What Exactly Is Gaslighting? Everything You Need to Know
You've probably heard the term gaslighting thrown around a lot more these days (see: Katie Thurston's season of The Bachelorette), but the term and experience of gaslighting is anything but new.
To explain it very simply, imagine if someone hit you with their car, and then blamed you for being in the way. It's an extreme example, but a classic case of gaslighting — aka psychological manipulation that has an end goal of making someone doubt themselves or lose trust in themselves. Although used casually often, gaslighting is anything but simple. Below, find out how psychologists and researchers explain the gaslighting phenomenon.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting in fact, first emerged in the 1940s from the movie Gaslight, but it re-emerged in mainstream culture in 2016 thanks to a certain political figurehead and then became buzzy again last summer after The Bachelorette aired. And it's not just a colloquialism; both clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., and psychotherapist Rachel Wright, L.M.F.T., say they learned this term back in school while studying psychology.
Thanks, in part, to the changing landscape of politics and culture, the term has gone from more clinical in nature to something that is on the tips of tongues everywhere — whether among friend groups or in therapy sessions, explains Wright.
As for what gaslighting actually means? Fundamentally, it's psychological manipulation, deception, and trickery, with a goal of eroding the self-trust of another party. "Gaslighting is about power and control," says Gilliland. "It's one person over the other; they achieve [power] by undermining [the other party's] own judgment, sanity, and confidence in themselves and their perceptions."
And it's not just about individuals, as gaslighting can be applied at a larger sociological level, explains Gilliland.
"Gaslighting is dangerous because it's so subtle," he says. "It's a pattern, not an event. It works overtime; an erosion, not a flash flood." (More: Signs of Emotional Manipulation Everyone Should Know)
4 Types of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can happen in many different types of relationships, and as mentioned above, can be applied in bigger ways. Below are four common types of gaslighting, but know they are just a few examples and not a comprehensive list.
Perhaps the most common form of gaslighting happens within interpersonal, individual relationships. There's also a lot of overlap between gaslighting and intimate partner abuse, according to Gilliland. "Intimate partner violence or abuse has a lot of the same qualities and characteristics as gaslighting — and it's for the same purpose: control," says Gilliland. But, to be clear, gaslighting is not limited to romantic partnerships, though; this form of gaslighting can happen in a parent-child relationship, and even between friends.
Interpersonal gaslighting can also exist on a spectrum, which may lead some victims of psychological and emotional abuse to think, "Oh, well my partner's not that bad," when comparing behaviors to a more extreme circumstance, says Wright. But, "gaslighting is still gaslighting — just like any other behavior, illness, etc. — none of it is good nor okay," she says.
This type of psychological manipulation is actually fairly common in the workplace, according to experts. If you've ever had a boss undermine you, then this will feel all too familiar (FYI, upward of 30 percent of bosses are "toxic", per the Harvard Business Review.) Think: taking credit for your work and ideas, denying your talents and contributions, sabotaging your growth. Because gaslighting can be less overt than other forms of abuse that can leave traces or evidence, it can be difficult to bring up to upper management.
This is a tricky dynamic, as your employment could depend on your relationship with someone who may be manipulating you, says Gilliland. In this instance, be careful not to jump to conclusions too quickly; "Is it a pattern, or is it an event?" he asks.
"Depending on the culture and environment, you may have an HR department [to help]," says Gilliland. "Have conversations with other colleagues, but be careful, and use your judgment," he says (i.e., make sure you are discreet). "But you ought to be able to have some space to get a feel for 'is this just me' or 'is there a psychological erosion' via your interactions." Bottom line: if you are experiencing gaslighting or any type of abusive behavior or bias at work, speak up. If you feel like your concerns are dismissed, you should try to find a new job or a way to leave the situation if possible to protect your mental health.
Racial gaslighting is the invalidation and dismissal of a person of color's lived experiences, leading that person (or group of people) to question the reality of racism and their experience with race, according to clinical psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, Ph.D.
Specifically, when a person of color shares an experience of discrimination, gaslighting could look like another person, group, or even organization denying or rejecting that testimony, explains clinical psychologist Juliette McClendon, Ph.D., equity researcher and director of medical affairs at Big Health. "This can lead to the person experiencing discrimination, to question their experience, or to feel a number of negative emotions, such as confusion, anger, or hopelessness," she says.
For instance, the All Lives Matter movement is a form of racial gaslighting, according to a Forbes report. The movement in itself invalidates the collective experience of Black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Other examples of racial gaslighting include telling someone they "play the race card" too much, supporting racial stereotypes (such as the "angry Black woman" trope), or denying systemic discrepancies and discrimination, says Breland-Noble. In addition, this can happen within families. "Cross racial adoptive parents [may] tell their children of color to be glad they were 'rescued' from their countries of origin and that they should be grateful to have a loving family, even when the adoptive family makes no effort to learn about the child's culture of origin in direct response to the child expressing a desire to learn about where they come from."
Racial gaslighting can also be present in the workplace — something Breland-Noble says she's experienced herself within the mental health field. "When I shared data indicating that I was being underpaid at work in direct comparison to my white peers, a 'mentor' told me that my expectations for pay far exceeded my abilities and achievements and that I should be careful asking for too much."
If you've ever been told that your symptoms are "all in your head," or expressed concerns that were dismissed by a doctor, then chances are you've experienced medical gaslighting. This type of gaslighting happens between a patient and a medical professional when a provider dismisses or downplays the patient's symptoms or the patient's concerns are blamed on mental or emotional factors. Medical gaslighting can happen to anyone, but it happens more often to women and women of color, according to a recent report in The New York Times. These groups "are often diagnosed and treated differently by doctors than men, even when they have the same health conditions," Karen Lutfey Spencer, a researcher who studies medical decision-making at the University of Colorado, Denver told The Times.
Medical gaslighting is especially dangerous because it can keep people, especially women, women of color, and other marginalized communities from getting the health care treatment they need in a timely manner. (More: This Pregnant Woman's Harrowing Experience Highlights the Disparities In Healthcare for Black Women)
Examples of Gaslighting
With gaslighting, there are archetypal components used to manipulate the other party's perception of reality, explains Gilliland. This means that there are several factors that play into what makes the other person begin to self-doubt. Some examples of gaslighting include:
- Denial — "That never happened"
- Deflection — "I'm not crazy, you're crazy"
- Projection — "No that's definitely your fault, not mine"
- Passive aggression — "Why are you so upset"
- Capitalizing on ingrained stereotypes — "That's so typical of a woman"
- Inability to accept responsibility — "I never said that"
- Discrediting others — "Their opinion doesn't count, they're an idiot"
Deflection is a common example of gaslighting as it directs the focus away from what the gaslighter did, and onto something or someone else entirely, says Gilliland "They use [deflection] to blame you for something they did so they don't get in trouble." If you're experiencing gaslighting, be mindful of if someone is "discrediting the other voices in your life, particularly unbiased, clear-headed people you trust," he says. Think: Is your controlling partner telling you to stop spending time with your sister, who appears to have reservations about the relationship? This is an attempt to isolate you from those who might validate your experience, which would mean the abuser would lose the upper hand.
Some People May Be More Prone to Become Gaslighters
On a personal, more individual level, there are certain characteristics or experiences that beget gaslighting. This includes narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), informally known as sociopathy, both of which exist on a spectrum and range in severity (and are both particularly difficult to diagnose).
"Personality disorders so often are undiagnosed," says Wright, "And those with ASPD or NPD have no ability to see from someone else's point of view; this would lead them to invalidate another person's lived experience." In that way, it's easy to see how gaslighting could be a symptom of one such personality disorder.
It can be difficult to accept, but this also means that gaslighting isn't always intentional, says Gilliland. "It's how [those with ASPD or NPD] protect their fragile ego and insecurities," he says. "It may not be as intentional as you think."
Though it may not always be intentional, gaslighting can absolutely still be deliberate, even if the gaslighter isn't expressly aware of what they're doing. "It's not like they woke up one morning and said 'I want to gaslight my partner,' but it's [still] about [intentionally] gaining control," says Gilliland. "They want the other person to rely on them — to be dependent on them." And remember, lack of intent doesn't absolve the other party of the effects their behavior has on you.
It can also be a generational, learned behavior, says Wright. "Let's say your parent was a gaslighter, or you grew up with someone who exhibited those behaviors; you probably witnessed it as a kid and didn't know what it was, but you keep doing it [as an adult] because you learned that's how people talk in relationships," she says. So, "If you grew up with it you might be more likely to exhibit gaslighting behavior," she says.
Certain Groups Are Also More Likely to Be Victimized
Similarly, if you were gaslighted growing up by a parent, you may be more likely to enter relationships with a similar dynamic in your adult life, explains Wright.
Broad stereotypes are common within the practice of gaslighting, specifically when it comes to gender and race or ethnicity, according to Gilliland. Whether it's outright or implicit, "these things are weaponized against a gaslighting victim to undermine their experience," he says. As such, women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other marginalized groups are more likely to be victims of this type of psychological abuse, according to Gilliland.
Signs of Gaslighting
Whether you're fresh out of a toxic relationship, stuck in a job with a manipulative boss, questioning if you're experiencing intimate partner abuse, or grew up with a parent who emotionally manipulated you, there are some telltale signs of gaslighting that show up in your feelings and behaviors that you can look for, according to Wright.
- You don't trust yourself; you question everything and are unsure of yourself.
- You ask for multiple opinions and have a hard time making decisions.
- You feel like there is always a "correct" answer to something only you can know or feel.
- You often feel "crazy," and are unsure of the accuracy of your memories.
- You have low self-esteem, and/or suffer from anxiety and depression as a result.
How to Respond to Gaslighting
If you're mid-conflict:
- Don't engage. "Protect your own mental well-being and get out of the conflict as soon as possible," says Dr. McClendon.
- Try the Grey Rock method. "Sticking to one phrase or repeating yourself like a broken record, can help you to maintain your position, while not engaging in the conflict," says Dr. McClendon. "This technique is often referred to as 'Grey Rock.' It allows you to stand up for yourself without engaging further in the conflict."
- End the conversation. "You are likely not going to convince the person gaslighting to come to your side," says McClendon. "You can say something as simple as, 'I don't think we are going to get on the same page, so let's end this conversation,' or 'I can see that we are not going to see eye to eye here.'"
If you're responding to gaslighting for the first time:
If the gaslighting seems to be a one-off incident or is happening with a boss, which requires some delicate language, Gilliland suggests the following gaslighting phrases to explain your feelings:
- "I feel like you're dismissive of my opinion or perceptions."
- "I feel like you really tried to undermine my confidence."
- "I feel like whenever I share my opinion, you throw me into the 'all women' category and don't see ME."
- "That [unrelated topic] has nothing to do with this conversation."
- "My [race, gender, age, identity] doesn't have anything to do with this, and isn't appropriate in this discussion."
- "My [question/concern] is valid."
- "It seems like you're being very dismissive of my beliefs and perceptions."
- "It seems like when this topic comes up, you're dismissive of my input and ideas."
And if the gaslighter responds poorly or shuts down the conversation, it may be time to end that relationship, or at the very least, seek counsel from a therapist. Still, "if the gaslighting party cannot accept what is going on and make a shift to change, it's time to move on," says Wright. (See: 7 Signs That You Might Be In a Toxic Relationship)
"If they're doubling down, rejecting your direct, honest communication," says Gilliland, then this party is most likely gaslighting you. Remember, no one deserves to experience gaslighting in relationships.
How to Heal from Gaslighting
So you've defined gaslighting, identified gaslighting in a relationship, and even found a way to respond to gaslighting — now what? After any length of time dealing with this kind of emotional manipulation, it can feel impossible to trust your judgment. Yet, rebuilding this inner guide, confidence, and self-trust is essential to recovering and moving forward.
In order to ensure you realize it's not all in your head, you have to get it out of your head — talk to the healthy, supportive people in your life, keep friends and family close, and share your gaslighting examples. You can also keep a journal to get the experiences from your head onto paper. All of these tactics help you heal from gaslighting and gain validation for how you're feeling.
Ensure that you're not cut off from a support system, and have people in place to provide a safe space to process, says Gilliland.
If you've experienced systemic, racial, or identity-based gaslighting, find someone with a shared experience, says McClendon. "I would suggest individuals reach out to others who 'get it' or share their identity, who will validate that the experience was (or could have been) discrimination," she says, emphasizing that validation and support are tantamount to healing. "There are also online support groups for racial stress. Overall, you can manage racial gaslighting in the same way you do other types of gaslighting — by connecting to your inner truth and building self-trust, through self-work, mental health support, and social support."
Tap into therapy and support groups.
"Therapy is, first and foremost, the best step to take," says Wright. "Google support groups — 'victims of gaslighting,' 'survivors of gaslighting,' 'ex was gaslighter support group' — seriously, there are so many groups."
"Specifically with gaslighting, getting support and hearing other people's stories is so validating, and it helps you gain strength and the will to look inward and 'flex the muscle' to rebuild self-trust," she says. "When your self-trust is so eroded, you need that reflection from other people. When you have a filter over your eyes you see differently, and you need help to remove that, and to learn how to see again."