separates those of us who continue from those who do not is a willingness to honestly examine our own behavior and its impacts and then commit to change. We learn patterns of behavior because they’re adaptive at some point in our lives. Part of healing is recognizing when those patterns are no longer useful or when they violate our values and should be stopped. If you see yourself in the descriptions above and you have a desire to change, you’re already on your way to addressing those concerns, which is something to be proud of. A relationship with a therapist in which you commit to honesty and self-reflection can be a powerful tool in reducing or eliminating these behaviors.
Corna, H. (n.d.) What is gaslighting and how to know if you’re doing it. Hilary Corna. https://hilarycorna.com/what-is-gaslighting-and-how-to-know-if-youre-doing-it/
Gordon, S. (2022, January 5). What is gaslighting? Verywellmind. https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470
Holland, B. (2021, September 2). For those who experience gaslighting, the widespread misuse of the word is damaging. Well+Good. https://www.wellandgood.com/misuse-gaslighting/
Tracy, N. (2021, December 17). Gaslighting definition, techniques, and being gaslighted. Healthyplace.
Yagoda, B. (2017, January 12). How old is gaslighting? The Chronicle of Higher Education.