Issue #10: What Is Gaslighting?
Learn about the meaning behind gaslighting, why we victim blame and how to spot a liar
Dear mental health advocate,
I hope your Saturday is going well! Two weeks have passed so again it is time for a new edition of The Present Psychologist Paper. But, before I dive deeper into the psychology content, I have an offer and request for you…
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And now, back to the content. Today I am investigating a psychological term which has been thrown around on social media quite a lot these days: gaslighting. Many people use this verb, but I feel there is some misunderstanding what it actually means! Learn more about this chronic emotional manipulation technique and how it can damage a person when it occurs.
Then, I will share some recommendations written by other mental health authors. Some interesting reads were written about recognizing liars through body language, why we victim blame and how to improve happiness at work! Keep on reading to find out more…
How Does Gaslighting Work?
Sometimes specific psychological terms suddenly become popular and are thrown around nonstop, many times inaccurately. The mental health community online and in media is growing. I love that fact, because it helps bring awareness to struggles many of us face, but at the same time it also brings responsibility to ensure all the labels and words correctly reflect the situation. All of a sudden everything and everyone is acting OCD, finds themselves in a toxic relationship or behaves like a red flag. While I always preach the importance of mental health and making psychology as a science more common knowledge, incorrect use of terms harms people who are actually struggling with these disorders.
Another popular trend I have noticed recently is that the word ‘gaslighting’ is being used quite often. It is not necessarily a hugely complex concept, but I feel that many misunderstand the meaning and when it should be applied. In today’s article I want to zoom in a bit more where gaslighting comes from, how it relates to psychology and what to do when you are being gaslit. Relationships can really suffer if gaslighting occurs, it damages someone’s perception of self and the world around them. This behavior can destroy confidence and more often than not results in a never-ending loop of abuse, doubt and crossing your own boundaries. Okay, interesting… but then what does it actually mean?
The meaning behind the word
As a psychology student I heard the term and I wondered why it was named ‘gaslighting’. I never really understood why this particular behavior was considered the same as lighting gas. But then again, English is not my native language (I thought I must have missed something between the lines…). So, I did a little digging. And the etymology behind the psychological term ‘gaslighting’ is quite interesting! In 1938, British novelist Patrick Hamilton wrote a play Gas Light (known in the US as ‘Angel Street’) which was so successful it was adapted to a British movie in 1940 and an American version in 1944.
In this psychological thriller, a husband tries to deceive and trick his wife into believing she is insane. He does this very slowly through secretly nudging her, so it was not obvious he was in fact being manipulative. He is very controlling and abusive, but makes her think that instead she is crazy and has a wrong sense of reality. This behavior goes very far, he even dims the flame of a gas lamp randomly. She then mentions the light changing, however, he keeps claiming nothing is happening or going wrong! She loses her mind completely, constantly questioning her beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and everything around her.
Psychologists saw this movie as a very accurate description of how one person can abuse another by making them question their sense of reality. It is a form of emotional manipulation, hurting someone’s self-worth. To further help you understand what gaslighting is, I will share the definition by Britannica which explains the concept very well:
An elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings.
As I mentioned in the beginning, do not just label a conversation or a disagreement with someone a matter of gaslighting. It is a manipulation technique which is repeatedly applied to one person and intentionally done. Self-diagnosis is always tricky and misusing a term will not help with your healing process. If you think you suffer from abuse and potential gaslighting, talk with a mental health professional. Before we dive deeper in the signs, it is good to know that gaslighting happens in all kinds of relationships. Most psychologists will focus on romantic relationships as it frequently occurs in couples, but it is also seen in other types of relationships like family bonds, friendships or with authority figures.
The following signs and examples are typically seen as a form of gaslighting behavior:
Questioning your perception of reality. This can look like them wondering if something really happened, although you are sure. It can even be a form of flat out denying something happened or is not true. For example, they can say ‘No, it did not happen this way’, ‘You must have been dreaming this’. They can seem very adamant on their version of events, which makes you unsure after a while if what you think is true at first.
Emotionally manipulating you. They break your confidence or self-worth by calling you out on your behavior, thoughts and emotions. When you show anger, sadness, frustration or in any way set a boundary, they will punish you by saying things like ‘You are always so sensitive’ or ‘You seem crazy’. As a result, they make you feel bad for feeling or thinking a certain way, even though your own experience is valid.
Lying and denial. A gaslighter consistently tries to undermine you by pretending things are not true, denying actions and things you know they have done. They can claim ‘I have never done that’ or ‘You are making things up’. Avoiding responsibility is their second nature and every time you supposedly put them in a bad light they lash out.
Playing the blame game. Every time something negative has happened which has been caused by them they either blame someone else, you or anything else that is outside of their control. They can say things like ‘Okay, but I had no choice because of person X or Y’ or ‘Well you are responsible for how it all went down’.
Badmouthing you to others. The main thing a gaslighter wants to do is discredit who you are, so you become more dependent and easier to control. Part of this means changing the narrative and how you are perceived. They will talk to others and say things like ‘She does not know how it really is’ or ‘She is a bit crazy, don’t believe her’.
Sweet talking and using passive aggressive communication. They might hide their bad intentions or actions by making you question their motives. This often means using your feelings or emotions against you, such as saying thing like ‘But I love you! I would never cheat on you, you know that right?’. As a result you might think they did things by accident or you wonder if it happened at all.
Why is gaslighting so damaging?
In our relationships, we constantly seek approval and validation for our feelings, thoughts and actions. The ones we love matter to us. This is why gaslighting can be very successful. In so many cases it is subtle and we sometimes prefer crossing our own boundaries to please others and be validated. As long as they like you, right? I have had some experience with gaslighting myself. This person time and again questioned my feelings or events the way I remembered them. It harmed me. I was young and unsure, so this authority figure had power over me. I remember I kept thinking ‘Okay, if they say it did not happen or it happened in a different way it must be true’. My feelings even confused me, because this person told me how I felt or was as a person which did not accurately reflect how I perceived myself.
Slowly, gaslighters are eating away your confidence. Many might wonder why gaslighters have such success. I mean, if someone says something did not happen while you are sure it did, you can just brush them off right? Wrong. Yes, maybe at first you feel you know better and just leave them be. But if it is your partner, you want to put in effort. So even though you might agree to disagree at first, the slippery slope can lead a person to doubt themselves. We all have our insecurities and we are scared to lose the people we love. We go to infinite lengths to keep them, even if this means crossing our own boundaries and distrusting ourselves. You want to trust them and believe them, because they love you, right?
What to do when gaslighting occurs?
It can be a major challenge to deal with gaslighting, as in most cases it happens by people seemingly close to you an in a subtle way. There are some general things you can do, but it is very important to not just push people away because they disagree with you or sometimes have a different recollection of how things happened. We all have conflicts and differences in opinion, this is not the same as gaslighting! Do not just build up walls and completely disregard the people around you. Talk with a mental health professional, go and consider couples therapy. Sometimes gaslighters have their issues too and want healing from their pathological behavior.
Aside from this, of course it is important to ensure you protect your own mental health. Some general tips that can help to brace yourself against people gaslighting you:
Trust yourself. Never let anyone question your integrity or feelings. Sure, discussion is always possible and you are human. You might recollect things differently or have doubts. Everyone has that. But know that you are the only person feeling your emotions from the inside. Don’t let others tell you how to feel or second guess yourself every single time.
Set boundaries. If people make you do things you really do not want to do or consistently push your limits, protect yourself. We all need help from others and we cannot do everything alone, but your needs and wants are just as valid as anyone else’s. If you keep putting yourself in second place, your mental health will be compromised at a certain point.
Protect your identity. Consistent gaslighting and abuse can make you lose yourself completely. They chip away your sanity and personality. Ensure you are not dependent on someone else for the things you do in life. Have your own hobbies. Do things alone. Create and maintain your own style and make your own choices.
Record the evidence. If the gaslighter won’t stop and keep denying things happened, try to write things down, save exchanged text messages or any other means (within legal limits of course) that can prove at least to yourself you are right and not crazy at all.
If all of this is not helping, leaving an abusive relationship or situation is always an option. There is help out there and you do not have to be alone. It is a last resort and not easy, but always necessary to remember.
📚 Some Good Reads
Welcome to my new feature! Here I will share some great reads by other psychologists, therapists and journalists. Free to access and of course related to our mental health.
Why do people point fingers to victims when something happens to them? Kayleigh Roberts claims this psychological phenomenon can be best explained as a cognitive bias people have, assuming there is a just and fair world. That people get what they deserve. But do they? Read the article ‘The Psychology of Victim Blaming’ in The Atlantic here.
Finding a job you like is not always easy for people. There’s responsibility, a need to make money and stress to be successful. So can we be happy at work? Purpose is an important factor. Alice Boyes provides some valuable insights how to find meaning in a career and enjoy each day more. Read the article ‘How to Be Happy at Work’ in Psychology Today here.
As humans, we all lie and deceive. Some more than others, but still we all can be considered a liar. So, it only makes sense we are obsessed with learning more about liars and how to spot them. Candice Jalili gives us some interesting tips how body language can give away a lie. Read the article ‘How to Tell If Someone Is Lying to You, According to Body Language Experts’ in Time Magazine here.
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My name is Alf Lokkertsen and I am a psychologist and writer, creating mental health content for you. My passion is to raise awareness about topics related to psychology, as it has helped me greatly in my personal life. I strongly believe that many problems could be avoided or dealt with better if everyone had some in-depth psychology knowledge.
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Outstanding article. Gaslighting is undoubtedly an often unrecognized adverse manipulative behavior that has severe consequences in our political process, especially regarding gun control, climate change, opioid deaths, voter, and women's rights. I cite you and this excellent article in my Mind Wise article "The Gun Narrative and Gaslighting." Thanks, Ron Parks, MD