Oct 24th 2023
Gaslighting is a type of manipulation used to distort the truth and make others question themselves and their perceptions. It is a type of emotional abuse with the underlying intention to make it easier to control and manipulate others.
We’ve all been lied to by a friend, family member, or acquaintance before. Many of us have been manipulated by others, too. Gaslighting uses both tactics to exert power. On the surface, it might seem like one person trying to persuade another. However, it goes beyond typical persuasion into the realm of significant emotional abuse.
Gaslighting aims to make someone doubt their reality, how they feel, what they think, and what they remember. The people doing the gaslighting engage in this behavior to achieve an ulterior motive - to gain power, control others, or gain admiration, are just a few examples (though perpetrators typically gaslight to attain multiple goals). Over time, victims of gaslighting become easier to control and manipulate as the doubts about their reality grow stronger and stronger.
Gaslighting can be challenging to define. It’s even more difficult to recognize, especially if you’re the person being gaslighted. Before learning how to respond to gaslighting, it’s necessary to explore some examples of potential gaslighting to illustrate the many different forms it can take: [2,3]
The specific way these and other gaslighting techniques are carried out can vary depending on the situation. For example, let’s say you’re in a romantic relationship, and your partner is gaslighting you by invalidating your emotions. They might say things like, “You aren’t really angry with me,” or “You can’t possibly be upset about this.” In these examples, there is a specific emotion the perpetrator wants to invalidate.
However, gaslighting in a broader context, say, politics, might involve invalidating more general feelings on a large scale. For example, a political candidate might use phrases like, “They can’t be trusted” or “You don’t know what else they might be up to.” These phrases are used to invalidate feelings of trust people might have for others and replace them with feelings of distrust.
As another example, gaslighters might use denial differently depending on the context. Let’s say you agreed to work a shift for a coworker with the agreement that they would return the favor later on. But, when you attempt to call in that card, they might respond with, “I never agreed to that,” to manipulate you into questioning whether the agreement happened (and to get out of fulfilling their end of the bargain).
This tactic might be used in a slightly different form in a personal relationship. For example, assume you call a family member out for their inappropriate behavior. They might use denial, such as “I’ve never acted that way,” or forgetfulness, such as “I don’t even remember what you’re talking about” as a means of deflecting and changing the subject to avoid responsibility.
No matter the situation, though, gaslighting is about power - one person trying to retain or gain control at the expense of someone else’s power.
Gaslighting can occur in any number of settings. Though recent popular examples come from American politics, gaslighting is also common in interpersonal relationships, workplace settings, and even medical settings.
Interpersonal gaslighting can happen in any situation with a power dynamic, such as parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships. Perhaps the most common example of interpersonal gaslighting is an abusive partner who utilizes gaslighting to exert more control over their significant other.
Gaslighting is common in the workplace, too. Again, it usually occurs when one person has more power than another, such as someone in a managerial position gaslighting one of their subordinates. For example, you might confront a manager about their workplace behavior, only to be met with statements like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “You’re just being overly emotional” in response to your criticisms.
Examples of gaslighting in medical settings are also common. On the one hand, physicians and other medical professionals might gaslight a patient, such as a male physician dismissing a female patient’s health concerns as being irrational or hysterical. On the other hand, physician-physician gaslighting can also occur. A good example of this is a general practitioner (GP) bringing concerns about a patient to a specialist, only for the specialist to demean the GP as not being an expert like they are.
At the heart of gaslighting is the desire to control others. In some cases, that need stems from an underlying psychological disorder. In other cases, the gaslighter might have been raised by a parent who gaslighted them and subsequently uses the same maladaptive techniques to control others as their parent did.
Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by behavior patterns involving grandiose fantasies and behaviors, an extreme need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. These symptoms play out in various ways, including the following:
Perhaps the most important elements of narcissistic personality disorder that lend themselves to gaslighting are the sense of entitlement and the propensity to engage in exploitative behaviors. Combined with a lack of empathy, it’s easy to see why narcissists have no problem gaslighting others to exert control and get what they want.
Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by exploitative and manipulative behaviors, irritability, aggression, and a general lack of responsibility. These features occur in the context of a complete lack of remorse for one’s actions. Likewise, people with antisocial personality disorder are often deceitful, reckless, and impulsive.
Again, these symptoms prime someone with antisocial personality disorder to engage in gaslighting. In particular, the propensity for being deceitful, aggressive, and irresponsible, along with a lack of remorse for their behavior, makes it more likely that someone with this disorder will gaslight someone else.
As noted earlier, it can be difficult to tell if you’re being gaslighted, especially early on, since gaslighting usually progresses gradually over a long period of time. Nevertheless, there are some signs to look for if you suspect you’re being gaslighted:
More generally, you might feel something about your life isn’t right, but you can’t quite pinpoint it. All you know is that you feel differently - worse than you used to - and you can’t explain why.
The effects of emotional abuse can be severe and long-lasting. Aside from the adverse impact on the victim’s autonomy and self-concept, gaslighting breeds distrust of others, self-doubt, and can result in the development of psychological problems like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Moreover, people who have been gaslighted can experience any number of devastating effects, including:
These and other symptoms of psychological distress can linger long after the gaslighting is recognized and the gaslighter is removed from one’s life.
If you suspect you’re being gaslighted, there are several things you can do to address the situation: [2,3,8]
Professional resources are also available to help you through the process of responding to gaslighting. You can contact a mental health professional or call organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for assistance.
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