How to Recognize & Respond to Gaslighting

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Gaslighting is manipulative emotional and psychological abuse that causes a person to question their reality, memories, instincts, and, ultimately, their sanity. A person gaslights to obtain power and control, which are classic elements of abuse. Gaslighting often occurs in an intimate partner relationship.

Read on to learn more about signs, examples, and types of gaslighting, how to respond, and how to get help.

Shot of a young woman looking pensively out a window at home.

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Where Does the Term Come From?

The term "gaslighting" comes from the 1938 play, "Gaslight," in which a husband covertly dimmed gas lamps, causing his wife to question her reality and drive her toward madness so he could gain control of her inheritance.

Signs of Gaslighting

Gaslighting occurs very gradually over time, so the manipulative behavior's effects are not usually immediate. Some common signs include:

  • Significant self-doubt and frequently second-guessing yourself
  • Being made to feel crazy, sensitive, or wrong
  • Trusting others' decisions more than yours
  • Feeling confused, isolated, and depressed
  • Apologizing or making excuses for a partner's behavior
  • Feeling deep down that something isn't right

Gaslighting can also manifest as a kind of cognitive dissonance, or holding two beliefs at the same time that don't fit. This creates strong feelings of confusion, overwhelm, anxiety, and discomfort.

Examples of Gaslighting

Gaslighting is subtle, subversive abusive behavior that may go on for years in long-term relationships. One way to detect it is to observe patterns of behavior over time. The following are a few examples.

Lying

People lie to conceal the truth, but with gaslighting, it also manipulates another's reality and throws them off-balance.

Examples include:

  • "I didn't do that."
  • "I would never say that."
  • "You never saw those texts on my phone."

Discrediting

People who gaslight discredit others by making up false stories of things that were or were not said. Or, they convince others their partner is crazy, which discredits the partner if they speak out about the abuse.

Examples include:

  • "You're crazy."
  • "No one will ever believe you."
  • "They said they don't like you."

Trivializing

People who gaslight will trivialize or minimize a person's feelings to gain power.

Examples include:

  • "Calm down."
  • "Quit overreacting."
  • "You're being dramatic."

Withholding

People who gaslight may withhold in the relationship. This may involve a cycle of giving then withholding affection, sex, compliments, money, or even celebrating special occasions.

This cycle introduces confusion and cognitive dissonance and may intermittently activate the reward system in the brain of the partner who is being gaslit. The pattern of intermittent reinforcement is part of trauma bonding.

Diverting

The person who gaslights will change the subject to divert attention from their behavior. They may pretend not to understand, interrupt, or shut down the conversation.

Examples include:

  • "That's enough! Just stop talking."
  • "That's not true."
  • "Where did you get a crazy idea like that?"

Stereotyping

People who gaslight exploit stereotypes and vulnerabilities, especially in relation to imbalances of power with regard to race, religion, age, sex, gender, and nationality.

One study indicated that women, minorities, immigrants, and marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable to stereotyping by authorities who may set them up to look unstable.

Shifting Blame

A person who gaslights will shift blame to others in order to avoid responsibility.

Examples include:

  • "It's all your fault!"
  • "I wouldn't have messed up if you hadn't upset me."
  • "Look what you made me do!”

Help Is Available

If you or a loved one are experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Types of Gaslighting

Gaslighting is an insidious pattern of control, and while it most often occurs in intimate relationships, it can occur in many other contexts.

Intimate Relationships

Gaslighting is not gender-specific, but some researchers indicate that in heterosexual relationships where gaslighting is present, men are more likely to gaslight and women are more likely to experience it.

Child-Parent Relationships

Gaslighting is often a learned behavior that children experience first at home. Gaslighting can occur within the family system, between children and parents.

Medical Relationships

When people seek healthcare treatment, they may be told by healthcare providers that:

  • "It's all in your head."
  • "There's nothing wrong with you."
  • "You're a hypochondriac."

Racial Gaslighting

Racial gaslighting incorporates the same principles of manipulation in intimate partner gaslighting. It is accomplished through perpetuating false or dismissive narratives about the reality and lived experiences of different racial groups in favor of the reality of the dominant power structure.

Political Gaslighting

Gaslighting can be a political strategy. It involves manipulating the sense of reality to amplify power and seek political domination, while using gaslighting tactics to weaken the perception of the opponent.

Institutional Gaslighting

Research into the experience of whistle-blowers indicates in institutions, such as universities, companies, government agencies, religious organizations, and sports organizations, when individuals speak out, they are often traumatized by the emotional manipulation used to keep them quiet.

How to Respond

When facing gaslighting, setting boundaries and remaining calm, assertive, and non-reactive may be helpful. Some suggestions of ways to respond include:

  • "I experienced that differently."
  • "I can understand your perspective is different, but I am not imagining things."
  • "I get that you were just joking, but what you said was hurtful."
  • "I find it really hard to listen when you talk to me like that."
  • "We can agree to disagree."
  • "I'm going to take a break, because I'm not feeling heard. We can try to discuss this again later."
  • "I realize you feel strongly, but my feelings are valid too."

Getting Help

When gaslighting becomes abusive, it's essential to seek help.

If you suspect that you are being mistreated, it may help to journal your thoughts to gain clarity and have evidence of the behavior.

It may also help to talk to people you trust in your community, or a mental health provider you connect with to gain support, coping skills, and, if needed, trauma therapy.

Remember: Help Is Available

You can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline online or call 1-800-662-4357 for more information on how to find support and treatment options specific to your geographic area.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Summary

Gaslighting is recurring psychological manipulation that causes a person to question their reality, instincts, feelings, and even their sanity. It is often present in intimate partner relationships, but it can also occur in family relationships, healthcare appointments, and institutional environments.

Gaslighting can manifest as lying, discrediting, blaming, trivializing, withholding, or diverting.

People who are consistently feeling gaslit or believe the gaslighting has escalated into abuse, can seek help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, mental health professionals, or other trusted community resources.

A Word From Verywell

Gaslighting is a subtle, deeply manipulative form of abuse. It can make you feel out of control and isolated. Seeking help to validate your reality may be necessary in order to overcome the impact of gaslighting. Consider working with a mental health professional or seeking other community resources to manage gaslighting in your relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are gaslighting behaviors?

    Gaslighting behaviors are abusive actions, including guilt-tripping, lying, projection, and blame-shifting, with the goal of manipulating another person's sense of reality.

  • Is gaslighting a form of abuse?

    Yes, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse.

  • Why do people gaslight and why does it work?

    People who gaslight seek power and control. They may have witnessed and learned gaslighting growing up, or they may have a personality disorder.

    Gaslighting works because it is subtle emotional abuse that happens gradually. At first, the behaviors seem harmless. However, over time, the person being gaslit becomes isolated, depressed, confused, anxious, and questions their sanity.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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