Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves.
The term gaslighting derives from the 1938 play and 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she has a mental illness by dimming their gas-fueled lights and telling her she is hallucinating.
In this article, we look at common examples, signs, and causes of gaslighting. We also discuss how a person can respond to gaslighting and when to seek help.
Gaslighting often develops gradually, making it difficult for a person to detect. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, techniques a person may use to gaslight someone include:
- Countering: This describes a person questioning someone’s memories. They may say things such as, “you never remember things accurately,” or “are you sure? You have a bad memory.”
- Withholding: When someone withholds, they refuse to engage in a conversation. A person using this technique may pretend not to understand someone so that they do not have to respond to them. For example, they might say, “I do not know what you are talking about,” or “you are just trying to confuse me.”
- Trivializing: This occurs when a person belittles or disregards the other person’s feelings. They may accuse them of being too sensitive or of overreacting when they have valid concerns and feelings.
- Denial: Denial involves a person pretending to forget events or how they occurred. They may deny having said or done something or accuse someone of making things up.
- Diverting: With this technique, a person changes the focus of a discussion and questions the other person’s credibility instead. For example, they might say, “that is just another crazy idea you got from your friends.”
- Stereotyping: An article in the American Sociological Review states that a person using gaslighting techniques may intentionally use negative stereotypes of a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age to manipulate them. For example, they may tell a female that people will think she is irrational or crazy if she seeks help for abuse.
While anyone can experience gaslighting, it is especially common in intimate relationships and in social interactions where there is an imbalance of power.
A person who is on the receiving end of this behavior is experiencing abuse.
Intimate partner relationships
An abusive partner may accuse someone of being irrational or crazy in order to isolate them, undermine their confidence, and make them easier to control. For example, they might continuously tell someone they are forgetful until the person starts to believe it is true.
Abusive caregivers may use gaslighting to shame or control children. They may accuse them of being too sensitive to belittle their feelings or of misremembering events from when they were younger.