Gaslighting is psychological manipulation used to intentionally influence and deceive another to gain control. The power of this subtle coercive tactic is the creation of confusion and self-doubt in the targeted person that can be prevented by knowing what to look for and how to respond.
Gaslighting has become a term we have heard and seen in reference to President Trump's behavior. His lies, distortions, and inaccuracies, as revealed by the “fact-checking” media, have been described by some as gaslighting of Americans (Carpenter, 2018). When he is held accountable by having tweets or comments disproved, Trump's consistent retort is to call the media “fake news,” another possible example of gaslighting.
When gaslighting is used in the privacy of an intimate relationship, however, often without witnesses and evidence, it’s extremely powerful in getting the target to succumb to the influence of the gaslighter—and, at times, question their own reality.
Definition of Gaslighting
In an intimate relationship, gaslighting is a serious type of emotional abuse used to alter or eliminate another’s perception of reality to gain influence, power, and control. In other words, it’s the act of deceiving someone on purpose to get and sustain the upper hand.
A Thousand Women Revealed
I was a successful businesswoman, wife, and mother of two adorable children. We had a nice life in the suburbs. But over time I became consumed with self-doubt and started questioning my competence. When I began feeling exhausted and more confused, I felt I had no choice but to give up my prosperous business. I couldn’t do it anymore. Even now, I can’t explain to you what happened to me. I only know that I’m no longer the person I once was.
Since 1993, I’ve been conducting psycho-educational groups for women who experienced their partners as controlling. As I listened to their stories of coercion and reviewed their controlling behavior checklists, it’s telling that all of the women identified one hurtful tactic in particular that was most prevalent in the experience with their intimate partner—gaslighting.
Over time, they identified its profoundly debilitating effects—confusion, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and trauma. These conditions undermined their ability to trust their own thinking, judgment, and perception, making it harder to protect themselves.
How to Know If You’re Being Gaslighted
An intimate partner who uses gaslighting tactics to achieve control keeps the focus on their needs, concerns, feelings, perceptions, and seeks to eliminate anything that competes for attention by invalidating, ignoring, or discounting it, or by changing the subject. Gaslighting is not one behavior but many that together can destroy the targeted person’s perception of reality. Here are some examples:
- Degrading statements. When a conflict or disagreement comes up, the gaslighter states with strong unrelenting conviction that “You’re wrong” or “You’re stupid—you can’t understand.”
- Withholding information. To keep the targeted person at a disadvantage, information is withheld.
- Blaming accusations. With deceptive twists and turns of reality that makes one feel responsible for whatever goes wrong, the gaslighter’s intent to remain blameless is fulfilled.
- Rewriting history. Denying, lying, distorting, and manipulating to stay in control. For example, a past incident gets revisited with the gaslighter changing a part of it and insists it’s the truth. There might be a show of appearing indignant when one questions the “truth” making them out to be all the more convincing.
- Discounting the target's feelings or concerns. If one were to speak up about feeling badly in the relationship, feelings are discounted. One might be told, “You’re too sensitive” or “You’re overreacting.” No matter the attempts, a gaslighter is not listening or acknowledging what is being said.
- False accusations. These are common, and could include, “You never listen to me,” “You always think you’re right,” or “You always have to have it your way.” You can’t convince the gaslighter that these accusations are not true. It’s also revealing, how such accusations turn out to be projections of the gaslighter’s attitude and behavior.
- Isolating their partner. Isolation allows the gaslighter to be less concerned about outside input from others that might undermine their influence.
- Claiming their partner is crazy. A gaslighter decides their partner is “crazy” and accuses them of it over and over.
These behaviors illustrate how a partner who gaslights distorts and outright denies how things really are, in order to shore up their perception of reality as the only one that counts in the relationship.
7 Strategies of Self-Protection
When you live with an intimate partner that uses coercive tactics—in particular gaslighting—you have someone controlling the way you see the world so that you doubt yourself and back down. Following are some approaches to gaslighting that can benefit you.
- Hold on to what you know is true. In the face of lying, scrutinizing of your thinking, distorting the meaning of your words, twisting the truth, or blaming you—all aimed to misdirect you—determine what you believe to be the truth and hold firm to that within yourself. This helps to reduce the self-doubt and keep you grounded in the intent of the gaslighter’s behavior coming at you.
- Stop and think. This is one way to resist the attempt to be influenced. When you live with someone who is out to powerfully win you over, choose to say, “I’ll think about it.” before responding to help you hold onto your self-control (Taylor, 2004).
- Don’t tell the gaslighter that they’re lying. If you wish to speak up, just state you have a different perspective and don’t agree. Or say that you recall what happened differently and that you trust your own recollection.
- When you encounter a distortion of the truth aimed at blaming you, declare that you know you’re not to blame and won’t take responsibility. Stating this aloud helps you to stay grounded in your own perspective.
- Approach the gaslighter with a concern directly. If the response is a defensive attack about you or about something completely different (to get you off-topic), state you can discuss their concern later, but for right now you need them to stay with your topic. Then restate your concern. If you experience a personal attack again or an attempt to change the subject, then state that if they are not willing to discuss your concern, you’ll need to end the conversation. If it happens again, make it known that you’re done talking and then separate yourself.
- Point out what you observe about the gaslighter’s behavior that makes communication difficult and, at times, impossible. You can state that you decided not to listen or engage in this type of exchange.
- Give in to avoid the hard time from the gaslighter. It’s perfectly fine to choose this path but most importantly is to stay true to your own perception and be clear with yourself that you don’t agree and you’re choosing to avoid the hassle.
The more you can use responses like these consistently, you’ll show that you can’t be influenced and that will feel empowering. In the end, holding on to your beliefs and perception of reality is a position of strength that lets you see how your partner chooses to respond. Some partners, in time, stop defensive attacking and start paying attention. By staying grounded in your position, you're standing up for yourself, but also allowing your partner to evolve—if they can.
Taylor, K. 2004. Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control. New York: Oxford.