Gaslighting can happen between romantic partners but also in family relationships, friendships, and even at the office. This is quite a common concept and it happens around more often than you would know. In a way, it’s also known as psychological brainwashing.
Gaslighting is a type of emotional or mental abuse when someone uses manipulation and distraction tactics to distort the truth, making their victim question their own reality. It can happen in any type of close relationship, including romantic relationships but also between family members, friends, and coworkers. Lying to someone about what’s really happening is hurtful in the short-term. Wondering why someone you love is trying to deceive you can make you question the relationship and yourself. But gaslighting can have terrible consequences in the long-term, destroying the victim’s self-esteem and confidence and either trapping them in a dysfunctional relationship or blowing up the relationship. It can have broader implications, as well. Over time, the person being gaslighted becomes conditioned to trust others’ perceptions more than their own, leading to a feeling of helplessness, brain fog, an inability to make decisions, memory problems, PTSD, depression, and anxiety—and these may not end even if the person leaves the relationship.
Most of us have been gaslighted at some point in our lives, making it important to learn how to spot the technique, shut it down, and minimize the psychological impact on our daily lives. When left unexamined, gaslighting can have a devastating and long-term impact on our emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical well-being. Gaslighting is a technique that undermines a person’s perception of reality. When someone is gaslighting you, you may second-guess yourself, your memories, recent events, and your perceptions. After communicating with the person gaslighting you, you may be left feeling dazed and wondering if there is something wrong with you. You may be encouraged to think you are actually to blame for something or that you’re just being too sensitive. Gaslighting can confuse you and cause you to question your judgment, memory, self-worth, and overall mental health. It may help to know more about the tactics a person who is gaslighting you might use.
People who engage in gaslighting are often habitual and pathological liars and frequently exhibit narcissistic tendencies. It is typical for them to blatantly lie and never back down or change their stories, even when you call them out or provide proof of their deception. They may say something like: “You’re making things up,” “That never happened,” or “You’re crazy.” Also those who gaslight spread rumors and gossip about you to others. They may pretend to be worried about you while subtly telling others that you seem emotionally unstable or “crazy.” Unfortunately, this tactic can be extremely effective and many people side with the abuser or bully without knowing the full story.
Sometimes, when called out or questioned, a person who gaslights will use kind and loving words to try to smooth over the situation. They might say something like, “You know how much I love you. I would never hurt you on purpose.” These words may be what you want to hear, but they are inauthentic, especially if the same behavior is repeated. That said, they may be just enough to convince you to let them off the hook, which allows the person to escape responsibility or consequences for their hurtful behavior. A person who gaslights tends to retell stories in ways that are in their favor. For instance, if your partner shoved you against the wall and you are discussing it later, they may twist the story and say you stumbled and they tried to steady you, which is what caused you to fall into the wall. You may begin to doubt your memory of what happened. Encouraging confusion or second-guessing on your part is exactly the intention.
Recognizing that you or someone you care about might be in a “gaslight tango” is not always as straightforward as it might seem because it can start in very subtle ways — and often involves two people (or groups of people) who would otherwise seem to care about one another very much. The term “gaslighting” actually comes from a 1938 play, “Gas Light” (which was turned into a more widely known movie in 1944, “Gaslight”), where a husband manipulates his wife to make her think she’s actually losing her sense of reality so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance. Not all real-life examples are so diabolical. A subtler example might be a mother always disapproving of her daughter’s decisions to the extent that the daughter questions decisions she suspects her mother would not agree with. The mother may or may not consciously want to control her daughter’s every decision, but by being overly critical she’s doing so.
Remember that you are not to blame for what you are experiencing. The person gaslighting you is making a choice to behave this way. They are responsible for their actions. Nothing you did caused them to make this choice, and you won’t be able to change what they’re doing.