Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that makes you question your beliefs and perception of reality.
Over time, this type of manipulation can wear down your self-esteem and self-confidence, leaving you dependent on the person gaslighting you.
The term itself comes from the 1938 play “Gas Light,” later released as the 1940 and 1944 movies “Gaslight.” The story follows a husband who isolates and manipulates his wife with an end goal of institutionalizing her.
Dr. Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, helped bring the term “gaslighting” into public consciousness with her 2007 book “The Gaslight Effect.”
Someone who’s gaslighting might:
- insist you said or did things you know you didn’t do
- deny or scoff at your recollection of events
- call you “too sensitive” or “crazy” when you express your needs or concerns
- express doubts to others about your feelings, behavior, and state of mind
- twisting or retelling events to shift blame to you
- insist they’re right and refuse to consider facts or your perspective
Signs you’ve experienced gaslighting
Experiencing gaslighting can leave you second-guessing yourself constantly, not to mention overwhelmed, confused, and uncertain about your ability to make decisions on your own.
Other key signs you’re experiencing gaslighting include:
- an urge to apologize all the time
- believing you can’t do anything right
- frequent feelings of nervousness, anxiety, or worry
- a loss of confidence
- constantly wondering if you’re too sensitive
- feeling disconnected from your sense of self, as if you’re losing your identity
- believing you’re to blame when things go wrong
- a persistent sense that something isn’t right, though you can’t identify exactly what’s wrong
- a lingering sense of hopelessness, frustration, or emotional numbness
These feelings tend to come from what the other person says or implies about your behavior. For example:
- “You seem so confused lately, and you keep forgetting things. I’m getting a little worried.”
- “You know I wouldn’t say these things if I didn’t care, right?”
This mask of concern can leave you even more convinced there’s something “wrong” with you.
Gaslighting can also show up as changes in your behavior. You might find yourself:
- making choices to please others instead of yourself
- frequently questioning whether you said the right thing or made the right choice
- making excuses for the person gaslighting you to family and friends
- lying or isolating yourself from loved ones to avoid conflict
- constantly reviewing your words and actions to make sure you’ve done everything “right”
- spending little or no time on the activities or hobbies you used to enjoy
According to Stern, people often gaslight because being right allows them to validate themselves. When gaslighters feel threatened, they need you to believe and support their version of events in order to maintain their sense of power and control.
Gaslighting can also happen when someone believes their narrative is more valid than someone else’s, says Ana De La Cruz, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Florida.
Persuading someone else to question their own reality, then, can leave them with a sense of superiority, De La Cruz explains.
Gaslighting isn’t the same as someone lying to you, expressing a different opinion, or saying you’re wrong about something. It’s more nuanced, which can make it harder to recognize.
This often happens in three distinct stages, according to Stern, though not every gaslighting dynamic involves all three stages:
- Disbelief. Someone displays gaslighting behavior. It seems unusual, but you brush it off as a one-time thing.
- Defense. After a few more instances of gaslighting, you start to defend yourself.
- Depression. Eventually, you accept their version of reality to avoid conflict and do whatever you can to earn their approval. But this denial of reality drains your energy, disconnecting you from yourself and leaving you feeling low and hopeless.
Anyone can gaslight, not just people in your personal life. Politicians, for example, gaslight when they deny events recorded on video or witnessed by multiple people. Doctors may gaslight when they suggest you’ve imagined your symptoms, imply that you’re exaggerating your pain, or recommend therapy instead of medical treatment.
Here are some other examples of gaslighting in action:
You live with your mother. The two of you get along fairly well, but she often questions you when you come home a little late.
“You said you’d be home right after work tonight,” she insists one day. “I need my medication, but now the pharmacy will be closed by the time we get there.”
When you tell her you don’t recall that conversation about taking her to run errands, she shakes her head in disbelief. “You stood right there and promised you’d be home early.”
But you remember making coffee quietly in the kitchen so you wouldn’t wake her. You say this, but she refuses to consider your version of events.
Later, you overhear her talking loudly on the phone. “I’m just not sure about his state of mind,” she says. “He can’t even remember a conversation from this morning!”
Similar situations play out repeatedly, to the point where you begin wondering whether you are forgetting everything.
In a romantic relationship
You have some pretty convincing proof your partner cheated. You ask them about it directly, giving them a chance to be honest.
Consider these two reactions:
- “What? No, of course I’m not cheating on you.”
- “How dare you accuse me of cheating. I work all day and come home to spend time with you, but you’re never here. You say you’re working, but who knows where you are? You’re probably the one cheating. And if I were cheating, it’s not like you could blame me, since you’re always too tired for sex.”
The first response is just a lie. The second, however, may be an attempt to make you feel guilty enough to drop the subject for good. Even if you don’t believe them, you might end up questioning your evidence of their affair — or feeling bad for not being a “better” partner and try to make it up to them instead.
You’ve earned a promotion to be a manager. With the promotion comes an assistant manager — someone who wanted that same promotion.
Over the past few weeks, you’ve noticed documents disappearing from your desk and important phone messages not coming through.
When you ask the assistant manager if they’ve seen any of the documents, their angry reaction surprises you.
“Are you accusing me of taking your things? Remember, my job is to help you. Why would I do anything like that?”
When you ask about another missing file a few weeks later, they say, “You know, you seem really stressed lately. This promotion is a big change. Not everyone can handle the responsibility.”
When seeking medical care
For months, you’ve had some persistent abdominal symptoms that concern you, along with a generally low mood and fatigue.
Your doctor, however, seems skeptical. They ask whether you could be pregnant or if the symptoms relate to your period. You assure them the symptoms come and go at all times and that you’re definitely not pregnant.
“I see you mention some feelings of depression. Sometimes depression can manifest with more physical symptoms. Have you considered talking to a therapist?”
You already noted in your paperwork that you’re working with a therapist, but you mention this again. You try to explain that you think your low mood relates more to your regular pain, discomfort, and lack of energy.
“Therapy can make such a difference. I’m sure you’ll notice some improvement before long. In a few months we can talk about some testing if there’s no change, but this doesn’t look like anything serious.”
Their dismissal doesn’t feel right, but, then, you didn’t go to medical school, either. If they say your symptoms are nothing to worry about, well, maybe they really aren’t that bad, after all.
Gaslighting often works partly because you want to trust the person gaslighting you and earn their approval. You (very understandably) want to have faith in your doctor, your parents, or your best friend.
“We all carry insecurities we’re afraid to acknowledge,” De La Cruz notes. “When someone gives us a reason to doubt ourselves, it’s like they’ve given us permission to allow those insecurities to come to life.”
Plus, gaslighting isn’t always obvious or extreme. Often, it’s disguised as an attempt to “look out for you.”
“I’m sorry I have to tell you this,” your roommate says one day. “But your friends don’t really like you. They only hang out with you because you have money and they can take advantage of you. I just thought you should know.”
Their words resonate because you’ve secretly worried about that. You could always ask your friends, but that kernel of doubt leaves you afraid of their response.
If you’ve noticed some signs of gaslighting, you can take steps to address it and reclaim your emotional space.
Turn to loved ones
If you suspect someone is gaslighting you, it never hurts to get some outside perspective. Trusted friends and family members not directly involved in the relationship can:
- offer their perspective
- help you get some clarity
- provide emotional support
If you’ve recently started to distance yourself from your loved ones, keep in mind that isolation can only make gaslighting more successful.
It’s often easier to question yourself about an argument or discussion that happened days ago.
Recording events immediately after they happen provides evidence you don’t need to second-guess. Jotting down highlights from a conversation or using a smartphone app to record your argument offers something to review when your memory is called into question.
You may not feel comfortable confronting the person, but your notes can help you recognize what’s happening.
Set clear boundaries
Establishing boundaries can interrupt someone’s attempts to gaslight you and provide some physical and emotional space.
The next time it happens, you might say:
- “It seems we remember things differently, so let’s move on.”
- “If you call me ‘crazy,’ I’m going to leave the room.”
- “We can talk about it, but if you shout, I’m going to leave.”
Sticking to these boundaries is essential. Following through shows them they can’t manipulate you.
Hold on to the things that make you who you are
Gaslighting often involves a loss of personal identity. Over time, you might begin to feel like you’ve changed beyond recognition, or become numb and hollow.
Living in a constant state of nervousness and worry can leave you with little energy for self-care or your own interests.
Yet making time to meet your physical and emotional needs can help you reclaim your energy and hold on to your sense of self. You might even find it easier to navigate and challenge attempts to gaslight you, as a result.
Over time, gaslighting can:
- affect your sense of self-worth
- leave you unsure about making decisions
- contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness
Support from a mental health professional can go a long way toward helping you recognize and come to terms with the gaslighting and begin working through it.
A therapist can offer an unbiased perspective on gaslighting, along with compassionate guidance as you begin to:
- name and address any doubts and fears around your own self-worth
- work through painful or unwanted emotions
- accept that you didn’t cause or deserve the gaslighting
- explore and set healthy boundaries
A therapist can also teach you skills to:
Couples counseling can also provide a safe space for you and your partner to learn new ways to communicate and resolve conflict. Just know therapists do not recommend counseling for abusive relationships. If you’re experiencing ongoing abuse, a therapist can help you develop a plan to leave the relationship safely.
Gaslighting may start out gradually, but this subtle manipulation can cause deep and lasting harm.
A therapist can help you begin to identify gaslighting and offer support with addressing its impact productively, without losing yourself in the process.