“That never happened; you must be imagining it.”
“Everyone agrees with me—you’re overreacting.”
“Wow, what’s it like to be insane?”
If these comments sound like a familiar refrain, you may have been the target of gaslighting, a term blowing up like, well, a lighter thrown into a puddle of gas. Gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse, dominates the headlines, is all over Twitter, and has been thrown around by everyone from pundits to columnists to late-night comics.
But what is gaslighting? And even more importantly, how should you respond to gaslighting behavior?
What is gaslighting?
The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. She plays a wife, named Paula, whose supposedly devoted husband, Gregory, is slowly undermining her reality. His nefarious goal is to have her institutionalized so he can gain access to her fortune.
Gaslighters override your reality to the point that you question your own judgment.
The title comes from Gregory’s habit of secretly digging through the attic for Paula’s hidden jewels. When he creeps upstairs and turns on the lights in the attic, the rest of the gas lights in the house dim accordingly, making Paula suspicious. But when she asks him about the dimming lights, he acts like she’s crazy. She must be imagining things—they’re just as bright as always.
“Why don’t you rest a while,” Gregory suggests. “You know you haven’t been well.”
In some ways, Gaslight captures the emotional abuse with dead-on accuracy. The mind games Gregory plays are diabolical—he tells her friends she’s unstable, isolates her from her family, and disguises cutting invalidations as statements of concern. He even hides her belongings, then questions her sanity when she can’t find them. In short, he messes not only with her but with the people and objects around her to alter her reality and make her think she’s losing it.
But in other ways, Gaslight is clearly a Hollywood movie. Gaslighting in real life is different. But how? What tactics do real-life gaslighters use? This week, we’ll illuminate five gaslighting tactics of the all-too-common and all-too-insidious, and then tackle how to respond.
5 gaslighting tactics and how to respond to them
Tactic #1: Gaslighters override your reality
Gaslighters override your reality to the point that you question your own judgment. And, as with most things, the behavior varies when it comes to how severe it is. It can happen on a small-scale, as with a parent who tells a child, “You can’t be hungry—you just had a snack.” Or it can happen on a much larger scale, such as when a person denies fully obvious facts.
If the gaslighter had a mantra, it would be, ‘If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes true.’
A few years ago, a story made the rounds online of a man who got married and posted the wedding photos on Facebook. When his long-distance girlfriend questioned the photos, he claimed they weren’t real, although he admitted even some of his Facebook friends had been fooled. But hey, he and his girlfriend chatted on Skype all the time, right? And hadn’t he sent her that Facebook profile link in the first place? Why would he do that if it was going to reveal to her that he’d gotten married? She must be crazy to question his love for her.
Of course, the marriage wasn’t all in the woman’s head. If the gaslighter had a mantra, it would be, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes true.”
But what if there are no disagreements over basic facts like whether lights are flickering, or whether you did pay rent, and how much money there was in the account?
Behaviors that consistently invalidate your emotions can still be gaslighting. For example, if you often feel insecure about your romantic relationship, but your partner shuts you down every time you try to express your feelings, you could be in dangerous territory. Feelings of insecurity don’t necessarily mean that your partner actually is cheating or planning to leave you, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have those fears if you feel they’ve become distant, unreliable, or otherwise changed in their relationship with you. Your partner should respect your right to have emotions instead of making you feel “crazy” for having them.
What to do
Allow yourself to have emotions. That doesn’t mean you should take your feelings of insecurity and become 100 percent convinced that your partner is cheating. It simply means that you should pay attention to your own emotions and acknowledge them instead of trying to suppress them.
Explain to your partner that emotions are valid even when assumptions are wrong. For example, sadness is always valid. If you thought your partner didn’t love you anymore, of course you’d be sad. Even if the assumption isn’t factual, it’s reasonable to expect your partner to acknowledge your emotional reaction instead of ridiculing or dismissing it.
Tactic #2: Gaslighters isolate you from your support systems
Let’s return to the movie Gaslight for a moment. Gregory’s tricks wouldn’t have rattled Paula so much if she’d had solid support systems around her. Even just one person she trusted to confirm that the gaslights were indeed flickering would have reassured her that she wasn’t losing her mind.
Gaslighters know that you’re less likely to be under their sway if you have other people to give you reality checks and validate your experience. So it’s not surprising that they often say things like:
- Your friends are crazy (or unreliable, not good for you)
- I’m the only one you can count on
- People can’t be trusted; they won’t tell you the truth like I do
- I don’t want other people to take advantage of you
A gaslighter may also do things like telling other people you’re irrational, tend to overreact, or can’t be trusted.
What to do
Keep connected with your friends and other trusted support systems. Ideally, you have some of your own confidantes who are not connected to the person who may be gaslighting you. Get multiple perspectives. Even if the issue is too private to discuss with many friends, stay connected with them in other ways.
Seek out mentors and objective third parties. Some issues aren’t so easy to share with friends, or it might be an institution that’s shaking your confidence instead of an individual person. Talk to advisors who are objective, like a mentor who doesn’t have direct power over you, an ombudsman, an anonymous ethics line, or a therapist.
Tactic #3: Gaslighters try to make things easier for themselves
Unlike in the movie, the gaslighter isn’t usually trying to destroy a relationship, much less destroy a relationship in order to claim something as concrete as a treasure chest of jewels—mwa-ha-ha-ha!
Gaslighting comes from the need—conscious or unconscious—to control.
Quite the opposite. The gaslighter wants the target around, wants to maintain the relationship. They just want the target around on their terms.
And here’s another surprising fact—gaslighting isn’t always conscious. Gaslighters don’t sit around stroking their goatees or petting a white cat while plotting to undermine your sanity. Instead, gaslighting comes from the need—conscious or unconscious—to control. Gaslighters work to undermine you so you can’t challenge them. Then, the relationship can go the way they want. They get to have their cake and eat it, too, without the inconvenience of having to discuss things, compromise, or work together.
What to do
Even if the record shows that a person’s behavior constitutes gaslighting, slapping a label on it may not change anything. Instead, clearly express how the behavior affects you, and explain how you’d like that behavior to change. If you’re dealing with an institution, be aware of your rights and ask for appropriate changes (like switching to a different supervisor) if this would help you.
Be aware of your own behavior, too. If your relationship feels off-kilter and stuck, and your partner is perpetually unhappy, ask yourself whether you’re allowing them to express their emotions and thoughts. You may not have any intention of engaging in gaslighting yourself, but keep your mind open to the possibility that your own actions could be undercutting someone’s confidence and sense of self.
Tactic #4: Gaslighters are often fueled by sexism
Of course, gaslighting can be used by anyone against anyone—it’s not always gendered. But it’s often used as a form of emotional abuse against women. It works, in part, because it feeds off sexist stereotypes of women as crazy, jealous, emotional, weak, or incapable.
If a woman rings the alarm on sexist behavior, gaslighters use sexist stereotypes to undermine the woman’s complaints.
In an excellent 2014 paper published in Philosophical Perspectives, the author, Dr. Kate Abramson of Indiana University, details the story of a female grad student who discovers the male grad students have made a list ranking their female peers by attractiveness. When she expresses that such a list is inappropriate, she’s told that she’s overly sensitive and policing innocent conversation among male friends. She’s really just insecure about her ranking on the list, isn’t she?
What just happened there? If a woman rings the alarm on sexist behavior, gaslighters use sexist stereotypes to undermine the woman’s complaints. Instead of taking her seriously, each of her complaints might be refuted as a silly misinterpretation or dismissed as her being too sensitive. In this way, the sexist stereotypes are used to reinforce themselves—an uninterrupted pattern of circular logic: “See, she’s just another insecure, overly emotional woman we don’t have to listen to.”
What to do
Leave a paper trail. If you and the other person appear to consistently not see the same facts, start writing things down. You can gain confidence (or discover patterns) by documenting events and conversations. Especially in a professional setting, writing follow-up emails to summarize a meeting can help you to make your case.
Focus on getting what you need out of the situation, even if it’s confirming your suspicions to yourself so you can decide whether or not to break ties.
Take time to confirm facts. You don’t have to react right away if someone seems to contradict your reality. Buy some time with, “Okay, I’ll look into that,” or, “That’s interesting—let me sleep on it.” Then, take time to research and confirm the facts before saying anything more.
Don’t get caught up in winning the title of “being right.” If the other person or institution is gaslighting you, they’re not playing by the rules anyway. Focus on getting what you need out of the situation, even if it’s confirming your suspicions to yourself so you can decide whether or not to break ties.
Tactic #5: Gaslighters make you agree with their point of view
Gaslighters need the world to conform to their standards. And they need the very individuals they gaslight to agree with them.
When someone refuses to witness or substantiate your reality, that’s invalidation. But gaslighting means getting you, the target, to invalidate yourself, as well.
It’s not enough for gaslighters, for example, to insist that sexual harassers were just having a little fun. They need the target of the harassment to agree that it was nothing serious. Ideally, the target would not only agree but also believe that she deserved to be undermined because she was being crazy, overly sensitive, or imagining things.
When someone refuses to witness or substantiate your reality, that’s invalidation. But gaslighting means getting you, the target, to invalidate yourself, as well. Not only does no one take you seriously, you wonder if you can take your own experience seriously—your common sense, your feelings, your memory, even what you’ve seen with your own eyes. Gaslighting not only invalidates your experience, but it also makes you question your capacity to trust your experience in the first place.
What to do
Don’t default to apologizing. Instead, clearly state your position and evidence and label the differences in your claims. For example, instead of, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why our numbers are different…”, say, “It appears we have different numbers. I arrived at mine from these calculations…”
Don’t engage in their line of questioning. If someone is gaslighting you, you don’t have to answer their questions directly. Simply don’t go down that line of conversation if they’re trying to get you to agree to their false statements. Stick to your line or disengage altogether.
Whether in Hollywood or your own household, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. If you find yourself often wondering, “Am I crazy? Am I losing my mind? Am I stupid or incapable of making sound decisions?”, consider those thoughts a red flag. That’s especially true if you find yourself without much social support, and your partner (or the institution) dismisses your feelings. Trust your gut that something is wrong, and use the tips we reviewed today to regain your sense of confidence.
If today’s episode spoke to you, reach out to someone who can help. Having just one person validate your experience can be a lifeline that begins the process of reeling yourself in from all the lies to believing your own truth.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.