Allie Dainow is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) in Toronto, ON, Canada
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is when someone tries to distort reality. This can either be intentional or unintentional. It is so popular that there are even songs about gaslighting. In the Chicks’ (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks) song titled “Gaslighter,” Natalie Maines sings about someone cheating on her and trying to convince her she was imagining it:
You only had to light a flame,
Couldn’t take yourself on a road a little higher
It was too dangerous to keep, so I had to destroy it.
Tried to say I’m crazy
Babe, we know I’m not crazy, that’s you
The 1944 movie “The Phantom of the Opera” was the first to use the term. Gaslight (based on a play written in 1938), in which a husband tries to prevent his wife from realizing that he’s a criminal by altering her reality and trying to make her believe she is imagining what’s happening. The title itself specifically comes from a scene where he makes the gaslights in the attic flicker and, when she asks him why they’re flickering, he tells her that she’s hallucinating it.
Gaslighting is a common way to gain power or control in many situations. It also occurs at a group level, often with women and other marginalized groups, whose experiences are frequently dismissed, seen as “crazy” and “too emotional,” and judged by double standards (Sweet, 2019).
Understanding Why People Gaslight
Negative behavior can be dealt with by acknowledging it, reflecting on the reasons, and learning from it. Gaslighting is when a person is aware of their inappropriate behavior, whether consciously or subconsciously, but cannot admit it because they can’t handle the guilt and shame that comes with it. It is often used as a narcissistic defense because narcissists seek to cover up a core of shame by presenting their self to others and convincing themselves that they are perfect. They cannot admit to negative behavior (even if it’s actually quite minor) because it’s too threatening to this image. Narcissists also become immune to this sense of shame by developing a sense of shamelessness, which allows them to engage in unethical and cruel behavior that others wouldn’t.
Strategies used in gaslighting
Gaslighters can manipulate others using a variety of tactics. They may have a preferred strategy they use most of the time, or they might use multiple strategies to manipulate others. These strategies include:
- Denial — Claiming that something that happened didn’t happen or that something that didn’t happen did.
- Distraction — Changing topics to something unrelated.
- Deflection — Blaming the situation on someone other than themselves. They may try to deflect in a variety of ways.
- Projection — Denying they behaved negatively and accusing someone else of the behavior they engaged in.
- False equivalencies — Excusing their inappropriate behavior by comparing it to a minor mistake that the other person made and acting as though those actions are of the same severity, e.g., “Yes, I did that, but what you did was just as bad (or worse).”
- Black and white standards —Emphasizing mistakes the other person made to make them believe they’re at fault. This is effective as the other person will almost always make mistakes since no one manages situations perfectly. This is different from false equivalencies because when using false equivalencies, the gaslighter will acknowledge mistakes on their part, but claim that other person’s were worse. They will deny any wrongdoing by using black and white standards.
- Recalling past mistakes — Causing the other person to doubt themselves by bringing up previous incidents that are irrelevant to the current one where they did or remembered something incorrectly, e.g. “You know you have a problem remembering things.”
- Claims of misinterpretations — Saying that they didn’t do anything wrong and the problem is that the other person misinterpreted or misunderstood what they said or did.
- Omitting context — Presenting the other person or their behavior as bad by neglecting to mention the context in which it occurred, which would make it understandable or reasonable.
- Overnormalizing — Insisting that their behavior is fine because “everyone” does it when in actuality most people would not behave this way.
- Comparing extremes — Downplaying the severity of their actions and framing them as acceptable or even good by bringing up examples of worse behavior that they didn’t do e.g. “What I did wasn’t that bad.”
- Invalidation — Minimizing and trivializing your feelings and the effect that an experience had on someone else, e.g., “You’re oversensitive,” “This isn’t a big deal,” “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
- Non-apologies — Giving apologies that deny any responsibility and put the blame back on someone else, e.g., “I’m sorry you felt that way,” “I’m sorry that you saw it that way.”
- Guilting/shaming — Making it seem as though the other person is doing something wrong or is a bad person for standing up against mistreatment, e.g., “You’re making me feel bad by bringing this up,” “You’re so negative.”
The Gaslit Experience
Gaslighting can feel disorienting and almost like whiplash. It can leave us feeling disoriented and confused. It can lead to intense rumination where you go back and analyze every detail of a situation to ensure that you’re not imagining it. It’s exhausting to do this and it’s scary to feel like you can’t trust your own perceptions. It can be very upsetting, disturbing, frustrating, and frustrating once you discover the truth. Gaslighting, especially when experienced repeatedly, can cause adverse psychological effects, including chronic self-doubt, shame, isolation, depression, anxiety, impaired relationships, trauma, and physical symptoms related to stress (Christensen & Evans-Murray, 2021, Pietrangelo, 2019).
Gaslighting: What to do?
Trying to have a conversation with someone who’s gaslighting you is incredibly difficult and draining. Here are some strategies to communicate with them.
- Redirection — If they’re trying to distract you by changing the topic, keep redirecting the conversation back to the situation at hand.
- “I” statements — This is an assertiveness skill where you communicate how their behavior affected you and set a boundary (“I felt ______ when you did ______ so I would like it if you did/didn’t ______”). This is meant to be a non-blaming method of communicating. It focuses on your experiences and can reduce defensiveness and denial.
- The broken record technique — This is also an assertiveness skill where you can repeat what you’re saying if you think the other person is not hearing you (Larsen & Jordan, 2017). In this case, if the gaslighter is claiming you’re wrong about the facts, you can repeat and assert the facts.
- Collaboration — Try to find common ground by talking to the other person about the shared goal or values you have and how you can go about achieving them. This can shift the conversation’s tone to cooperation, rather than antagonism.
- Walking away — Talking to someone who’s gaslighting can be like talking to a brick wall. No matter what you say or how much evidence you provide, nothing gets through to them, and sometimes it’s just not worth it to keep trying. You can let the person know that you don’t think this conversation is productive and you’re not going to continue it.
It is important that you allow yourself to recognize that you were gaslit, and to process what happened. You can use mindfulness strategies to detach from your thoughts and reduce the urge to ruminate about it until you’re ready to reflect on it or if the distress from this is interfering with other aspects of your life. These might include meditation or thought diffusion techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, such as saying to yourself “I’m having the thought that…” before a distressing thought in order to distance yourself from it (Harris, 2006).
We must identify and validate the emotions that are triggered by being gaslit in order to be able to process them. We often invalidate ourselves and say that we shouldn’t feel a certain way or that our reactions don’t make sense, but when we try to understand why we might have reacted that way, we realize it makes sense and stop criticizing ourselves. Gaslighting is a very unpleasant experience. It makes sense that you would feel negative emotions in response. It’s very helpful to practice self-compassion, which involves noticing these difficult thoughts and feelings and being kind to yourself about them. Many people describe self-compassion by saying it’s like speaking to yourself the way you would to a good friend.
Sometimes, knowing you were gaslit can help you stop criticizing yourself. Other times, this can make us feel bad about ourselves and blame ourselves for being manipulated. Unfortunately, gaslighting is a very common behavior because it’s effective. The very nature of gaslighting makes it so difficult to identify what’s happening because it disorients you and makes you even wonder if you’re being paranoid for questioning the gaslighting behavior. Many of us want to give people the benefit of doubt and think that maybe we misunderstood their behavior. It can be so hard to accept that not only was the initial hurtful behavior there, but also that the gaslighting took place. It’s important to be self-compassionate about the pain you have experienced from both. Try to remember that the problem isn’t you, it’s the person who did the gaslighting.
Christensen, M., & Evans‐Murray, A. (2021, May). Gaslighting in nursing education: A new or well-established covert form bullying? In Nursing Forum.
Harris, R. (2006). Embracing your Demons: A review of acceptance and commitment therapy. Psychotherapy in Australia? 12(4)
Larsen, K. L., & Jordan, S. S. (2017). Training in assertiveness. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences1-4.
Pietrangelo A. (2019, March 29). What are the long-term and immediate effects of emotional abuse? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/effects-of-emotional-abuse
Sweet, P. L. (2019). The sociology and practice of gaslighting. American Sociological Review? 84(5), 851-875.
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