Medically Reviewed by Seth Gillihan, PhD
Whether subtle or overt, gaslighting is a manipulative form of abuse that can cause severe trauma.
“Gaslighting” is more than just a trendy buzzword.
The concept has been around for decades. And mental health experts say it’s a psychological phenomenon that can have serious emotional implications and even destroy relationships.
Awareness of what it is and when it’s happening is really important, says Barbara Shabazz, PsyD, a Virginia Beach, Virginia–based clinical psychologist and owner of Intentional Activities, a motivational counseling private practice. “Gaslighting is finally getting the much-needed attention that it deserves in terms of awareness as a legitimate form of abuse that can lead to severe mental health concerns.”
Though psychologists and other mental health professionals are now studying and talking about the term in academic and clinical settings, researchers have acknowledged that the word itself comes from the 1938 play titled Gas Light, which in 1944 was made into the British film Gaslight, about a husband who attempts to make his wife go crazy by insisting she is hallucinating and imagining things.
More recently the term “gaslighting” comes up in conversations around various forms of subtle trauma and manipulation.
The word “gaslighting” was selected as Merriam Webster’s word of the year for 2022.
Here’s what you should know about what the word means, how to recognize when it’s happening to you or someone you know, and how to handle the situation if someone is gaslighting you or someone you care about.
What Is Gaslighting?
Most people have been there. You walk away from a conversation feeling that something about the interaction seemed disingenuous and did not sit well with you.
For example, you respectfully and privately share with your supervisor that you felt like they took credit for your work during a team meeting. They apologize, but then begin defending themselves and suggest that you misunderstood them or you’re being overly sensitive.
Or, you know that someone manipulated you into agreeing with them. This could look like confronting your partner about you feeling like they’ve been avoiding conversations with you, and instead of addressing your concerns, they leave you feeling that you’re not respecting your partner’s personal time.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological manipulation that involves a person attempting to coerce another person into doubting their own accurate observations, perspectives, and reality.
This can, in turn, lead the person who is being gaslit to question attributes about themselves, including their character, memory, and in more extreme cases, their sanity, says Robin Stern, PhD, author of The Gaslight Effect, and cofounder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in New Haven, Connecticut.
“In simplest terms, gaslighting is the act of manipulating someone’s reality,” Dr. Stern explains.
The National Domestic Abuse Hotline defines gaslighting as a highly effective form of emotional abuse that gives the gas lighter a certain amount of power and control over the gas-lit person.
Types of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can occur in any type of relationship, from the boardroom to the bedroom.
Gaslighting as a Type of Abuse in Intimate Partner Relationships
When one partner gaslights another partner, it is emotional abuse, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
This is because gaslighting in an intimate partner relationship disarms and eventually gets the other person not to trust themselves or their perception of reality — making them easier to control and manipulate and less likely to leave their abusive partner or object to their abuse.
“Some magnitude of gaslighting has been present with every client I have worked with who was in an abusive intimate partner relationship,” says Anthony Franklin, EdD, a licensed professional counselor and certified anger management treatment professional at the University of Houston.
According to a case study published in 2019 in the American Sociological Review, gaslighting in intimate partner relationships is often rooted in inequality and gender-based stereotypes that are used against victims to manipulate their reality. This happens by convincing the person being gaslit that their abuse is not real, insignificant, or not their fault.
Gaslighting is often a gradual process that abusers use to break down their partner’s belief in themselves over time, making them more vulnerable to being manipulated and to stay in abusive relationships, per the case study.
Racial gaslighting is a form of manipulation aimed at undermining or minimizing someone’s experiences with racism, Shabazz explains. “Racial gaslighting can range from covert microaggressions that are subtle to more overt expressions of minimizing a minoritized person’s experience with racism through aggressive attacks to their character, creditability, and intellectual capacity.”
It might look like, despite the huge increase in anti-Asian hate crime, a white friend telling their Asian American friend that they should not be concerned about being targeted, because they live in a progressive neighborhood.
Beyond being emotionally harmful (and rude) to the victim, this type of racial gaslighting also protects and perpetuates the existence of systemic racism and institutionalized oppression, Shabazz adds.
That’s the central argument in a research review article published in 2017 in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities. It concluded that racial gaslighting perpetuates social, economic, cultural, and political systems that normalize racially oppressive norms, attitudes, and behaviors.
Medical gaslighting is when a medical provider blames a patient’s symptoms on psychological factors or denies or dismisses the patient’s illness or symptoms altogether, as defined in an article published in 2022 in BMJ. (Though more medical professionals, advocates, and others are bringing attention to medical gaslighting, it’s worth noting that there’s not necessarily a formal definition of the term to date.)
Lori Gottlieb, a licensed marriage and family therapist and psychotherapist based in Los Angeles, shared her experience of her doctors attributing physical symptoms she had (fatigue, hair loss, and trouble concentrating and focusing) to stress before advocating for herself and pushing her doctors to do additional testing until she was eventually diagnosed with a chronic illness. She said it’s not always due to malicious intent: “There’s just a blind spot when it comes to chronic illness. And I think that the blind spot is bigger with women and especially people of color — doctors just aren’t paying attention in the same way,” she said.
Some observational evidence suggests this happens in medical settings. One study published in Academic Emergency Medicine found that women who went to the emergency room with severe stomach pain had to wait almost 33 percent longer than men with the same symptoms. Similarly, another study found that women experienced longer waits to be diagnosed with cancer than men. Research has also shown that women tend to be treated less aggressively for various conditions, such as traumatic brain injury, than men. Though it’s worth noting that none of this research was designed to analyze why these discrepancies happened (and if it was in fact medical gaslighting).
Medical gaslighting is, however, a possible explanation, Shabazz explains.
Intersectionality (the ways in which inequalities based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, class and other forms of discrimination “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects, according to the Center for Intersectional Justice) also can play a significant role in gaslighting. That’s because gaslighting often is possible because of existing power dynamics and cultural factors, which largely underlie the discrimination marginalized groups experience.
Political gaslighting is a form of dishonesty that distracts or confuses public opinion about a political issue, according to political communications researchers. In her book, President Trump’s First Term, Farah Latif, PhD, an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who researches political media and public affairs, defines political gaslighting (as it can apply to any politician) as using misleading and manipulative information to undermine, sway, and disorient public opinion on political issues.
Dr. Latif says that social media has been used to help drive misinformation and to perpetuate political gaslighting to gain support for or against a political viewpoint or ideology.
The aforementioned American Sociological Reviews article, however, posits that gaslighting happens in the context of intimate relationships, and therefore it’s a misnomer to characterize political posturing as gaslighting.
7 Signs You’re Being Gaslit
Here are some warning signs that could signal you’re being gaslit. Remember, these things could be the result of other factors, but if you’re experiencing any of the below (or notice them happening to someone else) it’s worth considering if and why gaslighting is happening.
They apply to all the forms of gaslighting.
1. You’re constantly apologizing. Because one of the primary characteristics of gaslighting is to confuse and cause a person to question themselves, feeling the need to apologize frequently to a coworker, intimate partner, or even a friend or family member, can be an indication that you are being gaslit, says Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, a professor of psychology and the director of the Program for Research on Anxiety Disorders Among African Americans at Kent State University in Ohio.
“The person gaslighting you has made you doubt yourself. This, in turn, leads to lowered self-esteem and self-confidence, making the person who is being gaslit feel like almost every decision they make is a mistake and requires an apology, even when it does not — especially towards the person who is gaslighting them,” Barnett explains.
2. Your feelings are being minimized. Minimizing a person’s feelings reinforces self-doubt and insecurity in the person who is being gaslit. It also helps the person doing the gaslighting to control the other person. This is especially true when you might be providing feedback to a person about something they do not want to hear about or disagree with, Shabazz explains. This can be a telltale sign of medical gaslighting (when someone’s symptoms are dismissed or overlooked by medical professionals).
3. Frequently doubting your feelings. “This might look like a person regularly asking themselves if they are overreacting or are being too sensitive,” Shabazz says. Doubting yourself (or your feelings or your reality) is a key feature of gaslighting.
4. You find yourself questioning your own worth. Like doubting your feelings, the perpetrators of gaslighting intend to cause the person being gaslit to question some aspect of their worth and ability. According to Stern, people being gaslit often base their feelings of worth on the approval or praise of others, such as a boss, friend, intimate partner, or parent.
5. You often make excuses for someone else’s poor behavior. “We see this a lot with intimate partner abuse. The abused person sometimes excuses their abusive partner’s behavior and even blames themselves,” Dr. Franklin explains.
It also happens with political gaslighting, where a politician’s supporters will make excuses for the individual’s behavior or unkept promises because they somehow feel beholden to that politician, Franklin adds.
6. You struggle with indecision. Because gaslighting causes insecurity and can damage self-confidence, people who have been gaslit might struggle with indecision and making firm or even simple decisions. “This is why gaslighting can be somewhat paralyzing for the person who is being gaslit. It becomes really challenging for them to make a decision for themselves,” says Dr. Barnett.
7. You feel down, but cannot put your finger on the cause. According to Shabazz, gaslighting can easily result in a person experiencing symptoms similar to depression, such as hopelessness, sadness, and loss of motivation. But if you’re being gaslit, you may be unsure of why you’re feeling this way.
#BPDIsNoLongerMe, #Codependent, #Depression, #Relationships, #Awareness, #BPD, #BorderlinePersonalityDisorder, #Gaslighting, #Abuse, #MentalAbuse, #Drama, #HelpfulTips, #InterestingFacts, #MentalHealth, #MentalHealthAwareness, #MentalHealthMondays, #WhatIsGoingOnHere?