Picture this: You’re sitting on the couch, wondering where your partner is. It’s late, and they haven’t said where they’d be, how late they would be out, or returned any of your calls. You’re worried. Finally, they come home. “It’s late,” you say. Instead of apologizing or giving a reasonable explanation, they say, “It’s not that late” or “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” or “I told you I’d be home late.”
You start to second guess yourself. Had they said something? Are you overreacting? Is it normal to be out until all hours of the night? Maybe you even apologize to them. It’s normal to disagree in relationships, but how do you know when it crosses the line into gaslighting? Here are a few examples of gaslighting as well as some things you can do in case you think it’s happening to you.
The term originated from a 1938 play and the 1944 film adaptation Gaslight. In the movie, a wife starts to doubt her sanity after her manipulative husband starts slowly dimming the gas lamps in their home and making other changes to their environment. When she brings it up, he tells her she’s forgetful, imagining things and behaving oddly, and isolates her from others.
In simple terms, gaslighting is when someone manipulates another person into doubting their perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events. At first, it can begin with seemingly small or harmless offenses, but as they start to make you question your judgment or reality, things can become more serious. The abusive patterns continue and the victim of gaslighting can become anxious, isolated, and confused. Instead of distancing themselves from the gaslighter, they often rely on them to define reality or provide clarity, creating a cycle that is hard to break.
While it’s most common in romantic settings, gaslighting can happen in any kind of relationship where one person is so important to the other that they don’t want to take the chance of upsetting or losing them, such as a boss, friend, sibling, or parent.
Typically, there is a power dynamic between the gaslighter and the victim where the gaslighter holds power over the other person for some reason.
“Oh come on. I never said that.”
“You’re just being overly sensitive.”
“I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this.”
“You’re crazy—that never happened.”
“Are you sure? You have a bad memory.”
“It’s all in your head.”
“This is why you don’t have friends.
“You can’t take a joke.”
“You’re actually trying to confuse me.”
“You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly.”
“Is that another crazy idea you got from [another friend or family member]?”
“You’re imagining things.”
“You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re just making stuff up.”
“If you cared about me, you would ___.”
“[Other friend or family member] thinks you’re crazy, too.”
"You always blow things out of proportion."
Whether it’s a spouse, parent, coworker, or friend, gaslighters use a series of manipulation and distraction tactics to distort the truth–from lying, controlling, withholding, triangulation, and more–making their victims question their own reality.
This is probably the most common situation people picture when it comes to gaslighting. In romantic relationships, gaslighting can be a form of domestic abuse and is one of the reasons folks stay in abusive relationships. It’s an extremely effective form of emotional manipulation that makes a survivor question their reality. How can you leave when you don’t trust that your version of reality is the real one?
Gaslighting can also occur in non-romantic relationships or other social situations. For example, a school bully could invite a less popular student to sit with them at lunch, and then when lunch rolls around and the unpopular student approaches a table full of cool kids, the popular student will claim that they never invited them to sit there.
Or a family member might be critical of someone’s choices or life decisions so much that the person questions their own judgment or decisions even when the family member isn’t there.
Gaslighting can also happen at work. For example, if you sent an email to a coworker and you know they read it, but then they said they didn’t when the subject came up in conversation, or your boss agreed to your time off verbally, but then acted like they never heard your request when the time came to put in a formal ask for vacation.
Gaslighting in healthcare happens more often than you’d expect from medical professionals, especially when it comes to the experiences of women and people of color. Gaslighting lends itself to being gendered in the first place in that it relies on the association of femininity with irrationality; because you’re a woman, and therefore irrational, why should a doctor take your pain or symptoms seriously?
Patients who have felt that their symptoms were inappropriately dismissed as minor or primarily psychological by doctors are using the term “medical gaslighting” to describe their experiences and have begun sharing their stories more broadly, especially on social media.
In my own experience with period pain and chronic back pain, doctors have told me that my pain “can’t be that bad” if I am able to carry on with certain daily activities, which means I am denied treatment or even inquiry as to why I might be in pain.
In 2016, the Trump administration stunned the media and the public with false assertions about how many people showed up for his inauguration. He asserted that the crowd at his inauguration was larger than that or Barack Obama’s in 2009 and 2013, despite the fact that photographic evidence proved him wrong.
White House spokesman (at the time) Sean Spicer said, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” which was a lie.
This is just one example of the many instances of gaslighting from the Trump administration, the goal being to confuse and distract the public and eventually lead people to give up even trying to determine the truth due to exhaustion.
Because it is a form of psychological manipulation and abuse, it can be difficult to know if you’re experiencing gaslighting.
Disagreement is normal and even beneficial in relationships of all sorts. Gaslighting is distinct because only one of you is listening and considering the other’s perspective and someone is negating your perception, insisting that you are wrong or telling you your emotional reaction is crazy/ dysfunctional in some way.
First of all, know that you are not alone and support is available. For 24/7/365 support, reach out by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 TTY, or chat online at thehotline.org.
Unfortunately, trying to reason with someone as they rely on gaslighting is nearly impossible. If you call it out as it’s happening, and they don’t correct their behavior or they continue to increase their aggression, the only healthy response is to walk away from the situation.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines some steps to take if you think you’re being gaslit:
In order to overcome gaslighting, you first have to understand that it’s happening and begin to trust yourself, your judgment, your decisions, your instincts, and your sense of reality again. It can help to work with a therapist who has experience with gaslighting and who can both help you recognize the signs and validate your reality.
Gaslighting is a form of abuse, no matter what type of relationship it takes place in. When it comes to your life, your experiences, and your reality, you deserve to be supported, validated, and respected. Understanding your experience and realizing if what you’re experiencing is gaslighting is the first step to taking action to support your mental health and wellbeing.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.