What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that’s seen in abusive relationships. It’s the act of manipulating a person by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them. A victim of gaslighting can be pushed so far that they question their own sanity.

The term “gaslighting” comes from a play and subsequent movie called “Gaslight.” In the movie, the devious husband, played by Charles Boyer, manipulates and torments his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, to convince her she’s going mad.

Gaslighting, whether intentional or not, is a form of manipulation. Gaslighting can happen in many types of relationships, including those with bosses, friends, and parents. But one of the most devastating forms of gaslighting is when it occurs in a relationship between a couple.

Signs of gaslighting

According to Robin Stern, PhD, author of the book “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life,” signs that you are a victim of gaslighting include:

  • no longer feeling like the person you used to be
  • being more anxious and less confident than you used to be
  • often wondering if you’re being too sensitive
  • feeling like everything you do is wrong
  • always thinking it’s your fault when things go wrong
  • apologizing often
  • having a sense that something’s wrong, but being unable to identify what it is
  • often questioning whether your response to your partner is appropriate (e.g., wondering if you were too unreasonable or not loving enough)
  • making excuses for your partner’s behavior
  • avoiding giving information to friends or family members to avoid confrontation about your partner
  • feeling isolated from friends and family
  • finding it increasingly hard to make decisions
  • feeling hopeless and taking little or no pleasure in activities you used to enjoy

Gaslighting examples

People who gaslight become expert at pushing your buttons, and they know your sensitivities and vulnerabilities and use that knowledge against you. They make you doubt yourself, your judgment, your memory, and even your sanity. Examples include:

  • Trivializing how you feel: “Oh yeah, now you’re going to feel really sorry for yourself.”
  • Telling you that people are talking behind your back: “Don’t you know? The whole family talks about you. They think you’re losing it.”
  • Saying things to you that they later deny having said: “I didn’t say I’d take the deposit to the bank. What are you talking about? Thanks a lot for the insufficient funds fee we’re going to get.”
  • Hiding objects from you, and then deny knowing anything about it: “You seriously can’t find your sunglasses again? That’s alarming.”
  • Insisting you were or were not at a certain place, even though it’s not true: “You’re crazy. You never went to that show with me. I should know.”

Gaslighting and narcissism

People who gaslight other people in their lives may have a psychological disorder called narcissistic personality disorder.

People with narcissistic personality disorder believe they’re extremely important and that the world revolves around them. They’re self-absorbed and don’t have time or interest in others unless it serves a purpose for them. They aren’t empathetic and don’t have the ability, or the interest, to understand what another person is feeling or experiencing.

Narcissists crave attention and praise and can be demanding. They have grandiose views of themselves, their lives, and their futures, and they often use manipulation as a way of achieving their personal goals.

A person with narcissistic personality disorder may:

  • project an inflated sense of self-importance
  • exaggerate their achievements
  • respond to criticism with anger
  • use others for personal gain
  • expect special consideration or special treatment
  • be highly critical of others
  • become envious and jealous easily

Getting help

Recognizing that you’re a victim in your relationship is the important first step toward getting help. The next step involves consulting a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. They can help you sift through your doubts and fears and understand the realities of what you experienced. You’ll learn how to manage doubts and anxiety and develop coping skills.