Psychology Series: What Is Gaslighting?

Psychology Series: What Is Gaslighting?

by Lisa Davis, April 9, 2019

The concept of gaslighting is often thrown around in pop culture, but most people aren’t certain what it means. Some people might know what gaslighting looks like in other relationships but not be able to see it in themselves. Others might understand the definition but not know how to identify it.

Knowing the definition and symptoms of gaslighting can help you look closely at your relationships and the relationships of those around you. Gaslighting occurs in friendships, family relationships, and romantic partnerships. Whatever the relation, gaslighting is emotional abuse. Here’s what you need to know.  

What Is Gaslighting?

The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines gaslighting as “a form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power.” If you can’t trust yourself, then you turn to whoever you think you can trust.

Oftentimes, abusers will make their victims question not only their sanity but the actions and intentions of other people around them. For example, an abusive boyfriend might try to turn their girlfriend against her best friends or her parents, saying her friends are just jealous or her parents are too controlling. Gaslighting is meant to discredit all thoughts so the only person the victim can trust is their abuser.

Gaslighting takes time. At first, there might be minor mixups or misunderstandings. However, the victim eventually believes that their thoughts and ideas were wrong, adopting the ideology of their abuser.

Where Does the Concept of Gaslighting Come From?

The term gaslight actually comes from a 1938 play called Gas Light, written by Patrick Hamilton. During the show, the character Jack Manningham convinces his wife Bella that she is going insane by making her question what is really happening. He dims the gas-powered lights in the home and claims that they are just as bright when she mentions it. She also claims to hear footsteps in the apartment above her, even though it is supposed to be empty. In reality, her husband Jack was walking around upstairs, though he denies that there was any noise. The term gaslighting came out of the play as a term for making people question their perception of reality as a form of manipulation.

What Are Some Common Warning Signs of Gaslighting?

Gaslighting can take many forms. It is an end result, not necessarily a strategy on its own. Abusers will often combine multiple gaslighting techniques to discredit their victims and make them change their way of thinking. Psychology Today identified a few techniques and warning signs of gaslighting from abusers:

  • They blatantly lie: when an abuser sets a precedent of lying, you have no idea when they are telling the truth and when they aren’t. This is meant to disorient you.
  • They deny saying things: by denying ever making a statement or agreeing to something, the abuser makes you question your memory.
  • They question the value of what you hold dear: if you are proud of your college degree, they will tear down the college system and promote real-world experience. If you love your kids, they will point out their flaws and how they are a burden. By devaluing the things you love in life, they build themselves up as a central figure.
  • They praise you for what they find valuable: after tearing you down for what you find valuable, they will praise you for doing something else. Once again, they want you to vie for their approval and position themselves as a source of power.
  • They create confusing situations: by constantly uprooting your feelings, thoughts, and plans, you stay in a state of stress and confusion, which only they can help alleviate.
  • They project: if you accuse them of something (lying, drinking, stealing) they will turn around and call you a liar, drunk, or thief instead.
  • They turn people against you: they will tell you that other people lie or have bad intentions or ulterior motives. This prevents people who care about you from intervening. 
  • They tell other people you are a liar or unstable: By tearing down your credibility, you have a harder time seeking help, speaking up, or defending yourself. You are made to feel less so they can feel bigger.

These strategies build up over time until you have completely devalued yourself and instead look to them for approval, stability, and guidance.

What Are Some Examples of Gaslighting in Relationships?

Gaslighting can happen in all types of relationships, not just romantic ones. It’s not uncommon to experience gaslighting in a toxic friendship or from an authority figure. Most victims don’t recognize the extent of the gaslighting until they get out of the relationship.

Gaslighting in Romantic Partnerships

One of the most commonly used examples of gaslighting comes in abusive romantic relationships. A boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife will convince their partner that their accomplishments and personal relationships are unimportant. The goal is to make themselves the most important aspect of their significant other’s life. Unhealthy romantic relationships can manifest themselves in all kinds of partnerships, even in teenage relationships.

Gaslighting in Friendships

While gaslighting is common in romantic relationships, it’s also used by friends. Friends will try to gaslight the people around them to elevate their social status and keep people close — even if the relationship is toxic.

A gaslighting friend might spread rumors and then deny it. They might tear down your accomplishments while promoting their own. The formula is always the same: they are the best and you are less, but you still need them to navigate your world.

Gaslighting in Organizations

Gaslighting isn’t only done by individuals. Organizations (like some cults, political parties, and even religious organizations) can gaslight their members into believing only the message that comes from their leaders and not outside forces. These groups play up an “us versus them” mentality and make it seem like outside groups are “out to get” their victims. Many people have a hard time leaving these groups because they’ve been taught that anyone outside of their organization can’t be trusted.

Learn More About Signs of Abuse and Unhealthy Relationships

Gaslighting is just one form of emotional abuse.  At Family Resources, we offer Love Notes and other healthy relationship courses to help young people identify the early warning signs of an abusive relationship and how to draw the line of respect. These classes are free for attendees between the ages of 18-25.

We want to help young people get off on the right foot and have healthy relationships throughout their lives. Sign up today!