Have you ever felt (or were told) that you’re “going crazy?" Maybe there was something “off” about a prior relationship you can’t put your finger on. Perhaps your current partner frequently says things like, “You’re not remembering that correctly” or, “That’s not how it happened.”
While subtle, these signs often point to an underlying interpersonal dynamic that can be extremely detrimental. Read on to learn about what gaslighting is, what it looks like, and what you can do if you recognize it in your relationship.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a psychological term that describes a manipulation tactic used to attain and maintain power over someone. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it’s actually a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It’s also an incredibly covert and insidious one, unlike more “obvious” forms of abuse like physical violence.
The term has its roots in a 1938 British play, although it became more well-known thanks to a 1944 film adaptation titled, aptly, Gaslight. Throughout the film, a man purposefully does things to his wife to make her feel as if she’s losing her mind. He convinces her she’s stealing things, hearing noises, or only imagining that the house lights—which back then were powered by gas—are growing dimmer, when in reality, they are growing dimmer because the man is adjusting them behind her back.
Gaslighting can happen in any type of relationship, although it’s commonly talked about in relation to intimate couples. Psychology Today notes that dictators, narcissists, and abusers use this technique frequently. The ultimate aim is to gain control over another person by making them question their self-worth and doubt their reality, which drives them to rely on the person for guidance and safety.
Top Warning Signs of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can come in many forms and phrases. Here are a few things someone may do if they’re gaslighting you:
- They tell frequent lies but deny it outright and instead accuse other people, or you, of lying. (This is a common defensive mechanism known as projection—the person denies an undesirable trait in themselves while concurrently identifying it in someone else.)
- They tell you that you’re crazy, misremembering things, or “losing your mind.”
- They deny saying or doing things, even if you clearly witnessed it.
- They belittle or trivialize your feelings.
- They say people are saying things behind your back.
- They attack your character.
- They refuse to listen to or understand you (“I don’t want to have this discussion again,” “You’re not making any sense”).
And what about signs in yourself which may indicate you’re being exposed to this type of manipulation tactic? Watch out for feelings and experiences such as:
- Constantly doubting yourself and wondering if you’re being too sensitive, anxious, unloving, or unreasonable.
- Apologizing a lot.
- Feeling unlike yourself and lacking confidence, or worrying you’re “not good enough.”
- Feeling frequently guilty or in the wrong.
- Sensing that something is “wrong” or “off” without quite being able to identify what.
- Feeling like you can’t trust your own instincts or thoughts.
- Excusing your partner's behaviors and actions, even if they seem objectively wrong.
- Struggling to make decisions.
- Feeling isolated from your loved ones and downplaying or withholding information from them about your relationship.
- Feeling hopeless and losing interest in things you normally enjoy.
Worried You’re Being Gaslit? Do These Four Things
Here are four things to do if you believe you’re being gaslit by someone in your life:
1. First, realize gaslighting is not about you. It’s about the other person’s attempt and need to gain and maintain power. It’s an example of their unhealthy coping mechanism, and while this doesn’t excuse the behavior, it can help you realize you are not to blame for their actions.
2. Develop a great support system. Lean on your friends, family, and other trusted loved ones. Tell them what’s going on so that they can help.
3. Seek help. A psychotherapist can be an invaluable asset as you begin the process of untangling yourself from this kind of unhealthy dynamic.
4. If you believe that you are being manipulated and exploited by your partner, call the National Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233 for help.
Do You Recognize Signs of Gaslighting in Your Relationship?
Gaslighting hurts. If it’s happening to you, realize you don’t deserve it. For non-judgmental, confidential, and actionable relationship guidance, seek professional help.