What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is the action of undermining a person’s reality by denying their feelings, emotions, and memory - often resulting in them questioning their sanity and judgment of a situation. 'Gaslighter' is the term used to describe a person who psychologically manipulates another by means of gaslighting.
“You are imagining things”, “I was just joking”, “You are overreacting”, “Stop being so dramatic”, “You are too sensitive”, “You are overthinking it….”
Do these phrases sound familiar? Do they trigger a negative emotional reaction? If so, you have most likely been a victim of gaslighting.
The term ‘gaslighting’ originates from a 1930’s play, Gas Light. Gaslighting is a manipulative form of behavior explored in popular psychology that has become a cultural phenomenon in recent years, having even been announced as one of the most popular words of 2018 by the Oxford English Dictionary. Observed in a variety of relationships and situations, this form of manipulation is, unfortunately, quite common. It may be difficult to recognize at first, but increased awareness and knowledge about the topic are the first steps to breaking free from a gaslighter.
Gaslighting in Relationships
Gaslighting can occur in a variety of relationship dynamics, but is observed most commonly in romantic relationships. Relationships where this manipulative form of behavior is the norm are emotionally abusive and harmful, whether they are personal or professional. Gaslighting can be experienced in relationships with a partner, family member, boss, colleague, or friend. It usually involves a power dynamic where the gaslighter carries more control, importance, and leverage over the other person.
Gaslighting is a socially-conditioned learnt behavior - an unhealthy and destructive behavior pattern developed over time. It is often engrained in certain cultures and systems, or observed by individuals in early childhood and modeled as acceptable behavior.
Different Types of Gaslighting
So what are the different personal and professional relationship dynamics where gaslighting may occur? Some less obvious types of gaslighting are medical gaslighting, political gaslighting, institutional gaslighting, racial gaslighting, and sexist gaslighting.
Medical gaslighting is when a medical professional dismisses their patient’s health concern based on the assumption that they are mentally ill. Political gaslighting, which is unfortunately quite common, is when a political leader lies, denies, or manipulates information to control or influence the general public ー downplaying, hiding or denying something their administration has done wrong, and discrediting opponents based on their mental stability.
Institutional gaslighting occurs when a company or organization denies or hides information, or lies to employees about their rights, often portraying the people who identify the problems as incompetent or unstable. Racial gaslighting arises when gaslighting techniques are applied to a group of people based on their race by denying the group’s discrimination, despite evidence that suggests otherwise. Sexist gaslighting is similar, but based on gender.
What does Gaslighting Feel Like?
When a person’s feelings and perceptions are continuously invalidated, they begin to question themselves ー and often become so confused and distrustful of their judgment that it starts to affect their identity, confidence, and self-worth. They begin to second-guess themselves, and their own reality of what feels true.
Gaslighting might be occurring when you feel as though something just doesn’t feel right, but you are not exactly sure what or why. When conflict arises and a gaslighter is confronted, they often use gaslighting as a tool to deflect accusations about their maladaptive behavior, and instead project them onto another person to shift the blame away from their own unfavorable actions.
Over time, gaslighters begin to take away the other person’s assessment and opinion of a situation that has been hurting them. In Medical News Today, Robin Stern, a psychoanalyst at Yale University, shares that one of her most common observations of gaslighting occurs in romantic relationships when a woman suspects their partner of having an affair. In these cases, their partner consistently downplays and denies their concerns and feelings, often making them feel crazy and in doubt of their own judgment and intuition.
According to the US National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting techniques can include:
- Withholding - when the gaslighter refuses to listen or says they don’t understand.
- Blocking or diverting - when the gaslighter changes the subject or questions the other person’s thinking about a situation.
- Countering - when the gaslighter questions the other person’s memory of an event.
- Trivializing - when the gaslighter makes the other person’s feelings and needs seem unimportant and irrelevant.
- Forgetting or denial - when the gaslighter pretends to forget something happened, or denies something they had previously agreed to.
- Stereotyping - when the gaslighter resorts to negative stereotypes about race, gender, nationality, sexuality, or age to manipulate the other person.
Gaslighters aren’t always aware of their behavior, as it often becomes an engrained pattern in the way that they navigate their relationships with other people. They use it as a way to look for excuses or justification for their actions, instead of accepting responsibility and facing conflict. Gaslighting is not always intentional and malicious; it is a cognitive strategy for self-regulation and co-regulation, which may sometimes be useful to the individual ー even though it can be extremely harmful for the person receiving this type of treatment. There are many reasons why people become gaslighters: namely, a desire for control, distressing childhood experiences, or a personality disorder.
If you suspect that you are experiencing some form of gaslighting, speak to a mental health professional and learn more about gaslighting to get the emotional support and insight you need to help manage it better.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: The Sociology of Gaslighting, Racial Gaslighting, Gaslighting: a Marital Syndrome
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