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What is gaslighting in relationships?

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5 min

What is gaslighting in relationships?

Gaslighting might sound like a term plucked straight from the golden era of Hollywood horror, but it’s a sneakier monster than any silver screen ghost. It’s a form of psychological manipulation that makes you doubt your own memory, perception, or sanity. 

We’re exploring why “gaslighting” isn’t just a buzzword – it’s a weapon that creeps into relationships, distorting reality for its victims. 

Gaslighting 101: definition and examples

The terms “gaslighting”, “abuse,” and “toxic relationships” began to be actively used after 2018. Then, “toxicity” was the word of the year according to the Oxford Dictionary, and “gaslighting” came in a close second. So, what is gaslighting?

The phrase comes from the 1938 play “Gas Light,” in which a husband turns down the gas lights to try to drive his wife crazy. He denies that the light has changed at all when she points it out, which makes her question her own reality. 

Gaslighting starts small. A lie here, a contradiction there. A gaslighting example is a snowball rolling down a hill -it gathers power and oomph till it turns into an avalanche of identity questioning. 

According to Naomi Torres-Mackie, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, gaslighting is a “devastating” psychological technique that involves “elements of manipulation, control, and exploitation of trust.”

Typically, people who have personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or antisocial personality disorder may act abusively or gaslight their partners to control them, specialists say

Anyone can experience gaslighting – whether from a romantic partner, boss, family member, or someone else they are close to who may be in a position of power.  However, some psychologists say that people with certain symptoms of BPD are more likely to be gaslighted in some way.

5 examples of gaslighting in relationships help you spot it 

Courtney S. Warren, a clinical psychologist, has come up with nine harmful phrases and examples that can help you identify a gaslighter. Here are some of them.

1. “You’re being crazy”

Ever had someone insist you said something you’re dead sure you didn’t? “But I distinctly remember saying…” you start before you’re cut off with a confident, “No, you definitely said it, I’m sure.” 

Perhaps one of the most recognizable examples of gaslighting comes from revisionist history. One thing that gaslighters are known for doing is altering the past to fit their current emotional needs. This behavior is so annoyingly effective because the abuser is so good at persuasion.

2. “You’re Just Overreacting”

In the more subtle example of gaslighting, the abuser might easily dismiss the feelings of their victim with a casual “you’re so sensitive.” 

This manipulation aims to invalidate your emotional responses, no matter how rational or justified they may be. It’s as though the gaslighter wants the other person to believe their emotions are misguided and irrelevant to the situation.

While each incident may appear insignificant on its own, the cumulative effect of this type of gaslighting can undermine a person’s confidence in their own emotional intelligence.

3. “You made me do it” 

Changing the blame so subtly that the victim is confused and sometimes even sorry is a classic trick gaslighters use. They are gurus who are pros at shifting the blame. 

They’ll have you apologizing for things you never did. Then, all of a sudden, you are the bad guy, even though your moral compass is so straight you could use it as a sundial in the dark.

4. “This is all your fault”

Here, we see an example of a gaslighter trying to pin the blame on you. You might be persuaded that they are acting badly because of your behavior. For instance, you could annoy or enrage them, but actually, there is no reason for that.

5. “I’m only telling you this because I love you”

People who gaslight others often go after their victims’ sense of self-worth and self-esteem, making small attacks that slowly break down their confidence. 

Gaslighting about someone’s intelligence or appearance might seem like harmless teasing. Such comments, though, are planned attacks to make you doubt yourself.

If you find yourself in any of these forms of gaslighting, give a call to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or you can chat with them online 24/7/365. They have advocates who are there to support and listen to you.

The effects of gaslighting on your mental health

Typically, victims of gaslighting experience an upswing of emotions – confusion, fear, shame, and an overwhelming feeling of being alone in one’s reality. 

First-impact effects are caused by both shock and disbelief. It shakes the foundation of your most basic understanding—who you are and what reality, together, means to you.

The dark side of gaslighting is that these experiences burrow into the psyche, creating a minefield for your self-esteem and your ability to trust not only others but yourself. 

Long-term exposure to gaslighting behaviors can lead to anxiety, depression, and even PTSD in extreme cases.

gaslighting examples

How to combat gaslighting

Dealing with gaslighting is about finding your voice, reclaiming your narrative, and laying down the psychological law. Here’s how you do it.

Practice Self-Care

It’s like a mental health gym, buffing your mind against the tactics of gaslighting. The healthier your sense of self, the less a manipulator’s words stick. 

Find out who you are before anyone else can tell you who you should be. Try Breeze test to discover, reunite, and care for your inner child.

Recognize the Red Flags

Know the signs like you know your favorite song’s lyrics. Once you can spot them, you’re not just aware. You’re armed.

Document the Doubtful

Keep a gaslight-proof journal of events. It’s your reality, your memories, and it’s time to say those three powerful words that stop gaslighting in its tracks: I. Don’t. Agree.

Set Boundaries – and Keep ’Em

Once you know what you won’t accept, draw the line. And when it’s crossed, have the courage to call it out.

Seek Support and Perspective

Talk it out with a friend, family, or mental health professional. You could go to counseling and also join Codependents Anonymous. Sometimes, the best reality checks come from those outside the shadowed world of gaslighting. 

Here is a pro tip from Cimone Safilian, PhD, TLLP If you believe you are experiencing gaslighting, remember to trust your intuition! The tips outlined in this article are very helpful when dealing with gaslighting. It is also important to note that after consideration and re-evaluation of these behaviors on your overall well-being, it may ultimately be best to exit the relationship with the gaslighting individual. Trust your intuition, lean on others for guidance and support, and consider your options. Remember, you are never alone in this!
Cimone Hanif, PhD, TLLP photo

Reviewed by Cimone Hanif, PhD, TLLP

Dr. Hanif is a practicing therapist and behavioral health writer/editor. She received her PhD in International Psychology from The...