What Exactly is Gaslighting — and How Can You Combat It?
Your outside fence is green — bright green. It always has been green and, until you can be bothered to paint it, it always will be. That’s a cold, hard fact.
However, when your neighbor visited last week, he laughed in your face and told you it was purple. When you tried to correct him, he said you must be losing it and that the fence has always been purple and you’d have to be “insane” to think otherwise. He even went as far as to say that the other people on the street suspected that you were just that.
What is happening here?
Well, you’ve just experienced an overt form of gaslighting; when another person tries to manipulate you into questioning what you know to be true.
Of course, that’s an over-the-top scenario. The truth is that real gaslighting can be very hard to spot in the wild — and even harder to combat.
What is gaslighting, anyway?
“Gaslighting is a process of psychological manipulation characterized by denying a person’s reality and directly asserting or insinuating that there is something wrong with them,” says Dr. Sharone Weltfreid, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist.
Basically, it's when someone tries to make you question your own memory and sanity by planting doubt in your mind.
The origin of the term comes from a 1938 stage play called Gaslight. In this story, a husband deliberately dims the gaslights in their home and then denies it ever happened — seemingly an attempt to drive his wife mad.
The concept may be old, but chances are, you’re familiar with the word. In 2022, Merriam-Webster dubbed “gaslighting” the official word of the year. That was thanks to its Google term searches rising by 1740% in 12 months — no one is really sure why, as there doesn't seem to have been a single event that drove significant spikes in curiosity around the term.
Still, it's clear that gaslighting is in our collective consciousness. What's trickier is figuring out when it's actually happening because there's a rainbow array of tactics a person may use when employing this manipulation tool.
How bad can it get?
It’s worth noting that “gaslighting” is often carelessly thrown into scenarios in which it has no place being.
Since the term went mainstream, people started to use it as shorthand when feeling misled in some way or another. This hyperbole is not only confusing, but also takes away from the true meaning of the term.
“Gaslighting occurs in abusive relationships and can cause significant damage,” explains Dr. Julie Landry, a clinical psychologist and owner of Halcyon Therapy Group and NeuroSpark Health. “It’s oppressive by creating a power imbalance and often leads to isolation, self-doubt, and shame. It’s a form of emotional abuse, used to control others by causing self-doubt and anxiety. Victims often feel they’re at fault.”
Jess Champion, Integrative Psychotherapeutic Counsellor at Curiosity Counselling agrees. “In its extreme form, gaslighting is about consciously and intentionally abusing another, with the goal of confusing them to the point that they lose touch with reality,” she says.
“This form of gaslighting is incredibly rare but as the word has entered common consciousness, I see it used a lot more. It’s great that awareness of mental health issues is on the up, but we need to be careful about bandying terms like gaslighter around, lest they lose their meaning and nuance.”
"The truth is many of us probably unwittingly exhibit more subtle, unconscious forms of gaslighting behaviors including, ironically, jumping to brand someone a gaslighter,” Champion continues. “Think of behaviors as being on a spectrum — we all have them but it’s the extent to which we exhibit them, and the impact they have, that makes all the difference.”
The tactics of a serial gaslighter
Okay, but what if you’re dealing with a serial gaslighter? That is, not someone who accidentally misleads others in passing, but a person who deliberately gaslights to control others?
Worryingly, catching them out can be a tough feat. The very nature of gaslighting is that it forces you to question your own mind.
However, there are some common signs and tactics to look for:
#1: Denying the facts
This is the most well-reported tactic. Gaslighting often means denying things that you know to be true. For example, when someone is gaslighting you, they may question your memory of events or tell you that you are wrong about them.
“The gaslighter blatantly denies something they said or did, even when presented with evidence,” says Dr. Weltfreid. “Their perception of reality stands, and anything the gaslightee says to the contrary is wrong. As a result, the gaslightee can feel confused and question their reality.”
#2: Projecting their insecurities
When you’re close to someone who continually uses gaslighting as a form of control, you will be no stranger to finger-pointing. They may grill you about certain parts of your life or make you feel as though you are lying, even when you know that you’re not.
“Gaslighters are skilled projectors of both behaviors and insecurities,” says Champion. “An example of the former could be accusing you of cheating when it is, in fact, they who are doing the dirty. For the latter, it could be something like making comments about your weight because they feel insecure about theirs.”
#3: Invalidating or trivializing feelings
Bullying behavior and gaslighting often go hand-in-hand. Should you be brave enough to raise a problem with someone who is gaslighting you, you might find that they don’t want to hear about it.
Worse still, gaslighters can make you feel like your emotions don’t matter. “They may belittle, minimize, or dismiss the gaslightee’s feelings and concerns thereby undermining their confidence in their own emotions and judgments,” says Dr. Weltfreid. “The person gaslighted can come to fear sharing their feelings or believe that they are the problem.”
#4: Pretending not to understand
One of the more malicious tactics that gaslighters use is pretending that they don’t understand your point. This is called "weaponized ignorance" and its effect is to make you feel small and undermined which, coincidentally, is the entire point of it.
“The gaslighter acts like they can’t comprehend what the gaslightee is saying, or they refuse to listen or engage in a give and take conversation with the gaslightee,” explains Dr. Weltfreid. “This leads the person being gaslighted to silence themselves because they do not want to upset the gaslighter, be misunderstood, or receive punishment.”
#5: Love bombing
“If a gaslighter feels you might be getting wise to their harmful behavior they may flip the script completely and start to shower you with love and affection,” says Champion. Coming on strong with love and affection — known as love bombing — is a quick way to get you back on their side once again.
“Once you start to feel bad about ever doubting them, and safer in your relationship, the cycle will likely start all over again," Champion explains.
Love bombing can chip away at your self-esteem and make you increasingly dependent on the gaslighter. It becomes a vicious cycle where the signs of gaslighting get harder and harder to spot.
#6: Shifting the blame
Finally, playing the blame game is a common feature in the gaslighter’s repertoire. Dare to call out a gaslighter, and you might find that they have a range of ways of moving the spotlight back onto you.
“When the gaslightee bring up concerns, rather than take responsibility or acknowledge your concerns as valid, the gaslighter changes the subject to shift blame off of themselves,” says Dr Weltfreid. “The gaslighter’s difficulty taking in your concerns can lead them to shift the blame to another person or object.”
How to handle gaslighting like a pro
Don’t underestimate the damage that gaslighting can do. In severe circumstances, such as when it poses a risk to your mental health, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for support and advice. Alternatively, you may choose to reach out to a licensed professional, close friend, or family member and seek additional guidance.
On the other hand, if you’ve recognized that someone in your life uses this approach but you believe that there is value to your relationship, you may want to salvage things. While it’s not your job to teach a gaslighter to do better, there are ways to manage their behavior.
- Be kind to yourself
When someone in your life is manipulating you, it can be a hard pill to swallow. Understand that you are not the villain in this scenario and consider ways you can overcome the situation. That may mean deciding whether you want to continue your relationship with this person and, if so, how you want to move forward.
“Realizing you’ve been the victim of abuse can be difficult to process and comes with a lot of shame,” says Champion. “Try to treat yourself with compassion — it wasn’t your fault. Now you recognize it, you can do something about it.”
- Validate your own feelings
“Your feelings are valid and you have a right to express them in a relationship. No one can tell you how you feel or don’t feel,” says Dr Weltfreid. “In healthy relationships, your feelings and perceptions are valued and empathized with.”
If someone has been gaslighting you for a long time, you may not know where to start. Their tactics could have chipped away at your own self belief. Do some internal work and start believing in yourself again. That may mean writing down your experiences, talking to a therapist, or speaking with someone else in your life whom you trust.
- Set clear boundaries
“Establishing clear boundaries allows you to protect yourself and let the gaslighter know what you are willing to accept in the relationship,” says Dr Weltfreid. “For example, let the gaslighter know that you will not engage in conversations where your perspective is denied or your sanity is questioned. Boundaries are only boundaries if you enforce them, so make sure to follow through.”
- Stand your ground
When the gaslighter tries to deny something you know is true, don’t back down. That doesn’t mean that you have to get sucked into an argument. Instead, simply let them know that you disagree with their analysis in a calm, collected and clear manner.
“Confidently present your perception of events and do not let the gaslighter make you doubt your reality,” says Dr Weltfreid. “If you find that you are being drawn into a debate about the validity of your perception or feelings, you can say something like, 'My feelings are valid,' 'It seems like we have a different recollection of what happened; I am not interested in debating this,' or 'I know what I remember.'"
Avoid getting into confrontations with the gaslighter and, of course, should they become hostile or nasty, leave the situation. Make sure you always put your safety first. Gaslighters can easily distort your sense of reality and self-worth, so it's crucial to prioritize your own wellbeing and lean on support systems when dealing with this behavior.