Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


When is it Gaslighting?

An especially wounding method of control.

We hear the term gaslighting almost daily these days. It has, unfortunately, become a catch-all term that includes all forms of arguing or self-defense. \ But gaslighting is specific to emotional abuse, and is used by an emotional abuser for a specific outcome.

The emotional abuser, as can be seen in the previous article entitled “When is it Emotional Abuse?” does not recognize his abuse as abuse. In fact, the abuser commonly thinks that he is justified, even right, in abusing his victim. And that very fact is one of the common reasons for gaslighting.

In just the same way that physical abuse is meant to control another person, emotional abuse is meant to control another person through the abuse of that person’s emotions. But the emotional abuser does not intend to know what she is doing, nor does she wish for the victim to figure it out. Therefore, the closer the victim comes to figuring out that he is being emotionally abused, the more the abuser is likely to gaslight.

So, what would that gaslighting look like. Gaslighting is essentially meant to make the victim of emotional abuse feel “crazy.” What this means is that the person who is gaslighted will feel that her own thoughts and emotions about the abuse are not only wrong but completely irrational, neurotic or even psychotic.

Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting
Source: Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting

Essentially, emotional abusers are very good at lying. They defend themselves perpetually with these lies that look very much like truth. For example, let’s say that Tom is having one-night stands regularly with other women, but he doesn’t want his wife to figure this out. But her intuition just will not shut-up. It keeps telling her that there’s something really fishy about what he says about where he’s been and what he’s been doing. So, she confronts him. At this point, Tom may not only lie to cover up for what he’s done, but he may also attempt to make his wife feel that she is "crazy" for even thinking that he’s cheating on her. He may suddenly become very romantic—in ways that seem so genuine and loving that she can no longer even imagine that he would cheat on her—thus making her earlier suspicions seem “crazy.” He may tell her that she always gets this way just before her period (not only gaslighting but more than slightly misogynistic). He may feign deep concern for her, telling her that she hasn’t been sleeping well, and that makes her emotional and suspicious. He may make her the problem by telling her to stop being so obsessive about what he’s doing. He may accuse her of checking his phone or email—again over-the-top obsessive (i.e., “crazy”). All of this is intended to control her thinking and behavior so that she will not figure out that he’s cheating on her.

The same applies when she starts to figure out that his constant criticisms are a form of emotional abuse. He may tell her that its just plain "crazy" for her to think that anyone should have to put up with the way she stacks the dishes in the dishwasher. Or perhaps he should just never notice all the ways that she’s being a bad wife. He will guilt. He will accuse. He will play smoke and mirrors games in which his abusive actions are hidden behind the smoke, while he holds up a mirror for her to look at herself (in the way that he sees her—as “crazy”). All of these are attempts to get her to see herself as irrational, neurotic or “crazy.” If he is successful, she will question herself, and stop looking at him. Now he’s gotten away with it again.

The term gaslighting is often used inappropriately to mean anytime anyone argues against something you have said. Anytime they defend themselves, they are gaslighting. Anytime they don’t agree with you, they are gaslighting. But as we can see, gaslighting has a very specific purpose—to make its victim begin to believe that he is “crazy.”

More from Andrea Mathews LPC, NCC
More from Psychology Today