Gaslighting Defined: How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Being Gaslighted

by Gideon
March 31, 2022

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In this post, we’re looking at Gaslighting defined, plus how to identify and protect yourself from it.

Gaslighting is essentially a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group induces another person to doubt their own sanity, perception, or memory.

It is a particularly insidious form of abuse because it is often done gradually and subtly, making it hard for the victim to realize what is happening.

Let’s dive in.

Fundamentally, Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that can be hard to identify and even harder to protect yourself from, and the consequences can be dire.

Therefore, if you think you might be a victim of gaslighting, or you know someone who might be, it’s important to understand what it is and how to get help.

So,

What Is Gaslighting, And Why Is It So Dangerous?

The essence of gaslighting is to make someone question their reality and as a form of psychological manipulation, it is often used to gain power over someone.

Gaslighting can also be done in a number of ways, such as making someone question their memories, their perception of events, or their sanity.

Gaslighting defined, according to Healthline.com, is:

Gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse common in abusive relationships. It is the act of manipulating someone by making them doubt their own thoughts, recollections, and the events going on around them. A victim of gaslighting may be driven to the point of questioning their own sanity.

HealthLine.com

Moreover, Gaslighting is a type of emotional manipulation or covert control that can occur in a variety of relationships, including those with parents, close friends, and employers, and not just in romantic relationships.

However, that said, one of the most dangerous types of Gaslighting is when it occurs in a couple’s relationship.

According to Robin Stern, PhD, author of “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life,”

Warning signs that you may be a victim of being Gaslighted include:

  1. not feeling like the person you once were
  2. being more nervous and pessimistic than usual
  3. if you’re very emotional and constantly questioning yourself
  4. making it appear as if whatever you do is wrong
  5. when things go wrong, you’re always convinced it’s your fault
  6. apologising frequently
  7. having a feeling that something is wrong yet being unable to determine what it is
  8. regularly doubting whether your reaction to your partner is appropriate (e.g., questioning if you were not supportive enough or too unreasonable)
  9. making excuses for your partner’s actions
  10. avoiding disclosing information to close friends or relatives in order to avoid disagreement regarding your partner
  11. being estranged from loved ones
  12. making decisions is proving to be really challenging
  13. feeling useless and taking little or no pleasure in tasks you used to enjoy

As you can see, emotional manipulation in the form of emotional abuse (such as being Gaslighted) in a relationship is not only disruptive to the relationship but also possibly harmful to your mental stability.

But, where does the notion of Gaslighting actually come from?

The History of Gaslighting

The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, in which a husband tries to convince his wife, and everyone else, that she’s going insane by his manipulative behaviour.

The husband, played by Charles Boyer, does this by dimming the gas lights in their home and then telling his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, that she’s imagining things.

He “gaslight” her by making her believe she is losing her mind when in reality, he is the one who is causing her to doubt herself.

The term Gaslighting has since been used to describe this type of psychological manipulation.

Gaslighting defined

But, how does Gaslighting actually work in reality because surely it’s not that easy to manipulate someone in real life?

Where does it start and how is it done?

And does it actually happen that easily?

Let’s briefly look at that next.

How Gaslighting Works

Some experts talk of The Gaslight Effect.

That refers to the notion of being on the receiving end of gaslighting can feel like being trapped in a horror movie where the protagonist is slowly losing her mind.

You cannot count on your own perceptions of reality, and you must constantly check in with yourself and others to see if what you think you remember is actually true.

Just as in a horror movie, the person being gaslighted does not understand that they are experiencing something that is not real, and will often be too distracted or frightened to notice what is happening until it is too late.

Practically speaking, gaslighting in a marriage can be subtle at first.

For example, one partner might say something that the other partner disagrees with and then insist that they are right.

This can cause the other partner to doubt their own memory and perception.

Over time, this can lead to the gaslighted partner feeling like they are losing their grip on reality.

The gaslighter may also deny things that they have said or done, or make their partner feel like they are being paranoid.

This can make the gaslightee question their own memory and perception.

It can also be very difficult for the gaslightee to spot the gaslighting because it is all done in a very subtle way.

Now, additionally, it seems that there are two forms of gaslighting:

  1. internal and
  2. external

An internal gaslighter tries to convince the gaslightee that what they are saying or doing is not true, even when it is.

An external gaslighter tries to convince others that the gaslightee is not capable of having their own opinions or being in control of themselves.

Some relationship experts call this the “she said / he said” scenario.

The “she said / he said” scenario occurs when one person tries to convince another person that they are wrong about something, usually by denying that it happened or by providing conflicting information.

This can be done in an attempt to make the other person doubt their own memory or perception, and ultimately to convince them that they are crazy.

As already mentioned, this sort of gaslighting often occurs in romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships.

Real-world examples of the above can include things like:

  1. One partner repeatedly denies or disagrees with the other partner’s recollection of events, even when there is clear evidence to support the partner’s memory.
  2. One partner makes up stories or events that never happened in order to hurt or control the other partner.
  3. One partner demands that the other partner apologizes for things that did not happen.
  4. One partner blames the other partner for their own mistakes or inactions.
  5. One partner says negative things about the other partner to friends and family or downplays their achievements or character traits.
  6. One partner lies to friends and family about the other partner.
  7. One partner puts down or dismisses the other partner’s feelings, opinions, or experiences.

Now, as you can imagine, being gaslighted can have a major impact on someone now, but can also have many long term effects.

One can only imagine what it could do to someone’s level of trust in someone or trusting your own awareness again in future situations or a new relationship circumstance.

gaslighting defined

So, let’s consider a few of the major psychological effects of gaslighting in the next section so that you can understand the dangers it holds for any person and relationship.

The Major Psychological Effects of Gaslighting

There is a great deal of psychological research on the effects of Gaslighting in relationships, which suggests that the effects can be very damaging because

Gaslighting can cause people to doubt their own memories and perceptions, and to question their own sanity as already mentioned.

Consequently, on a personal level, that can often lead to more severe mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and isolation which we also know can have a major negative impact on a relationship level with a spouse or partner.

For instance, when spouses subtly coerce their partners, the experienced stress can make it more difficult for that person to function well at all on a personal and relational level.

Eventually, that can lead the victim to withdraw from the marriage causing other issues, for example, problems with communication, intimacy, and trust, which in turn can lead to magnified conflict and resentment.

In the end, all of that can lead a couple to withdraw from each other, causing a divorce.

Even if Gaslighting is used unintentionally, it is still crucial to be aware of the consequences, as they do not lessen merely because a person is ignorant.

However, gaslighting can make people more susceptible to manipulation and control, and when someone uses it for those purposes, the situation is dangerous because we believe that the long-term psychological impact of gaslighting can be severe.

As already mentioned, victims of gaslighting could experience anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation.

But they may also have difficulty trusting their own memories and perceptions and may doubt their own sanity, which is a big deal.

Moreover, however, Gaslighting can also lead to a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD as a result of gaslighting is a condition where a person experiences symptoms of PTSD due to being repeatedly lied to or manipulated, which can cause a person to feel like they are losing their grip on reality, and may result in them becoming seriously paranoid, anxious, and depressed.

Now, what often happens when you become paranoid, anxious, and depressed, is that it may become difficult to function in day-to-day life.

You may have trouble sleeping, concentrating, and making decisions.

You may also experience changes in appetite and energy levels.

What ends up happening is that these symptoms can start to interfere with work, school, and all your personal relationships.

It is therefore super important to seek help from a mental health professional if you are experiencing these types of symptoms.

gaslighting defined

It is also crucial to become aware of the dangers of Gaslighting should you suspect being gaslighted in your life right now.

All of this brings us to an important question, why do people gaslight others?

Understanding that might help us avoid certain people who might have the inclination to manipulate others through gaslighting.

Let’s briefly consider that next.

Why Do People Gaslight

There are many possible reasons why someone might gaslight another person.

In some cases, it may be a deliberate attempt to control or manipulate the other person.

In other cases, it may be a way to cope with their own insecurities or feelings of inadequacy.

Whatever the reason, gaslighting can have a serious impact on the victim, causing them to doubt their own perceptions and reality.

According to Susan McQuillan on Psycom.com, it is always an aim to weaken resistance, shatter spirits, appear blameless, and cause chaos and confusion in the psyche of the “gaslightee.”

Additionally, Gaslighting isn’t a one-time occurrence or a rare occurrence.

Insidious and relentless, it erodes your self-esteem and your sense of self-worth, causing you to doubt yourself and those around you.

When a gaslighter acts the way they do, there are two basic reasons for it, Tampa-based psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis says.

People who engage in gaslighting are doing so for one of two reasons: either intentionally trying to gain control and influence over another person, or because they learnt these tactics from a parent or parents who used them.

As Sarkis points out, children come to believe that they are either the perfect child who can do no wrong or the scapegoat who is held responsible for their parents’ mistakes.

Children are taught that people work in absolutes, and so they begin to treat others as if this is the case, leading them to act in a manner consistent with this idea.

gaslighting defined

Now, it is important to stress again that gaslighting is an unhealthy type of control that stems from a desire to dominate people.

Additionally, there are some mental illnesses that make it easier for people to gaslight.

For example, people who have a narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder have a distorted view of themselves and others and a tendency to manipulate others for their own ends by any means necessary, as well as a hard time admitting their own faults and projecting them onto others.

As already pointed out, persistent gaslighting can be very bad for the mental health of the person who is being abused, because it makes them think they deserve to be abused.

And even after the gaslighter has left the victim’s life, the effects can linger for years, leading to feelings of insecurity and an inability to make sound judgments for the rest of the victim’s life.

So, the question now becomes, how should one respond to being gaslighted?

How to Respond to Gaslighting

If you think you’re being gaslighted, the first step is to trust your gut.

If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

Pay attention to the way you’re being treated and try to notice any patterns of manipulation.

However, fundamentally and crucially, those who have been subjected to gaslighting should take care of their mental health because it can have a big impact on it.

Gathering evidence can help a person realise that they aren’t making things up.

An individual might utilise this proof if they decide to take legal action against an abusive partner later on in life.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides suggestions for gathering evidence.

Among them are:

  • Keeping a hidden diary is a great way to keep track of important occurrences, such as the day, time, and specifics of what occurred.
  • If you’re having trouble coming to grips with the circumstance, it’s helpful to get advice from someone you can trust, such as a family member, friend, or counsellor.
  • As a way to verify one’s recollections and convince themselves that they are not hallucinating things, taking photos might be helpful.
  • It’s easy to record an event in your own words by making a voice memo on your phone or another portable device. It’s always a good idea to verify state regulations before using recordings in court.

It is critical for someone who lives with an abusive individual to ensure that any evidence they collect is confidential and that they remove their online activity after conducting some research on gaslighting and abuse.

An individual may also:

  • save a copy of the evidence in a safe place
  • consider investing in a voice recorder or a second phone.
  • keep all electronic gadgets out of sight
  • remove personal copies of records by transferring them to a trustworthy individual

As part of a safety plan, people might outline ways in which they can protect themselves from both physical and mental abuse prior to, during, and after a relationship or situation ends.

gaslighting defined

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a safety plan may include the following elements:

  • places that are both safe and easy to leave
  • the names and numbers of persons who can be contacted for assistance with self-care practices that can be used to cope with stressful situations as a strategy for safely escaping an abusive situation

The core element of a plan to deal with gaslighting in a relationship is to build a support network of close friends or family members who can offer emotional support and practical advice.

It is also important to keep a journal detailing incidents of gaslighting so that you can track patterns and better understand what is happening.

Lastly, if possible, it may be helpful to seek therapy from a professional who can help you deal with the effects of gaslighting.

But, how can one prevent being gaslighted in the first place?

How to Prevent Gaslighting

Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to prevent gaslighting, but there are some things you can do to reduce the chances of it happening.

First, try to be aware of the signs that someone might be gaslighting you.

If you suspect that someone is gaslighting you, confront them about it directly.

If they deny it, try to get proof or ask other people for their opinions.

Second, try to build a support network of people you trust who can offer you an outside perspective.

Finally, be prepared to call out the behaviour if someone tries to gaslight you.

Again, Robin Stern, PhD, says that in relationships where gaslighting is common, it can be hard to not argue the point.

But when someone is trying to “gaslight” you, you can’t convince them that they’re wrong.

Stern says that it’s much better to say some like, “I don’t like where this conversation is going; let’s talk about this some other time,” instead rather than get involved in a senseless argument.

For your own good, don’t think about who is right or wrong at that moment.

Instead, think about how you feel in the moment and remove yourself from the conversation instead and return to it later if you must.

To that end, you might want to write about your conversations with the gaslighter and the feelings that come up for you when you engage with them.

In Stern’s words, the main goal is to “get back into the habit of defining your own reality. Always be kind to yourself. Acknowledge your feelings and accept them as perfectly natural.”

Aside from the aforementioned, there are a few other things you could do to prevent being gaslighted.

Begin by prioritising your own emotional and physical needs, such as eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and exercising.

You should spend a bit more time reconnecting with other people so that you don’t become isolated in your head.

You should reflect on your personal goals and make sure they are in touch with reality.

Finally, you should put mechanisms in place to make you feel protected and supported if the gaslighter persists.

How to Help Someone Who Is Being Gaslighted

If you think someone you know is being gaslighted, it is important to be supportive and offer help, but make sure it’s the right kind of help.

Remember that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and as such, the person who is being gaslighted is most likely a victim of emotional abuse.

Your support, therefore, must be prepared and equipped to help someone who is most probably dealing with emotional abuse and trauma.

It is by no means a small feat nor an easy thing.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert to offer help because one of the best ways to support a victim of emotional abuse is to be there for them, listen to them, and believe them.

Most people can do that.

gaslighting defined

However, you should also try to help them find a safe place to stay if necessary, and help them get any professional help they may need that you cannot offer.

Practically speaking, be there for them, listen to and validate their feelings, and try to understand what they are experiencing and how they feel.

In other words, be a decent and warm human being that’s offering another vulnerable human being a place to be safe and unload.

Empathise with their emotional experience and be a place of refuge for them as much as you are able.

Take Away

The biggest takeaway from this post, in my opinion, is that you need to be aware of the signs of gaslighting so that you can protect yourself (and others) from it.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser tries to make the victim doubt their own memories, perceptions, and sanity.

It is therefore important to be able to identify the signs of gaslighting so that you can be alert and ready.

About the author 

Gideon

Gideon is the founder of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a top-50 relationship blog (2021) and top-100 marriage blog (2021) which focuses on providing healthy relationship advice about love and life. He earned a Master's degree in theological studies before training as a professional counsellor and hypnotherapist (DipProfCouns., DipMSHT.) almost 10 years ago. He completed a graduate diploma in Psychology and is currently pursuing postgraduate Psychology studies at Massey University. He has been married to his wife for over sixteen years and is the father of two children. His articles have been published on Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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