What is gaslighting in psychology?

Gaslighting means manipulating someone’s perception of reality to the point that they begin to question their own sanity. The manipulation is so effective that a person being gaslighted comes to doubt their ability to perceive reality and recall events from memory accurately.

To put it simply, person A perceives something about person B who denies it and accuses person A of being crazy or imagining things.

For instance, say a wife sees a lipstick mark on her husband’s shirt that she knows isn’t hers. She confronts the husband who, having washed it away, denies that the mark ever existed. He accuses her of imagining things and being paranoid. He falsifies her perception. He gaslights her.


Gaslighting commonly occurs in the form of denial (“There wasn’t any mark on my shirt”) and outright lying (“It was ketchup”). In many situations, outrightly denying the other person’s perception is unlikely to work because people tend to trust their own perceptions to a fair degree.

Instead, gaslighting is done insidiously by preserving some parts of those perceptions and manipulating other parts to the gaslighter’s own benefit.

In the above example, the lie “There wasn’t any mark on my shirt” is unlikely to work because the wife can swear she saw one. The lie “It was ketchup” is more likely to work because the husband doesn’t completely deny her perception, changing only that detail that can exonerate him.     

Common phrases that gaslighters use include “It’s all in your head”, “You’re crazy”, “I never said that”, “I never did that”, “That never happened”, “You’re being sensitive”, “I was just joking”, etc.

gaslight movie
The term originates from Gaslight,a playthat was also adapted into a couple of movies, made in 1940 and 1944.

The process of gaslighting

Think of gaslighting as breaking a very large ice cube with a small hammer. It’s nearly impossible to smash the cube into pieces with just one blow, no matter how powerful. Similarly, you cannot destroy a person’s confidence in themselves and their own perceptions by outrightly falsifying their perceptions. They simply won’t believe you.

The ice cube is broken by hitting it several times at or near the same location, small cracks leading to big cracks that finally break it open.

Similarly, the other person’s trust in themselves is broken gradually before they can finally think they’re actually going crazy. The gaslighter gradually sows the seeds of doubt in the victim, which, over time, culminate into full-blown convictions.

The typical first step of gaslighting is ascribing traits to the victim they don’t have.

“You don’t pay attention to what I say these days.”

“You don’t listen to me.”

Responding to these initial accusations, the victim might say something like, “Really? I didn’t realize that” and laugh it off. But the seeds have been planted. Next time, when the gaslighter is trying to manipulate them, they’ll say, “I never said that. See, I told you: You don’t listen to me.”

At this point, the victim starts to lend merit to the gaslighter’s accusations because these accusations appeal to logic. 

“You’re doing this because you’re like this.” 

“I told you, you’re like this.” 

“Do you believe me now?”

The present situation is connected to a fabricated and false assumption about the victim’s personality. The gaslighter may also bring up few and far between real events from the past where the victim did in fact not listen to the gaslighter.

“Remember how on our 10th anniversary I told you to….. but you forgot because you don’t listen to me.”

All this is done to convince the victim that there is something wrong with them (they’re crazy or don’t pay attention) to the point that they become completely dependent upon the gaslighter to separate reality from fantasy.

Factors promoting gaslighting

1. Close relationships

Essentially, the victim ends up believing a lie about themselves, sown into their mind by the gaslighter. If the victim is in a close relationship with the gaslighter, they’re more likely to trust and believe them. They agree with the gaslighter in order not to prove the latter wrong and risk the relationship.

2. Lack of assertiveness

If the victim is naturally unassertive, it makes the work of a gaslighter easy because they don’t face any resistance to the seeds of doubt they sow. Assertive people are in tune with their needs and are likely to stand up for themselves when their perceptions are challenged.

3. Gaslighter’s confidence and authority

If the gaslighter plants seeds of doubt in the victim’s mind with confidence, the victim is more likely to play along. “They’re so confident they must be right” is the logic applied here. Also, if the gaslighter is more accomplished and intelligent than the victim, it gives them authority and lends credibility to whatever they say.

These factors force the victim to believe that the gaslighter is right and there’s something wrong with their own perception of the world.

Signs of gaslighting

How can you tell whether or not you’re being gaslighted by someone? Following are the 5 important signs:

1. You constantly second-guess yourself

When you’re with the gaslighter, you find that you’re constantly second-guessing yourself. You’re no longer sure of what did or didn’t happen because the gaslighter has deliberately put you in a state of confusion. They then relieve you of this confusion as per their wishes, making you dependent on them to ease your confusion.

2. You feel crappy about yourself

You feel bad about yourself when you’re with the gaslighter because by repeatedly telling you that you’re crazy or paranoid, the gaslighter destroys your self-esteem. You feel uncomfortable around them, afraid to say or do anything lest they put another blame on you.

3. They tell everyone you’re crazy

A gaslighter needs to protect the lie they’ve created about you. They may do this by secluding you to prevent outside influences. Another way would be telling the people you’re likely to meet that you’re crazy. This way, when you see other people perceiving you as crazy too, you fall prey to the scheme of the gaslighter. “One person may be wrong, but not everyone” is the logic applied here.

4. Warm-cold behaviour

A gaslighter, when they’re eating away at your self-confidence and self-esteem, cannot push you to the edge lest it causes you a mental breakdown, depression, or even suicidal ideation. So they behave warmly and nicely with you from time to time to avoid pushing you over the edge as well as to ensure that you keep trusting them. “They’re not so bad after all”, you think, until they are.

5. Projection

Since a gaslighter works to maintain their lie about you, any attacks to their fabrication will be met with strong resistance by them in the form of denial or sometimes, projection. They’ll project their sins onto you so that you don’t get a chance to expose them. 

For example, if you accuse them of lying, they’ll turn the accusation on you and accuse you of lying.

Gaslighting in relationships

Gaslighting can occur in all sorts of relationships, be it between spouses, parents and kids, friends, or co-workers. Usually, it occurs when there’s a significant power gap in the relationship. The person with more power in a relationship is more likely to gaslight someone who trusts them and is dependent on them. 

In a parent-child relationship, gaslighting can take the form of a parent promising something to the child but later denying they ever made the promise.

In romantic relationships, gaslighting is common in abusive relationships. Within marital contexts, it usually happens when husbands are accused of having affairs by their wives.1

Men tend to engage in gaslighting more often than women.2 It isn’t surprising given that women generally tend to be relationship-oriented and less assertive and so are less likely to risk a relationship by calling out a gaslighter on their emotional abuse.

Gaslighting is intentional

Gaslighting is intentionally done by a highly manipulative person. If it’s not intentional, it’s not gaslighting. 

We don’t always perceive the world in the same way which means there can be discrepancies between how you see something and how another person sees the same thing. Just because there are discrepancies in the perceptions of two people doesn’t mean that one is gaslighting another.

Some people may have a bad memory and when they say something like “I never said that” even if you’re sure they did, it’s not gaslighting. Also, it might be that it’s you who has a bad memory and they indeed never said anything like that. Then, if they accuse you of misperceiving or having a bad memory, it’s not gaslighting because the accusation is true.

A gaslighter, while not completely denying the victim’s perceptions, may accuse the victim of misinterpreting them. If there’s no scope for misinterpretation, then the victim can be confident they’re being gaslighted. The twisting of facts that the gaslighter engages is too apparent.

Again, it might be that the person did, in fact, misinterpret a situation. In that case, any accusation of misperception by another party does not constitute gaslighting.

In short, figuring out whether or not gaslighting is happening depends on intention and who’s telling the truth. Sometimes the truth isn’t easy to arrive at. So make sure you’ve done enough verification before you accuse someone of gaslighting. 

Final words

We all misperceive reality from time to time. Your perceptions may be wrong once or twice but if you’re continually accused of misperception by the same person who also makes you feel crappy about yourself, chances are they’re gaslighting you.

The best way to break free from this emotional abuse is to talk to other people. Once you find other people who also agree with your version of reality, the gaslighter’s grip on you will loosen.  

Another more direct way is to deny the accusations of a gaslighter with solid facts. They might dismiss your perceptions and feelings but they can’t dismiss facts. 

For example, a gaslighter can never say, “I never said that” if you record your conversation and make them hear the recording in which they’re clearly saying ‘that’. It might piss them off that you recorded the conversation and they might leave you but if they’ve been gaslighting you, you’re probably better off without them.

References

  1. Gass, G. Z., & Nichols, W. C. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome. Contemporary Family Therapy10(1), 3-16.
  2. Abramson, K. (2014). Turning up the lights on gaslighting. Philosophical perspectives28(1), 1-30.
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