Understanding Gaslighting and Its Effects

This harmful form of psychological abuse takes its name from a 1938 play

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Gaslighting is a harmful form of psychological abuse in which a person or entity attempts to gain power over others by making them question their own recollection of events, perception of reality, and ultimately their sanity.   

As used in clinical research, literature, and political commentary, the term comes from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play “Gas Light,” and its film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944, in which a murderous husband slowly drives his wife insane by progressively dimming their home’s gas-powered lights without her knowledge. When his wife complains, he convincingly tells her that the light has not changed. 

Since almost anyone can fall victim to gaslighting, it is a common tactic of domestic abusers, cult leaders, sociopaths, narcissists, and dictators. Gaslighting can be perpetrated by either women or men.

Often especially convincingly charming liars, gaslighters consistently deny their devious actions. For example, physically abusive persons involved in intimate relationships may gaslight their partners by passionately denying they had acted violently or by trying to convince victims that they “deserved it,” or “enjoyed it.” Ultimately, gaslighting victims lower their expectations of what constitutes true affection and start to see themselves as being less deserving of affectionate treatment.

The gaslighter’s ultimate goal is to instill a feeling of “I can’t believe my eyes” causing their victims to second guess their perception of reality, choice, and decision, thus increasing their level of trust in and dependence on their abuser for helping them “do the right thing.” Dangerously, of course, the “right thing” is often the “wrong thing.”

The longer the gaslighting continues, the more catastrophic its effects can be on the victim’s psychological health. In the most serious cases, the victim actually begins to accept the gaslighter’s false version of reality as the truth, stop looking for help, reject the advice and support of family and friends, and become completely dependent of their abuser.

Techniques and Examples of Gaslighting

The techniques of gaslighting are cleverly designed to make it hard for victims to recognize. In most cases, the gaslighter purposely creates situations that allow them to hide the truth from the victim. For example, a gaslighter might move his partner’s keys from their usual spot, causing her to think she had misplaced them. He then “helps” her find the keys, telling her something like, “See? They’re right where you always leave them.”

According the Domestic Abuse Hotline, the most common techniques of gaslighting include:

  • Withholding: The gaslighter pretends not to understand or ignores his or her victims. For example, “Oh, not this again,” or “Now you’re trying to confuse me,” or “How many times have I told you…?”
  • Countering: The gaslighter wrongly blames the victim’s faulty memory, even when the victim’s recollection is accurate. For example, “You’ve been forgetting things more often lately,” or “Your mind is playing tricks on you again.”
  • Blocking or Diverting: The gaslighter keeps changing the subject or questioning their victim’s mental health, For example, “I bet your crazy friend (or family member) told you that,” or “You’re just making things up so you can use them against me.”
  • Trivializing: The gaslighter makes the victim’s needs or fears seem unimportant. For example: “You’re mad at me for a little thing like that?” or “You’re going to let that come between us?”
  • Forgetting or Denial: The gaslighter falsely claims to have forgotten what actually happened or denies promises made to the victim. For example, “I told you I was going to be late,” or “I never told you I would pick you up.”

Common Signs of Gaslighting

Victims must first recognize the signs of gaslighting in order to escape the abuse. According to psychoanalyst Robin Stern, Ph.D., you might be a victim if:

  • You seem to be second-guessing or doubting yourself more often,
  • You constantly wonder if you might be “too sensitive.”
  • You often feel confused, possibly to the point of doubting your own sanity.
  • You constantly feel you need to apologize to your partner.
  • You wonder why, with so many good things in your life, you are so unhappy.
  • You frequently feel the need to make excuses for partner’s behavior.
  • You often withhold information about your partner’s behavior from friends and family.
  • You know something is very wrong, but can’t quite figure out what it is.
  • You struggle to make what should be simple decisions.
  • You constantly feel that you need to be a “better person.”
  • You feel hopeless and joyless.
  • You wonder if you are “good enough” partner.

Since some of these signs of gaslighting—especially those involving memory loss and confusion—could also be symptoms of another physical or emotional disorder, persons experiencing them should always consult with a physician.

Recovering from Gaslighting

Once they recognize that someone is gaslighting them, victims can recover and regain their ability to trust their own perception of reality. Victims often benefit from re-establishing relationships they may have abandoned as a result of being abused. Isolation only makes the situation worse and surrenders more power to the abuser. Knowing they have the trust and support of others helps victims recover the ability to trust and believe in themselves. Recovering gaslighting victims may also choose to seek professional therapy to gain reassurance that their sense of reality is correct.

Again able to trust themselves, victims are better able to end their relationship with their abusers. While gaslighter-victim relationships can be salvaged, doing so can be difficult. As relationship therapist Darlene Lancer, JD, points out, both partners must be willing and able to change their behavior. Willing partners sometimes successfully encourage each other to change. However, as Lancer notes, this is less likely to happen if one or both partners has an addiction or personality disorder.

Key Points About Gaslighting

  • Gaslighting is a harmful form of psychological abuse.
  • Gaslighters attempt to gain control over others by making them question their own memory, reality, and sanity.
  • Gaslighting is a common tactic of domestic abusers, cult leaders, sociopaths, narcissists, and dictators.
  • The first step in recovering from gaslighting is realizing it is happening.
  • As with all forms of psychological and domestic abuse, professional help is often needed.

Sources and Additional References

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Longley, Robert. "Understanding Gaslighting and Its Effects." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-gaslighting-4163621. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). Understanding Gaslighting and Its Effects. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gaslighting-4163621 Longley, Robert. "Understanding Gaslighting and Its Effects." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gaslighting-4163621 (accessed June 9, 2023).