What does “gaslighting” even mean? Use this table of contents below to learn what gaslighting is, where it can show up, how to spot it –and most importantly– how to deal with it.
- What Is Gaslighting?
- In What Kinds Of Relationships Might I Experience Gaslighting?
- Signs Of Gaslighting: A Checklist
- How To Reject Gaslighting
- In Parting…
There are people out there who get it. Before diving in, remember you always have support, here.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is intentionally making someone think they’re wrong, even when they’re right.
People gaslight others on a spectrum, and the behavior can include questioning your logical thoughts, making you doubt your perceptions, or outright denying the reality you experience.
The word comes from a 1940s movie called Gaslight, in which a guy makes his girlfriend question her experiences and view of the world to such a strong extent, that she starts ‘going crazy.’
We don’t know if there’s a proper term for it, but to make discussion easier, we’ll call the perpetrator a ‘gaslighter.’ And when someone does it to you, it’s called ‘being gaslighted.’
If someone in your life is causing you to question your own reality or making you distrust your own logic, you’re probably experiencing gaslighting.
If this is what you’re going through, we’re happy you made it to this article. You’re obviously resisting manipulation, and we’re confident you can push back to deal with gaslighting in your life.
In what kinds of relationships might I experience gaslighting?
Gaslighting in romantic relationships
Emotionally abusive partners love to gaslight – they most often do it to make you overlook their mistreatment or questionable actions.
For instance, you might suspect your partner is cheating because they came home extra late, after you went to bed, every night last week. When you bring it up to them, they say they got home at a normal time – which you know not to be the case. When you question them further, they dismiss you and insist, telling you that you must’ve been dreaming.
Narcissistic gaslighting preemptively invalidates protests against unfair treatment.
This kind of gaslighting in relationships can even take a more malicious turn. Instead of casually telling you what you experienced was just a dream, they might powerfully argue that they didn’t get home late, and that you’re going crazy.
They could go so far as to argue that you two went to sleep at the same time — you must be ‘losing it’! And with them arguing so emphatically… how could you not question your own perspective even a little bit?
To a manipulative partner, gaslighting you like this serves three purposes: it makes you question your reality, it forces you to rely on their version of events, and it makes you trust your own perceptions less in the future.
Gaslighting in families
Unfortunately, parents gaslight their children all too frequently. Sometimes it’s just an easy way for parents to assert their authority or keep order in the house (think of a parent telling a 3 year old that there are no cookies left, even though there was just a giant jar on the counter).
Other times, it’s a consequence of needing to make quick decisions and dismissing a child’s valid perspective.
And unfortunately, in many cases, it’s more of a conscious, concerted effort to keep a family member from their rightful, equal status.
Narcissistic parents tend to create a culture of gaslighting, in which they regularly question or deny the perceptions of their children. This narcissistic gaslighting preemptively invalidates protests against unfair treatment.
If you’re always wrong, your assertions of unfair treatment or objections to abuse don’t mean a whole lot. And that’s what the strategy is all about: making your voice count less, because it’s advantageous to the gaslighter.
Signs of gaslighting: a checklist
Bring whomever you’re dealing with to mind, and see if you recognize any of the following signs of gaslighting behavior.
- They consistently disagree with details that mean they aren’t right.
- They question your facts, doubling down in the face of evidence.
- They tell you that you don’t see the world the right way – that their view is a better version of the truth.
- They say they don’t trust your perception because you’ve been wrong before.
- We all make mistakes on a daily basis. We don’t lose all our credibility from a couple errors, and even if we are wrong a lot, those who love us seek to understand why we perceive the world as we do.
- They invalidate what you say when it keeps them from getting their way.
Gaslighting also shows in some characteristic phrases, thrown out by your gaslighter:
- You don’t know what you’re talking about!
- You can’t take a joke.
- You’re crazy!
- You are just too sensitive.
- That wouldn’t hurt my feelings.
- I’m not raising my voice! (while yelling at you…)
Tips for pushing back against gaslighting
Fact-check your gaslighter
When an abusive boyfriend, girlfriend, or parent tries to dismiss your take on things, you may not be able to convince them to stop. But you can show them that you’re not going to blindly accept their false perspective.
For example, they say you were asleep and wouldn’t know what happened? Ask them what time they think you went to sleep.
They say you are too sensitive? Ask if they would say the same thing to someone else (and if they say yes, make them follow through and ask that someone else).
You’ll be calling their bluff, and bringing your own evidence to the table. This approach lets them know you’re just as in touch with reality as they are.
Your memory isn’t as bad as they want you to believe
Remember that we all have gaps in our memory – but rarely are the gaps so big that you can’t remember important things.
Gaslighters often try to use your past mistakes to claim you’re never right. But when they say you couldn’t remember what you had for breakfast, so you obviously don’t remember last night’s fight properly? That is, in all likelihood, BS.
While it’s normal to forget small daily activities or inconsequential events, your memory is much less likely to fail you when important emotions are involved.
‘Emotional salience’ refers to how much of an impact an event has on your emotional state and wellbeing. The brain encodes emotionally salient memories more strongly and more efficiently than everyday occurrences.
So next time your gaslighter says you were too emotional to remember clearly, share that knowledge with them.
Call out personal attacks
When you push back against their narrative, a gaslighter often tries to question other perspectives of yours, or to argue that you’re generally untrustworthy. They make an effort to assassinate your character.
This is called an ad hominem logical fallacy, and it’s so characteristic of abuse, it’s often just called ‘personal abuse.’ You could even say that gaslighting is simply a veiled ad hominem attack, and that resisting makes a manipulator show their true colors.
Develop a strong sense of your own reality
Especially when the gaslighting is about manipulative behavior or actual abuse, documenting your experience (or at least telling a neutral third party as things come up) becomes paramount.
You can keep a journal of your interactions with the gaslighter. Or, make a running timeline with dates and specific occurrences. That way, you have concrete evidence of what happened, what was said, when, and how you felt about it. You can show your gaslighter exactly why you feel the way you feel now.
If you want to check that you’re not going crazy in the moment, reach out to an understanding friend, or visit an anonymous support group where the other people will get what’s going on.
By giving a play-by-play to a third party as things happen, you can make sure you’re not distorting everything in your own head.
Recognize the Narcissist’s Prayer
No matter how bad gaslighting feels, and no matter how wrong we know it is, manipulative people can convince us we’re just imagining our own mistreatment. Because manipulation is a narcissist’s modus operandi, their gaslighting behavior can help spot a narcissist — and vice versa.
So here’s one more check, to see if you’re being treated fairly or not. See if the following sounds like how your potential gaslighter reacts to you:
That didn’t happen.
And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
And if it was, that’s not a big deal.
And if it is, that’s not my fault.
And if it was, I didn’t mean it.
And if I did…
You deserved it.
This progression of replies (posted to Reddit by u/socialanxietylol) is known as “The Narcissist’s Prayer,” and it illustrates two things:
- Gaslighting is the first tool in a narcissist’s toolbox (though it can, less often, be used by non-narcissists), and
- Gaslighting is usually part of a systematic effort to invalidate your perspective, your needs, your wants, and your emotions. Truth doesn’t matter to a gaslighter, so their version of truth constantly changes.
It may feel hard to accept that your partner, sibling, or parent is gaslighting you. Because it’s so difficult to counter their manipulation, it probably feels easier to just accept it and move on.
However, we encourage you not to resign yourself to mistreatment, manipulation, or emotional abuse.
Our parting words: don’t accept gaslighting and manipulation. If you need more reasons not to believe your gaslighter, join an anonymous support chat at Supportiv. Click Chat Now, enter what’s going on, and you’ll be connected in less than 2 minutes.
Your peers and well-trained moderators can help you sort out truth from fiction. Connecting with accepting people helps you understand the value of your own perspective.