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How to Shine a Light on Gaslighting and Turn It Off

Understanding the motivations and tactics of gaslighters reduces bad outcomes.

Key points

  • Gaslighting is a repetitive pattern of manipulation.
  • Gaslighting is a form of coercive control.
  • Learn methods to help you respond if you feel you're being gaslighted.
Debbie Peterson/heyjasperai
Source: Debbie Peterson/heyjasperai

The term “gaslighting” arises from the play and film of the same name in which a man seeks to take over his wife’s inheritance by convincing her she is delusional. Gaslighting is a form of psychological violence that, in its worst forms, is an insidious type of coercive control that is equally as harmful as physical abuse, according to Evan Stark, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University Schools of Public Affairs and Medicine. Further, gaslighting isn’t limited to domestic, gender-based relationships.

In a political context, gaslighting can be described as a manipulation of the perceptions of others for personal gain. Many of the behaviors that come to light in the original play and film, Gaslight, also apply to gaslighting the public. Gaslighting is a repetitive pattern of manipulation that isolates its targets from support because they struggle to explain what’s going on.

In June 2023, Klein, Li, and Wood, from the psychology department of the University of Toronto, conducted a qualitative analysis of survey responses from 65 gaslighting victims. They pinpoint two motivations for gaslighting: avoiding accountability for assorted harmful behaviors and undermining the identities of others to control their behavior.

Insults and Accusations

Klein et al. find that perpetrators of gaslighting across the board employ insults and accusations of being crazy, overly sensitive, stupid, selfish, and even ridicule physical appearance, which shows up in a political context as attempts to denigrate their target’s accomplishments, intentions, and competence. It may even take the form of rewriting or denying history to discredit where credit is due. It is used to induce others to “go along to get along.” It can be directed at political colleagues and rivals to induce conformity and compliance or toward the public to propel a political agenda.

Gaslighters are master discrediters, who use malicious put-downs, name-calling, or profiling to smear reputations and dehumanize opponents, fueling others to “pile on.”

“They’re designed to make others perceive you as deficient,” says Melissa Hamilton, PhD., a criminologist at the University of Surrey, U.K., “thus regulating relationships by turning constituents and colleagues against you.”

Gaslighters seek to restrict the autonomy of their victims by fabricating lies and telling them their colleagues don’t like them, so they become isolated from social support. Gaslighters may seek to influence access to appointments and assignments, and cut off access to benefits such as healthcare.

According to Hamilton, if physical, emotional, or financial threats don’t work as desired, a coercive controller may use threats. The controller may monitor, or claim to monitor, the activity of opponents by telling them that they and their families and pets are being watched, to instill fear of harm to loved ones. This can look like something as benign as engaging with family members and asking seemingly harmless, but carefully nuanced, questions about their activities, whereabouts, and interests, or making comments implying awareness of family or pet activities and whereabouts.

Confrontation and Conflict

When confronted, gaslighters suggest their challenger is making it up, change the subject, or divert attention elsewhere.

“The victims may come to an ‘understanding’ that if they do not comply with their perpetrators’ demands or desires,” Hamilton says, “then they may face significant consequences.”

Klein, Li, and Wood studied victims of romantic relationship gaslighting, but the psychological aftermath of gaslighting may be similar for politicians and the public. These researchers report that victims of gaslighting feel a diminished sense of self, increased guardedness, and increased mistrust of others.

Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression used to instill fear. It has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 2015 but is not considered illegal in the United States unless it accompanies an otherwise illegal act. However, there are ways that those who wish to quell this form of malevolence or are victims of gaslighting or other forms of coercive control can address it.

Responding to Gaslighting

  • Don’t get rattled. Stay calm. Responding in distress can feed gaslighters’ attempts to manipulate.
  • Know and document facts and speak the truth when it is misrepresented.
  • Don’t be alone with a gaslighter. Someone using gaslighting tactics has a harder time manipulating multiple people.
  • Speak up about the harassment calmly and confidently. Calling out criticism and insults demonstrates a refusal to accept the behavior. Making others aware of the abuse may disincentivize gaslighters.
  • Don’t get drawn into conflict. Instead, say something like, “It seems we remember things differently.” Change the subject or leave the room.
  • Spend time with supporters and loved ones. Maintain communication with support systems. Make sure to give family and friends contact information and check in often.

An understanding of how gaslighting shows up in different contexts and how to turn it down can reduce some of its negative impacts.


Klein, W., Li, S., & Wood, S. (2023). A Qualitative Analysis of Gaslighting in Romantic Relationships. Toronto, Ca. Department of Psychology, University of Toronto.

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