What is gaslighting? How to recognize and deal with this form of manipulation and emotional abuse

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What is gaslighting? How to recognize and deal with this form of manipulation and emotional abuse
Gaslighting can happen to anyone, anywhere, but is most commonly thought of in the context of romantic relationships. fizkes/Getty Images
  • Gaslighting is when someone manipulates you into questioning your beliefs for their own benefit.
  • An example could be a romantic partner discounting your feelings by saying you're too sensitive.
  • If you are being gaslit, you can deal with it by seeking therapy or leaving the relationship.

Odds are you've heard people throw around the term gaslighting - a form of communication used to manipulate or exploit someone. It can occur anywhere from a relationship to a doctor's office, bringing low self-esteem and doubt with it.

Here's what you need to know about the many types of gaslighting and how to cope with it.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a strategy in which a perpetrator bends another person's sense of reality and belief system, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

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The term stems from a 1944 thriller called Gaslight in which a man plots to drive his wife mad through lies, denials, fabricated memories, and nonsense accusations.

Essentially, gaslighting makes you second guess yourself. "When being gaslighted, folks are essentially abandoning their own feelings and judgments to preserve the ideal of the relationship or person who is gaslighting them," says Romanoff. This may involve a person vehemently denying they said or did something, or telling you they gave you a heads-up when they never did.

Effects of gaslighting

Being manipulated to forgo your own beliefs can have detrimental consequences. "Repeatedly undermining and invalidating someone's reality can have profound effects on their overall wellbeing as well as long term impacts," says Sage Grazer, LCSW, a licensed therapist specializing in relationships and co-founder of Frame, an online therapy matching service.

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These repercussions can include:

Types of gaslighting

Gaslighting is often used to describe an experience within a romantic relationship. However, it can happen in many dynamics, such as:

  • Romantic partner gaslighting. Gaslighting in a relationship may appear as your partner dismissing your feelings, saying you're too sensitive, or blaming you for their poor actions, says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and a regional medical director at Community Psychiatry.
  • Child-parent relationship. A parent may try to control the beliefs of an increasingly independent child. On a more extreme level, sexually or emotionally abused children may be coerced into believing they deserve it, says Magavi.
  • Medical gaslighting. This often occurs when a doctor dismisses a person's symptoms and tells them they are "normal" and don't require further attention. This is a more common experience for women.
  • Racial gaslighting. Across history, perpetrators have used gaslighting to create a negative and inferior image of racial or religious minorities, such as, but not limited to, Black, Jewish, and Indigenous people.
  • Political gaslighting. This is when politicians or special interest groups attempt to convince the public of falsehoods, often to gain or maintain power.
  • Workplace gaslighting. Gaslighting at work may manifest as a supervisor saying you never completed finished work, being lied to, and receiving support but berated behind your back.

Examples of gaslighting

  • Discounting: A gaslighter may discount your gut instincts, feelings, thoughts, or opinions by saying you're crazy or making everything up.
  • Denying: They may invalidate your emotions or perception of your experience.
  • Isolating: They may say no one else feels the same way or that everyone disagrees with you, in order to have you second guess yourself.
  • Cutting off: In limiting your contact with other people and making themselves a go-between, they control what information you receive.
  • Deflecting: Instead of acknowledging their toxic behavior, they will make your response to it the issue.
  • Projecting: They may state that you're mad at them to create conflict instead of coming to you to discuss an issue they have.
  • Lying: Gaslighters may outright lie to control the information you receive and how you perceive them.

How to deal with gaslighting

It can be difficult to recognize gaslighting, especially if it's from someone you love. Romanoff recommends bringing in people you trust to help you see the situation more clearly. This can be loved ones or a therapist.

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If you don't have anyone on the outside to look in, try writing out the facts of your situation. "Your mind is in overdrive juggling your own feelings and judgments with facts and stories that the gaslighter is feeding you," says Romanoff. "Often when we see troubling thoughts written down outside of our minds, we create distance and can more clearly understand how we feel and what we want to do about it."

While difficult, it's possible to stop gaslighting in a relationship. Often this involves discussing the person's behavior directly - as long as doing so will not put you in danger - and, if things don't change, request your partner seek therapy to explore the root of their behavior and learn healthier communication techniques, says Magavi.

A gaslighter may not want to change, and it is not your responsibility or obligation to put up with their behavior while they take the necessary steps to do so.

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"It is important to remember that psychological manipulation and emotional abuse is abuse. Just because someone cannot see the wounds or scars does not mean that there is no harm. No one deserves to be abused, and you can seek help," says Grazer.

The only way to escape the abuse may be to distance yourself from the abuser. This could mean leaving a relationship, seeking another job, or looking for a new doctor.

If you are in a physically abusive relationship, try to identify red flags, share code words with loved ones that mean you're in danger, practice leaving and packing in advance, contact 911 with any safety concerns, and call domestic violence hotlines and shelters, says Magavi.

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Important: Representatives from the National Domestic Violence Hotline are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Insider's takeaway

Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting anywhere including home, work, a doctor's office, or even society at large at the hands of a manipulative politician.

There is no shame in experiencing gaslighting, and it is possible to escape the situation.

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Seek help from loved ones or a therapist when possible and contact authorities when necessary.

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