Gaslighting: How To Spot And Overcome It

By now you probably have heard of the term “gaslighting”.  With the pervasiveness of social media and popular culture, this term is being used more often.

I find the concept of gaslighting comes up so often during sessions. Be it with partners, parents, or the individual doing it themselves knowingly or unknowingly.

So what does gaslighting actually mean? And what does it look like?

In this post, I’m going to:

Break down the concept of gaslighting

Outline some common "gaslighting tactics"

Discuss feelings associated with the experience of gaslighting

Ways a person can spot and avoid being a victim of gaslighting

Before we begin, I want to give you a heads up - some of the things we’ll be talking about may be slightly overwhelming for some of you.

I’ve included a section here on this point with a grounding exercise  you can use to centre yourself.

Without further adieu, let's get into it!

What Is Gaslighting?

Dimming the Gaslight

Let us start at the very beginning. Once upon a time...there was a movie.

Gaslight (1944), tells the story of Paula and her new husband, Gregory. Over the course of the film, Paula experiences a series of strange events. Items disappear from her home, she hears strange noises and the gaslights flicker, becoming progressively dimmer without explanation.

When Paula tells Gregory about these events, he brushes them aside, and convinces Paula that she is going insane. In reality, Gregory is responsible for these events, as he tries to manipulate Paula to control her and obtain her fortune.

Furthermore, he isolates his wife from her family and friends. This leaves Paula alone and confused, as she questions her memories, perceptions and thoughts.

What Gregory did to Paula is an extreme example of psychological manipulation. By “dimming the gaslights”, Gregory made Paula distrust the most important person in her life: herself.

This extreme example showcases the origin of the term, but it shouldn't imply that gaslighting is a rare or uncommon occurrence.

The Effects of Gaslighting

The psychological definition of gaslighting is:

“The effort of one person to undermine another person’s confidence and stability by causing the victim to doubt [their] own senses and beliefs”.

In other words, gaslighting is a form of manipulative abuse that attacks a person’s trust in themselves. It is built upon an imbalanced power dynamic in interpersonal relationships.

Whether or not it is intentional, gaslighting is a form of manipulation. It can occur in all kinds of relationships - between friends, between family members, in romantic relationships and even at the workplace.

Perhaps the main reason gaslighting is so insidious is that the victim may not realize it is happening.

The self-doubt and self-blame all contribute to the challenge and trauma of being continuously gaslighted. It can lead to further problems, including mental health issues like anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress and issues with trust in relationships. 

Just like many of our behaviors, gaslighting is learned from the relationships a person is exposed to throughout their life.

It is important to note that gaslighting is not the same as disagreeing or conflict. Within reason, conflicts can foster growth into mature and healthy relationships, as long as both parties have mutual respect for one another and are actually listening to each other.

Gaslighting doesn’t occur in every conflict. But if it is left unchecked, continuous gaslighting can have long-term negative impacts on a person’s emotional, psychological and physical health. By identifying these tactics early, it becomes a lot easier to work through the issues and develop healthier ways of managing disagreements.

What Does Gaslighting Look Like?

First off, let’s remember that gaslighting is a complex pattern of manipulation and abuse. People who gaslight use a variety of tactics to discredit their victims into questioning their perception of reality.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that if someone uses a gaslighting tactic once or twice you should ignore it. Gaslighting may start as an off-putting comment here or there.

Slowly but surely, victims are taught to distrust themselves and rely on their abuser to validate their memories, even if they are incorrect.

Common Tactics Used In Gaslighting

Gaslighting can occur in various forms and below are just a few of the common tactics "the gaslighter" may use:

Lying

The gaslighter will tell blatant lies, even when it is obvious they are lying. When presented with proof of their lies, they will double-down, forcing the other person to second-guess themselves.

Discrediting

Additionally, the gaslighter may question the person’s memory of certain events or discredit their experiences entirely. They may also spread rumours, further damaging the victim's credibility and isolate them from their social circle.

“That never happened. What are you talking about? You never remember anything right.”

Minimizing

The gaslighter may tell the person that they are overreacting or being dramatic. Their goal is to trivialize the person’s emotions and reactions to legitimately hurtful behavior, thereby making them believe that their emotions are excessive and unnecessary.

“Why are you mad? I didn’t even do anything. You’re just being dramatic.”

Denial

When confronted with their wrongdoing, the gaslighter may deny fault outright, refusing to take any blame. They do not own up to their mistakes or take any responsibility for their actions.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Shifting Blame

Similarly, when they are called on out on their wrongdoing, the gaslighter may put the blame the other person.

“This is all your fault. I did this because of you.”

Use Kindness As A Weapon

Furthermore, the gaslighter may use kind words and praise to confuse the other person and make them think “hey, [the gaslighter] isn't so bad”.

By using compassion and kindness as a weapon, they try to get the person to focus on the “good times” while minimizing the negative experiences.

Telling The Person They Are "Crazy"

The gaslighter will convince a person that they’re going “crazy” and that they can’t trust themselves. The person being gaslighted is made to believe that their opinions, beliefs and experiences are untrustworthy because their perceptions are unreliable.

“There you go again – you sound crazy, you know that?”

Recognizing The Signs – How Does Gaslighting Make A Person Feel?

Next, let’s talk about what gaslighting looks on the other side. When someone is being gaslighted, what do they experience?

A person being gaslighted may:

Doubt themselves

They may think that cannot trust their own feelings, judgment and perceptions of reality. Thus, they may not realize that the treatment they are receiving is unjust and abusive.

Feel isolated and powerless

They feel as if they have no social support as they have been kept away from their loved ones. The person is led to believe that others see them as “crazy” or “too sensitive”. They avoid seeking help because of this.

Experience disappointment in themselves

They are constantly disappointed in themselves – their actions, their thoughts, their behavior. They assume others are disappointed in them, as well.

Feel as if they are “stupid” or “crazy”

They start to believe they are truly “stupid” or “crazy” or whichever negative adjectives have been used to describe them.

Apologize a lot & feel that everything is their fault

A person experiencing gaslighting may worry that they are not good enough, and everything that goes wrong is their fault.

Struggle to make decisions

Someone being gaslighted may struggle with making decisions due to a decrease in confidence, self-esteem, and a loss of self-trust. They avoid stating their opinions and choose to stay silent instead.

Feel something is “off” or just not right

Often times, a person’s gut instinct will give them hints that things aren’t as they should be. However, they may be unable to identify exactly what’s wrong.

Let's Take A Break

Before we go any further, I recognize that everything we just talked about is a lot. Gaslighting is abuse. Plain and simple. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to recognize. But once you do, it can be overwhelming.

Let’s do a quick breathing exercise to ground ourselves. Deep breathing helps to relieve anxiety and calm the mind as well as the body.

Try this- follow along with these instructions or if you're a visual learner, take a look at the graphic below:

  • Place one hand on the middle of your chest and the other on your belly
  • Inhale through your nose for 5 seconds, letting the air fill your belly and rise up towards your chest (notice the hand on your belly rise)
  • Hold this breath for 2 seconds
  • Now imagine blowing through a straw and exhale slowly through your mouth (notice the hand on your belly fall)
  • Repeat steps 1-3 as needed
belly breathing

How To Overcome Being Gaslighted

If you’ve experienced any form of gaslighting that I previously mentioned - please remember, you are not crazy.

You are not going insane.

And most importantly, you are not alone.

Things may seem bleak and hopeless, but I promise you, you can fight this.

If you're able to, the best option is to seek professional help. Speaking with a professional will help you process your emotions. You can work through a plan in a safe and non-judgemental environment.

Besides that, here are some steps you can take if you recognize that you or someone you know is experiencing gaslighting:

Identify And Remember Your Truth

The first step is reminding yourself of the truth. Keep track of events and conversations to identify the objective truth. Note down how you’re feeling and the emotions you felt when your truth was denied.

Trust Yourself

After identifying your truth, remember to trust yourself. You are not crazy, untrustworthy or unreliable. Your memories, your experiences and your perceptions of reality are valid.

Your Safety Comes First

When a relationship becomes toxic and unsafe, it is okay to step away. Ending any relationship can be difficult and stressful - whether it’s a friend, family member, romantic partner or someone at work. But your mental and physical safety are the top priority.

You Are Not Alone

Perhaps you have been led to believe that you are alone and that you have no one your side. You may have been continuously and systematically isolated from your support circle. But it is never too late to reach out to someone you trust and ask for help, support and validation.

Be Kind To Yourself

Finally, allow yourself to experience all your feelings without guilt or judgment. Gaslighting is emotional abuse. It is heavy and traumatizing and stepping out of it will be difficult. Be patient and give yourself the space and time to heal.

Before You Go

At the end of Gaslight, Paula realizes the truth of Gregory’s manipulation and abuse. The police take him into custody and Paula is finally free.

The film ends on a relatively positive note, giving us hope that Paula will be okay. In real life, things may be a little bit more challenging and difficult.

If you think a loved one is going through a difficult time, reach out to them. Check in and see how they're doing. If you're going through challenges yourself, please reach out to someone you trust.

To put it lightly, the world is in mild chaos. Things seem bleak and hopeless. But we all can and need to do our part to turn on the proverbial "gaslight". We can make things a little bit brighter and clearer.

The first step? Remembering that you are not alone. We are in this together and we will get through it together.

Has learning about gaslighting caused you to see existing relationships in a new light?

This can be an overwhelming feeling. If you need some support managing this, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team.

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services