“You are overreacting.”
“You are upset over nothing.”
“I never said that. You must be confused again.”
“You sound crazy.”
Have you ever heard something like this, especially repeatedly by one person? If it resonates with you, there may be a possibility that you were experiencing gaslighting.
Gaslighting became a buzzword that seems to pop up everywhere these days. The interest in the term grew so much that its search on Google rose by a whopping 1740% in 2022. This is more than twice an increase compared to any other search term this year. It’s not surprising, then, that gaslighting is proclaimed a Word of the year by the Merriam-Webster dictionary for 2022.
We live in an extraordinary time where we have more information about mental health, communication, relationships, and well-being than ever. This is, overall, a very good thing. It’s great that people are learning more about gaslighting, so they can recognize it and protect themselves. At the same time, when we use the word around so much, some misunderstandings may occur. It becomes important to make sure we know what it actually means, and also what it doesn’t mean.
So, what is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where one person undermines the other person’s reality and leads them to question their own perception and sanity, all the while dismissing their feelings. This tactic is common in emotionally abusive relationships.
By twisting the facts, denying, diverting from the topic, trivializing other person’s emotions and using degrading comments to put them down, one person tries to gain power over the other by twisting their sense of reality and making them question their ability to think rationally. Over time, the person who’s being gaslighted starts to feel anxious, depressed, withdrawn, confused, and unable to trust themselves. This is especially true when gaslighting happens in a wider context of abuse.
While anyone can experience gaslighting in any type of relationship, like in a workplace, in friend groups, or among family members, we most commonly discuss it in the context of romantic relationships.
What are some gaslighting examples?
So, what does gaslighting look like in practice? Sometimes it’s so subtle that we may not be sure if it’s gaslighting or mere disagreement. You may be wondering: “Am I being gaslighted?”. Here are some gaslighting examples and red flags in relationships that could help you identify it:
- Dismissing your feelings and perceptions as invalid or even pathological. (“You sound crazy”)
- Attempting to convince you that you should not trust your memory (“This must be another one of your crazy ideas. Think back to the situation when you remembered X wrong. This is the same thing”)
- Pretending not to understand what you’re saying so that they don’t have to respond (“I don’t know what you’re talking about”)
- Trying to change the subject in order to divert you from the topic (“Have you been talking to your friend again? Usually you get this kind of crazy ideas when you spend some time with her”)
- Flatly denying that they have said or done something they obviously did. This happens often, it’s not a one-time thing (“I never said that. You heard that wrong. You are making things up. I would never do such a thing”).
Gaslighting red flags to watch out for in a relationship:
- You find yourself always apologizing
- You feel confused, question your perception and memory, and constantly second-guess yourself
- Their actions don’t match their words
- They deny your reality. When confronted by proof, they can become defensive and start attacking you
- Degrading comments, questioning your ability to think rationally
- You frequently wonder if you are too sensitive
- You know something is wrong, but you just can’t point out what.
In a nutshell, gaslighting often unfolds like this:
That didn’t happen. And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. And if it was, that’s not a big deal. And if it is, that’s not my fault. And if it was, I didn’t mean it. And if I did, you caused it, and so you deserved it.
Gaslighting is extremely damaging for a relationship, but more importantly, for individual well-being. Over time, it can create the effects of confusion, brain fog, self-doubt, disorientation, fear, anxiety, feeling like you are losing your mind, difficulty making judgments or simple decisions, second-guessing your perception and memory, feeling like you are not good enough, that you constantly need to apologize. You may gradually feel more and more dependent on the gaslighter’s validation, emotional support, and “rational view”.
It’s important to note that many of these symptoms are experienced by people who already go through depression, high levels of anxiety, lots of stress, or who have low self-esteem, certain attachment styles, or unhealthy coping mechanisms to trauma. However, the difference with gaslighting is that there is another person who actively contributes to these symptoms occurring. If you don’t typically experience these feelings with other people, just with one particular person, then there is a higher chance that you may be experiencing gaslighting by them.
How to tell the difference between gaslighting and disagreement?
Not everyone’s perception of events is the same. We will sometimes disagree or have different views on what happened. We may even have strong opinions and reject the other person’s point of view. Still, it doesn’t have to mean it’s gaslighting.
So, how to tell if it’s gaslighting or just disagreement?
The main difference between gaslighting and disagreement is about power. In disagreement, the focus is on challenged viewpoints or hurt feelings. In gaslighting, the main goal is to take control over the other person by undermining their sense of self and making them question their own sanity.
Someone who uses gaslighting may try to convince the other person that they remember things wrong, that they are overreacting, and that, therefore, their view of the situation and their feelings are not valid. They may use the target’s “mistakes”, “missteps”, or “overreactions” to turn the situation around and cast themselves as a victim. On the receiving end of this behaviour, the person can feel disoriented, confused, and worn out. They start asking themselves if they may be imagining things or if they are even justified to think or feel the way they do. Gaslighting is usually not a one-time thing. Rather, it is used over time to belittle the other person into being controlled.
The focus of disagreement is explaining one’s point of view, maybe even trying to convince the other person to change theirs, but NOT convincing them that they can’t trust themselves. Disagreements often involve unpleasant emotions. They can involve tension, stress, and heated discussion, especially around specific topics and with certain people. However, if there is a pattern of disagreement exactly in situations when one side feels hurt and tries to let the other person know about it, then there is a high possibility there is gaslighting involved.
Are gaslighters aware of what they do?
Those who use gaslighting are people too. They usually use this form of manipulation to ease the anxiety surrounding the possibility of losing control and power in the relationship, or to protect themselves from feeling ashamed. Gaslighting serves as a tool to deflect responsibility, because in their world, taking responsibility for hurtful actions = shame and degradation. So, instead, they turn to tearing down the other person, all the while keeping them hooked. For them, gaslighting is a cognitive strategy for self-regulation and co-regulation.
Often, people who use gaslighting are very well aware of their tactic. They know it’s effective and they consciously use it to manipulate the other person and gain power. However, sometimes, they may not even know that what they are doing is manipulative and so damaging. They may be convinced that they are “just being direct” or that it’s a normal way to behave in conflicts. For many, gaslighting could be something they picked up from the relationships they grew up around.
Whatever the case is, if you recognize that you are experiencing gaslighting, it’s crucial to remember that you are not to blame for what you are experiencing. Whatever the reason behind gaslighting is, the other person is consciously choosing to behave this way, and there is nothing you are doing that causes this behaviour. It is something they do to protect their self-esteem and their sense of control. There are many ways to protect these things – and they are choosing the one that is harming you.
The most important first step toward protecting yourself from gaslighting is recognizing that it’s happening. From there, you can start making rational steps on what to do next, from working on your own well-being, to addressing the problem and setting boundaries, or maybe stepping away from the relationship. Talking to a mental health professional may also be beneficial, whether it’s in form of individual therapy or couple’s counselling. Recovery may take some time, but it is definitely possible to learn skills to overcome the damage gaslighting may have caused you.
Do you know how to spot gaslighting in relationships? How do you make a difference between gaslighting and disagreement? Let us know in the comment section down below!
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Abramson, K. (2014). Turning up the lights to gaslighting. Philosophical Perspectives, 28, 1–30. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26614542
Catapang Podosky, P. (2021). Gaslighting, First- and Second-Order. Hypatia, 36(1), 207-227.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Gaslighting. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved December 18, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gaslighting
Miano, P., Bellomare, M., & Genova, V. G. (2021). Personality correlates of gaslighting behaviours in young adults. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 27(3), 285-298.