Why Is Everyone Talking About 'Gaslighting'? Here's What It Means and How to Spot It

·7 min read

You may have heard the term "gaslighting" in the news or on social media. But what exactly does it mean? Gaslighting is a term used to describe the act of using psychological manipulation to get another person to question their own feelings, perception, or sanity. And in case you're wondering, yes—gaslighting is a form of abuse, says Viviana Coles, psychotherapist and doctor of marriage and family therapy at her practice Houston Relationship Therapy in Texas. Usually gaslighting is behavior used by a person trying to persuade someone to stay in an unhealthy romantic relationship, but it can occur in any relationship where one party is dependent on another, both professional and personal, and either online or in-person. It could be a boss or coworker; a romantic partner or relative; in some cases, even an acquaintance you're cyber-communicating with (think: a Twitter thread argument that's gone off the rails).

People are not born gaslighters. "It is a product of social learning—you witnessed another doing it, you experienced it or you happened into it as a way of controlling a moment," says Robin Stern, Ph.D., a licensed psychoanalyst and co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in New Haven, Conn. "Gaslighting is a way of 'righting' yourself when you feel off balance; of deflecting the conversation away from you and onto the character or skills or sanity or reality of your 'gaslightee'; of not having to take responsibility or answer direct questions that you don't want to answer."

Initially, gaslighting in a relationship can cause feelings of isolation, tattered self-esteem, insecure attachment and insecurity about your ability to think straight; and also become a barrier to experiencing joy. However, the effects of gaslighting can become even more serious if it becomes a regular dynamic, says Stern.

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Examples of Gaslighting

Say two people are in an argument. When one partner shares that she's feeling hurt because he called her lazy, that partner gets defensive, trying to explain what he actually meant. In a gaslighting situation, that partner (or gaslighter) may say that he never said that, and that she must be feeling that way about herself and projecting that onto him.

In the second situation, the gaslighter is seeking full control over the narrative and is unwilling to take any responsibility for a negative outcome, says Coles. "This person feels that they know best and [they] have tunnel-vision. They believe that their desired outcome is the best and only option for success, but they are only interested in their own definition of success," she adds.

Gaslighters use deceit, coercion, and manipulation to further their own goals and make the other person (or people) question their own perception of reality and the validity of their own feelings. Once the gaslighter removes their partner's autonomy and free will, that turns into emotional abuse—and can lead to neglect and even physical abuse as a means to control that person, Coles says.

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How to Recognize Gaslighting

The tell-tale sign you're a victim of gaslighting is persistent external blame placement that causes you to question what really happened, says Coles. You may find yourself wishing you had recorded evidence of interactions because your memories of those interactions are so different from those of the person doing the gaslighting.

Gaslighting can often lead to feelings of having done something wrong, or that you're being too sensitive. "There is a self-doubt that creeps into your mind because the abuser does not want you to assign the blame to them," Coles says. It can be difficult to recognize gaslighting because it can sometimes be explained away as defensiveness or "having a different perspective." When a relationship is based on love and respect, a gaslighter's action can be seen as an opportunity for self-reflection and change—but no one should have to be the only person in the relationship who's ever wrong or has to apologize, says Coles.

Being in a gaslighting situation is even more difficult for someone who already suffers from low self-esteem and high levels of self-doubt. Over time, gaslighting can further erode self-esteem and autonomy to the point that manipulation can turn into physical neglect and harm, Coles warns. "But even without physical abuse," she adds," questioning one's self and ability to make good decisions can lead to depression and increased levels of anxiety, and both can lead to major health issues."

You can think about gaslighting in three stages, according to Stern:

  1. Disbelief. You can't believe your partner is saying such silly things or trying to tell you there's something wrong with you. Eventually, as your partner continues to insist and be certain about his or her reality and undermine yours, you begin to question if he or she can possibly be right.

  2. Defense. You are constantly defending yourself, ruminating over and over about what your partner said and what you said, and about who is right or wrong.

  3. Depression. When you've been gaslighted for a long period of time, you're not the same person you were when you entered into the relationship. You are more isolated and avoid conversations about your relationship and anything that might trigger the gaslighting. Often in this stage, you're taking the gaslighter's side of the argument.

Here are signs of possible gaslighting, she adds:

  • You are constantly second-guessing yourself.

  • You ask yourself, "Am I too sensitive?" a dozen times a day.

  • You often feel confused and even crazy at work.

  • You're always apologizing to your mother/father/partner/boss.

  • You can't understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren't happier.

  • You frequently make excuses for your partner's behavior to friends and family.

  • You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses.

  • You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.

  • You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.

  • You have trouble making simple decisions.

  • You have the sense that you used to be a very different person—more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.

  • You feel hopeless and joyless.

  • You feel as though you can't do anything right.

  • You wonder if you are a "good enough" girlfriend/wife/employee/friend/daughter.

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How to Confront It and Stop the Gaslighting

First, try sharing your interactions with others to get an outside opinion. If gaslighting becomes pervasive, you should seek professional help together from a licensed psychotherapist to help you break the cycle of abuse, says Coles. (FYI: Here's how to find the right therapist for you.) You can also address your partner's gaslighting behavior with them directly, but only if you're ready to demand change in their behavior—and to walk away from the relationship if those changes are not made, she adds. It's important to minimize your own self-doubt to gain the confidence needed to take this action.

If you decide to try confronting your partner, here's a sample script you can use, says Coles:

I have noticed a destructive pattern in our relationship that I'm no longer willing to be a part of. When you consistently blame me for any wrongdoing in our relationship or tell me that any concerns or complaints that I have of you and your actions are unfounded, it makes me feel like we don't have a chance at a healthy future together. If we can't break this unhealthy cycle of behaviors, I won't be able to remain in this relationship. If we find that we can't figure this out on our own, I'd like to attend psychotherapy sessions with a professional because I want us to have a healthy future."

The bottom line when addressing someone who's gaslighting you is to remember to name the dynamic and to determine if the gaslighter is behaving that way intentionally and consciously, or if they're just using a strategy that they've learned and that works. "If you care about the relationship," says Stern, "I recommend stepping out of any power struggle, setting limits, holding onto your own reality, avoiding trying to convince your gaslighter he [or she] is wrong and you are right, and getting social support."

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