Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 03, 2022
What Is Gaslighting?
Lately, everyone from politicians to celebrities seem to be talking about gaslighting. But what is it? The term is often used incorrectly to describe any argument someone doesn't agree with. But real gaslighting can be a form of emotional abuse. It happens when someone – like a partner, parent, friend, or boss – challenges what you know is true and makes you question your beliefs and sanity.
Where Did ‘Gaslighting’ Come From?
It’s from the 1938 play Gas Light, which was turned into a 1944 movie starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Boyer plays a scheming husband who tries to convince his wife that she's lost her mind. As part of his ruse, he dims the gas lights in their house, then tells her that she is imagining the change in lighting.
Why Do People Gaslight?
Like other types of abuse, gaslighting is a way to gain control over someone else, a situation, or the gaslighter’s own discomfort. For example, a gaslighter might shift the focus of an unpleasant conversation away from themselves by suggesting that the other person is at fault. People may not even realize they're gaslighting. Gaslighting is not a mental illness; it is a form of manipulation.
Signs Someone Is Gaslighting You
Gaslighters use many techniques to gain power over you. One method is to deny something they said or did. If you question their version of events, they pretend to forget or accuse you of misremembering. When you push back, they might minimize your feelings by calling you "too sensitive," "confused," or "crazy." Or they might change the story to make it seem like you're at fault.
How Gaslighting Affects You
After someone has been gaslighting you for a while, you might start to doubt your feelings and memories. You might wonder if you imagined the events in question or if you're being too sensitive. You may find yourself apologizing for things you didn't do, blaming yourself when things go wrong, and making excuses to family and friends about the gaslighter's behavior. Over time, you might start to wonder whether you're losing your mind.
Forms of Gaslighting
Gaslighting doesn't only happen between romantic partners. For example, your boss might gaslight you by denying that they offered you a raise or by making you look weak or incompetent to company management. Even someone you just met, like a salesman at a car dealership, could gaslight you by claiming that you agreed to a more expensive option than you wanted.
When Your Doctor Gaslights You
Gaslighting happens in doctor's offices and hospitals, too. Often it takes the form of the doctor not listening to you or not taking your concerns seriously. Women are more likely to have their symptoms ignored or dismissed than men. This is called medical gaslighting. It can harm your health by slowing diagnosis and treatment.
Are You Being Gaslit?
Healthy relationships and interactions shouldn’t have gaslighting behaviors. Look for signs of gaslighting in your relationships. Try talking with a friend who might help you to see the situation more clearly. Remind yourself that the gaslighter is causing the problem, not you. Meanwhile, protect your mental health with exercise, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.
How to Respond to Gaslighting
If you think you are being gaslit (rather than having poor communication or a healthy disagreement), try to talk things out with the other person. Communicate your needs and set clear boundaries. Take notes so that you have a written record if the gaslighter tries to twist the narrative. Stay close to a support network of family, good friends, and people who care about you. If all else fails, end the relationship.
Where to Get Help
Sometimes, support from friends and family isn't enough to help you manage a toxic situation. Consider talking to a mental health professional like a psychologist, therapist, or counselor. If the situation seems unsafe or dangerous, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233). They can tell you how to spot the signs of abuse and offer tips to help you stay safe.
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CPTSD Foundation: "Medical and Mental Health Gaslighting and Iatrogenic Injury."
Harvard Business Review: "Ask an Expert: What Should I Do If My Boss Is Gaslighting Me?"
Mental Health America: "What Is Gaslighting?"
Sociology of Health & Illness: "Towards a sociological understanding of medical gaslighting in western health care."
The Lancet Psychiatry: "Gaslight and Gaslighting."
Robin Stern, PhD, co-founder and associate director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; associate research scientist, Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, CT.