The Basic Idea
Imagine that you are having an argument with your partner after finding out that they lied to you about where they were. You try to calmly approach the conversation in an attempt to understand what happened, but it quickly escalates into a heated argument. Your aggrevated partner begins to make statements that do not make sense or are irrelevant, saying things like:
- “I have no idea what you’re talking about, I was at the gym.”
- “You’re crazy! It’s like you’re stalking me and need to know where I am all the time.”
- “Well, where were you the other day?”
- “You’re overreacting.”
Each of these responses represents a different form of gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation that causes you to question your own feelings and thoughts. In the first example, your partner is lying to you. In the second, they are discrediting you by calling you crazy. In the third, they are distracting you and shifting blame. In the last one, they are minimizing your feelings.1
There are a few other forms of gaslighting we’ll further explore in this article, but the main idea is that the person who is gaslighting you tries to undermine your sense of reality and therefore question whether your emotions are valid. It is a form of emotional abuse that most commonly occurs in romantic relationships, which leaves the victim feeling like they are the ones to blame.1
Theory, meet practice
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Emotional Abuse: a way to control another person by manipulating their emotions. It is often more subtle than physical abuse but can be just as harmful. It can form a dangerous attachment to the abuser, as the victim is too hurt or afraid to cut ties with their abuser as they doubt their perceptions and feelings. 3
Narcissism: a personality disorder where an individual has an inflated sense of self, a need for excessive attention and admiration, and lack of empathy for others, which leads to troubled relationships. 4 They often engage in gaslighting behaviors, as they rarely admit their own flaws and become aggressive when criticized. They are likely to place the blame on others, lie, and attempt to manipulate others’ emotions, which are forms of gaslighting. 5
Medical gaslighting: as defined by the CPTSD foundation, which seeks to equip complex trauma survivors with the skills and knowledge to overcome their trauma, medical gaslighting is when a medical professional trivializes a person’s health concerns. They might tell them they are a hypochondriac (someone who worries excessively about their health), or otherwise dismiss their concerns.6
Racial gaslighting ( or racelighting): is when gaslighting techniques are employed on a group of people due to their race. For example, someone might minimize the hardships an entire racial minority has been through.6
Political gaslighting: when a political figure uses gaslighting techniques to manipulate individuals into behaving/voting the way they want. For example, they might try to discredit an opponent by questioning their sanity.6
Institutional gaslighting: when gaslighting occurs at an organizational level. For example, the CEO could hide some information or lie about particular details.6 Alternatively, a co-worker might deny or downplay your achievements so you don’t feel worthy of a promotion.
Gaslighting got its name from a 1938 play, Gaslight, by British playwright Patrick Hamilton.7 In the play, which was later made into a movie in 1944, the husband wants his wife to be admitted to a mental institution so that he could access her fortune, which causes him to try to convince her she’s going mad.8
In one scene, Paula, the wife, notes that gaslights in their home are dimming and brightening for no reason, and tells her husband, Gregory. Gregory convinces her that she’s imagining it and seeing things, however, he was switching the attic lights on and off to cause the gaslight to flicker. At multiple times throughout the play, Gregory uses similar strategies to discredit Paula’s perception of reality.9
The term began to be used in clinical settings and in academic journals in the 1980s, most commonly in reference to gendered power dynamics, specifically when males would engage in gaslighting behaviors after engaging in extramarital affairs to avoid blame. They would suggest their wives were reacting irrationality or overreacting, or tell them they would suffer societal shame if people knew their husband had an affair. Gaslighting is not, however, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.10
Since the 1980s, the term gaslighting has become more popular and is sometimes used outside its proper definition. This can be problematic, as when it is used to describe non-gaslighting behaviors, the effects of gaslighting are downplayed. The watered-down use of gaslighting, in fact, gaslights its victims!11
The term gaslighting broke into colloquial language when journalist Ben Yagoda labelled Trump’s political behavior as gaslighting in 2017. According to Yagoda, Trump would habitually deny sayings things that he had said on record. Journalists and other politicians would continuously question him on something he had previously said, and he would deny that he did, perpetuating the reality he wanted people to believe. In a sense, Trump effectively employed political gaslighting to convince Americans to accept his reality.11
In 2018, Oxford Dictionaries said that gaslighting was one of its most popular words of the year, and its use and popularity in Google searches has only increased since then. The term is thrown around by just about everyone - even former bachelorette Katie Thurston called out one of the contestants for gaslighting.11
We already mentioned a few gaslighting techniques above. Other techniques include using compassionate words as a weapon. For example, a gaslighter might say that they love you and would never purposefully hurt you, which makes you question your perception of events after being hurt. They also might try to rewrite history - they might twist the details of something that happened to make you second-guess whether you remember it correctly.1 Gaslighters may also try to isolate their victims from family and friends, as these people might validate thoughts that counteract the gaslighter’s narrative. Another technique which makes it hard to break free from a gaslighter is a cycle of warm-cold behavior, characterized by rapid alterations between kindness and malice, which throws someone off and leaves them unsure what to expect.12
While there are many behaviors associated with gaslighting, the five that are listed by the National Domestic Violence Hotline are:
- Withholding: refusing to understand or listen.
- Countering: questioning the victim’s memory of events.
- Blocking/Diverting: changing the subject.
- Trivializing: minimizing the victim’s emotions.
- Forgetting/Denial: the abuser makes it seem like they’ve forgotten what happened.12
Gaslighting has serious consequences on victims’ mental health. It can lead people to doubt their feelings and reality, question their judgment, and make them feel insecure, confused, alone, and powerless. Think about it: if you are constantly told by someone you trust, like a romantic partner, that you are too sensitive or you’re ‘crazy’, it would be hard to make rational decisions or trust yourself.1
Emotional abuse like gaslighting can be just as harmful as physical abuse, as it denies someone a sense of validity and worth. Gaslighting can lead to trauma, which can lead to Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). Alongside psychological trauma, long-term effects of gaslighting include anxiety, depression, and isolation.6 To break away from the relationship where gaslighting is occurring, and to heal, gaslighted individuals usually need to seek professional help.
Oftentimes, it takes a long time for a person to realize they are being gaslighted, as it’s associated behaviors are subtle, covert forms of abuse. As Dr. Robin Stern, a director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, stated “when people are abused there are signs that you can point to that are much more obvious. Someone who has been hit or threatened for instance - it’s easy to see and understand how they have been hurt. But when someone is manipulating you, you end up second-guessing yourself and turning your attention to yourself as the person to blame.” 13
Gaslighting has such damaging effects on mental health because the gaslighted individual feels so worthless that they don’t feel like they deserve to be treated any better. Additionally, people that employ gaslighting behaviors often do so because of their own insecurities and insatiable needs for attention and admiration. So, when someone tries to leave a gaslighter, they employ the ‘hoovering’ technique: the gaslighter will apologize, tell their victim they love them, and promise to never behave that way again.14
Few people would deny that there exists manipulative behavior that can be categorized as gaslighting, however, it is widely debated what exactly constitutes gaslighting behavior. Gaslighting is manipulative behavior, but not all manipulative behavior is gaslighting.
In an interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, a therapist who has done extensive research on the topic, acknowledges that, while there is a fine line between manipulation and gaslighting, the two are clearly distinct. According to Sarkis, manipulation covers a wider range of behaviors that are used in various fields. For example, subtle manipulation techniques are often used in advertising to get people to buy something. In her opinion, manipulation becomes gaslighting “when it becomes a series of behaviors where the sole intent is to gain control of someone else, then you’re getting into gaslighting behaviours.” 15
That doesn’t mean that anyone who tries to control you is using gaslighting techniques. For example, a police officer might try to control you if they have seen you do something illegal, however, they’re not gaslighting unless their behavior makes you question your understanding of reality. Indeed, if you knew you committed the crime, their behavior would be understandable. Alternatively, if a police officer was to plant drugs on an individual and then convince them that it’s theirs, that would be an example of gaslighting.
Gaslighting and Gender
Gaslighting was first used in academic journals when exploring gender power dynamics, and it continues to be a behavior that favours female victims. In various realms of life, this gaslighting leads to women being labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘too emotional’, which can have highly detrimental psychological, medical, and legal ramifications.
For example, women are twice as likely to get diagnosed as having depression or an anxiety disorder compared to men.16 Alternatively, they are more likely to receive an incorrect diagnosis for major medical ailments, as even doctors come to believe the stereotypes of women being too sensitive or mischaracterizetheir pain. In fact, hypochondria was first known as hysteria, where women were reported to believe their womb was ‘wandering’, and thus, was a disease restricted to females.17
Knowing that they are likely to be gaslight, women might avoid seeing their doctors - one study suggests that the reason why women are twice as likely to die from heart attacks is because doctors don’t believe them and don’t provide the necessary life-saving care.18
Women are often publicly and legally gaslighted. Typically, this manifests as women being labelled as erratic for their responses to traumatic behavior. When Debbie Baptise was informed that her son, Colten Boushie, had been killed, she fell to her knees screaming. The police officers asked if she had been drinking, deeming her response to her son’s death as irrational.19 As she fought for her son’s justice, she was characterized in court, by the public, and in the media as hysterical. Oftentimes, women who come forward about being the victims of sexual assault are characterized as individuals making a big deal out of nothing or failing to take responsibility for their own actions, making them question their perception of events as well.12
Gaslighting and Donald Trump
As mentioned, gaslighting became more common in popular discourse when Donald Trump turned to politics. Trump employed various gaslighting techniques throughout his election, constantly lying about reality. He claimed that he was doing better in New York polls than his opponent Hilary Clinton in 2016 (he wasn’t), said he never encourages violence at his rallies (he encourages crowds at rallies to use force against protesters), and claims that he was the first candidate to mention immigration. Through his use of gaslighting, he heavily popularized the term ‘fake news’. 20
Perhaps Trump’s most sustained campaign was his attempt to discredit the 2020 election results. To cope with his loss, he spread conspiracies of a mass mail-in voting fraud arranged by presidential nominee Joe Biden. Before voting even started, he began to slowly and strategically sow a seed of doubt in Americans’ minds by raising concerns about mail-in-voting. After the vote, he requested numerous recounts, disseminating false information to ensure that these recounts would go his way. Yet, when Trump’s attorneys were asked to provide evidence of the alleged fraud, they had nothing to produce.21
On January 6th, 2021, when his supporters stormed the US Capitol, President Trump once again tried to use gaslighting to try and convince the public to perceive the insurrection. He claimed that the rioters were rightfully angry, as they were treated unfairly. He even, wrongfully and inaccurately, compared their endeavour to the treatment of protestors in the Black Lives Matter movement. Overall, he attempted to downplay the violent event and convince people that his perception of the day was the true reality.22
Clearly, it can be very dangerous when someone with a platform as large as the former President of the United States begins to use gaslighting techniques, since its effects can be felt by an entire country. Unfortunately, this form of political gaslighting has caused America to be more divided politically than ever. Opposing parties have such vastly different understandings of reality that it’s impossible to talk across differences. Without a solid sense of reality, it is difficult to have a democracy.
Related TDL Content
The Power of Narratives in Decision Making
Gaslighting has to do with manipulating a person’s understanding of reality, which typically involves getting the victim to believe a particular narrative. The stories we tell have profound impacts on our decisions, as they impact how we process the world around us. We like things to make sense - so when someone gaslights us and threatens our sense of self, it can be very damaging. In this article, our contributor Constantin Huet, examines why humans like to create these chronological narratives and how this impacts our decision-making in day-to-day life.
Social Media and Moral Outrage
If you think about ‘fake news’, you immediately think of social media as one of the biggest perpetrators. Social media algorithms favour and reward sensationalism, and fake news makes great click-bait. That’s what happened in October of 2021, when Frances Haugen provided documents that showed the inner workings of Facebook algorithms and showed that the algorithm rewarded outrage. In this article, our contributor Paridhi Kohari explores why moral outrage spreads online and the effects it has on our society.
- Gordon, S. (2022, January 5). What Is Gaslighting? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470
- Gaslighting Quotes. (n.d.). Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/gaslighting
- Gordon, S. (2020, September 17). What Is Emotional Abuse? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/identify-and-cope-with-emotional-abuse-4156673
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, November 18). Narcissistic personality disorder. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662
- Ni, P. (2017, July 30). 6 Common Traits of Narcissists and Gaslighters. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/communication-success/201707/6-common-traits-narcissists-and-gaslighters
- Huizen, J. (2020, July 14). What is gaslighting? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting
- Lindsay, J. (2018, April 5). What is gaslighting? The meaning and origin of the term explained. Metro. https://metro.co.uk/2018/04/05/what-is-gaslighting-7443188/
- Hendriksen, E. (2018, February 28). How to Recognize 5 Tactics of Gaslighting. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-recognize-5-tactics-of-gaslighting/
- Here's where 'gaslighting' got its name. (2016, October 14). The World. https://theworld.org/stories/2016-10-14/heres-where-gaslighting-got-its-name
- Gass, G. Z., & Nichols, W. C. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome. Contemporary Family Therapy, 10(1), 3-16. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00922429
- Holland, B. (2021, September 1). Why the misuse of Gaslighting is problematic. Well+Good. https://www.wellandgood.com/misuse-gaslighting/
- Conrad, M. (2021, June 22). What Is Gaslighting And How Do You Deal With It? Forbes Health. https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/what-is-gaslighting/
- Leve, A. (2017, March 16). How to survive gaslighting: when manipulation erases your reality. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/16/gaslighting-manipulation-reality-coping-mechanisms-trump
- Gaslighting. (2017, November 7). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gaslighting
- Gillihan, S. J. (2018, November 14). When Is It Gaslighting and When Is It Not? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/think-act-be/201811/when-is-it-gaslighting-and-when-is-it-not
- Dusenbery, M. (2018, May 29). 'Everybody was telling me there was nothing wrong'. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180523-how-gender-bias-affects-your-healthcare
- Seegert, L. (2018, November 16). Women more often misdiagnosed because of gaps in trust and knowledge. Association of Health Care Journalists.
- Dusenbery, M. (2015, March 23). Is medicine's gender bias killing young women? Pacific Standard. https://psmag.com/social-justice/is-medicines-gender-bias-killing-young-women
- Giese, R. (2018, February 20). Why Has Colten Boushie’s Mother Had To Work So Hard Just To Prove Her Son’s Humanity? Chatelaine. https://www.chatelaine.com/opinion/colten-boushie-mother/
- Hemmer, N. (2016, March 15). Trump Is Gaslighting America. US News. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/nicole-hemmer/articles/2016-03-15/donald-trump-is-conning-america-with-his-lies
- Pottratz, R. (2021, January 15). Donald Trump and gaslighting. St. Cloud Times. https://www.sctimes.com/story/opinion/2021/01/15/donald-trump-and-gaslighting/4167553001/
- Cillizza, C. (2021, September 17). Donald Trump is gaslighting us on the January 6 riot. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/17/politics/donald-trump-september-18-january-6/index.html