Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse wherein a person uses verbal and behavioral tricks to convince another person they are losing their mind or—at the very least—cannot trust their own judgment. Why? To gain control.

“Gaslighters are master manipulators,” says Tampa-based psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, LMHC, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. “They lie or withhold information, pit people against each other, and always place blame elsewhere, all the while gaining control over those they are gaslighting.”

Though the idea may be new to you, gaslighting actually has roots in early 20th century writings. In fact, the name comes from George Cukor’s 1944 movie Gaslight, based on the play Gas Light, by Patrick Hamilton. It is the story of a cunning man who attempts to convince his devoted wife she is going insane. He hides and moves various articles in their home and, when she notices, tells her she either lost the items or moved them herself but can’t remember. The husband’s goal is to secretly increase his own fortune by stealing his wife’s inheritances. When she sees the gas lights in her room fading and is led to believe it’s not really happening, she starts to question her own sanity. 1

How to Spot a Gaslighter

Gaslighters need control and power. In a relationship, they need to be in charge, and they need to be right about everything, routinely imposing their judgments on you. A gaslighter’s tactics—constantly criticizing, blaming, making verbally abusive statements, intimidation, denial of responsibility, minimizing abusive behavior, and proclaiming dissatisfaction with a relationship—may be so subtle at first.  You may not sense something is deeply wrong until you find yourself existing in a never-ending state of confusion and self-doubt. Gaslighters are blamers, using lines like, “You made me do it” or “I did it because you wouldn’t listen to me.” They may accuse you of having issues or needs that they actually have, such as suggesting you’re not being honest with yourself. They may find ways to take credit for your accomplishments. When a gaslighter gives a compliment or apology, it is often backhanded: “You look almost as good as you did when I first met you” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Gaslighting is used to manipulate people because of their race, gender identity, age, mental instability or physical or emotional vulnerability. 2,3 It is the same behavior, whether it is used during the torture of political prisoners or to gain control in an intimate relationship, in which case gaslighting has been referred to as a form of “romantic terrorism.”4,5 When a parent tries to turn their child against the other parent, or consistently treats one child as a scapegoat, that’s gaslighting. World leaders have been accused of gaslighting their citizens, telling them something is or isn’t true when all evidence clearly points to the opposite. You may have a gaslighter in your family, friend group, or workplace. (That’s the one who convinces the boss that a coworker should be fired from their job.)

Why Gaslighters Behave the Way They Do

The goal is always to weaken resistance, break spirits, appear blameless, and create chaos and confusion in the mind of the “gaslightee.” Gaslighting isn’t an isolated or occasional event. It’s an insidious and persistent pattern of behavior that keeps you questioning yourself and those around you while slowing eroding your self-esteem and even your identity.

“There are two main reasons why a gaslighter behaves as they do,” Dr. Sarkis explains. “It is either a planned effort to gain control and power over another person, or it because someone was raised by a parent or parents who were gaslighters, and they learned these behaviors as a survival mechanism.”

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Children learn from a gaslighting parent that they are the golden child who can do no wrong or the scapegoat who is blamed for doing everything wrong, Dr. Sarkis adds. That teaches the child a false belief that people operate in absolutes, that people are either all good or all bad, without any gray areas, and so they start to behave towards others as if this is true.

The Effects of Gaslighting

Gaslighters can often find people who support them under any and all circumstances, and will use those people against you with comments like “I’m not the only one who thinks you’re wrong,” or “Even so-and-so thinks you’re [insert negative trait, such as “a bad parent” or “unreliable”].” These may be lies or exaggerations, but they serve the gaslighter’s purpose: If you start to believe everyone you know is against you, you won’t trust any of them, and you won’t go to any of them for help. That keeps you isolated from family or friends and gives the gaslighter more control over you.

Gaslighting causes chronic stress and severe emotional distress. The constant barrage of verbal (and sometimes physical) assaults eventually wears away your sense of identity, self-worth, and self-confidence while also eating away at your sanity. You may be more vulnerable to gaslighting if you suffer from any mental health issues that weaken your resistance.

Protect Yourself

If you suspect you are being gaslighted, here’s some advice:

  • Pay attention to what the person does, not what they say. Gaslighters say one thing,  but their actions say another.
  • Don’t listen to someone who constantly tells you “you’re crazy” or makes similar comments that make you routinely question yourself.
  • Don’t believe anyone who tells you that your family and/or friends agree with them and not you. Gaslighters will often use those closest to you as ammunition.
  • Remember that it’s not you; the gaslighter is 100% responsible for their behavior.

“Gaslighters do not respect boundaries, and they tend to lash out when you try to enforce them,” warns Dr. Sarkis. “Staying in a relationship where there is emotional abuse like gaslighting makes it more likely you will also be the victim of life-threatening or deadly physical abuse, and that’s one big reason why it’s so important to establish distance.”

NOTE: If you are concerned for your safety, contact your local domestic violence shelter or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7333.

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Last Updated: Feb 1, 2020