In gaslighting, someone distorts the truth in order to get someone to increasingly doubt themselves. This can give the gaslighter power over them because, the more insecure the victim is, the more he or she relies on and becomes dependent on the gaslighter.
Where does the term ‘gaslighting’ come from? And how do you recognise it?
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation. A gaslighter feeds his or her self-confidence by convincingly twisting and distorting the truth. The doubt this sows (“Am I going crazy?”) causes the victim to lean more and more heavily on the person doing the gaslighting, thereby making him or her feel increasingly important. This is usually not an intentional action but a learned mechanism.
Gaslighting happens subtly and is a creeping process. As a result, a victim may not realise for a very long time what is actually going on. It always seems to be about the small things, but ultimately the impact on the victim’s self-esteem is very big.
Where does the term ‘gaslighting’ come from?
The term ‘gaslighting’ is based on a 1944 film, Gaslight, in which a man convinces his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, that her perception of reality is wrong. One way he does this is by dimming the gas lamps in the house at random times and insisting that there is nothing wrong with the light. In this way, the woman increasingly feels that she is going mad.
Within psychology, the term has been used since the 1960s. With the book ‘The gaslight effect, hidden narcissism’ that psychoanalyst Robin Stern wrote about it, the phenomenon has become increasingly well known in recent years
Examples of gaslighting
First example: the victim is blamed for not having the car keys in their usual place. While in reality it has not been used by him or her at all. If the victim defends himself or herself, he or she is told that he or she cannot take criticism. And by stubbornly persisting, the gaslighter convinces him or her that the key was – or at least may have been – moved by the victim after all. With the accumulation of similar events, slowly the victim’s self-confidence crumbles. And he or she becomes convinced that he or she is indeed clumsy and oversensitive.
A second example of gaslighting is when someone cheats, but when confronted, focuses on the partner’s mistrust. This can go so far that the partner eventually becomes convinced that the cheating was his or her fault. Especially in relationships, gaslighting expresses itself in such a way that accusations are reversed. Does the victim indicate difficulty with certain behaviour? Then this is supposedly down to him or herself.
Another example: your partner does not simply say ‘we’re out of milk’, but proclaims, rather irritably: ‘You’ve used up the milk again, I see.’ When you ask if he could perhaps say it a little more friendly, you get criticised about how oversensitive you are.
‘I don’t think I’ve used up all the milk at all,’ you say a moment later, to which he says mockingly: ‘Well, you must have forgotten.’
Suddenly you’re not sure. Did you finish the milk? But then how come you don’t remember? Why the irritation at all, did you do something wrong? Are you really hypersensitive?
By the way: you’re not out of milk at all, you notice when you’re standing in front of the fridge to make a shopping list. There is still a full pack next to the yoghurt.
You probably think first: “What’s all this then?’’ and perhaps start to question your own side and your own perception of the event.
Donald Trump & John Oliver
Robin Stern cites a well-known case of celebrity gaslighting as an example: US former president Donald Trump proclaimed that comedian John Oliver had invited him to be a guest on his “utterly boring, poorly watched programme” and that he had declined, “I said NO THANKS, waste of time & energy.
‘We didn’t invite him at all!’ thought John Oliver. But when he tried to set the record straight, Trump threw another spanner in the works, just until John Oliver started doubting himself and started looking up whether maybe someone from his team hadn’t invited Trump after all. They hadn’t, but that doubt is characteristic: he was gaslighted.
The link to narcissism
While not every gaslighter involves covert narcissism, it does occur very regularly in that combination. Not surprisingly, since in both cases extremely low self-esteem is the origin. Gaslighting is the way for a covert narcissist to subtly compensate for his feelings of inferiority.
The partner as gaslighter
Gaslighting is common within relationships. Interestingly, women seem to be more susceptible to becoming victims of it, as of other forms of manipulative behaviour. This is probably because women, more than men, have learned to put themselves in another person’s shoes from an early age. As a result, they are more likely to question their own views and adopt those of another. This does not mean that only women fall victim to a male gaslighter. Every year, many men (within a relationship) also fall victim to a female gaslighter.
‘Gaslighting is the creation of two people: a gaslighter who creates confusion and doubt, and a gaslightee who is willing to doubt his or her own way of looking at things in order to keep the relationship going.’ according to Robin Stern.
Now that sounds like something you can basically solve very easily. If you shrug your shoulders and say something like ‘well, that’s certainly your opinion then’, it stops immediately. But your first reaction (see the paragraph on John Oliver and Donald Trump) is to deny, and then you want to prove yourself right, and show that you are (for instance) not stupid and oblivious. In fact, you then join the psychological game. Once you are in such a gaslight tango, it is difficult to get out. You have to be strong-willed, whereas as a gaslightee you become less and less sure about your own perception. Doubting what you perceive is not good for your self-confidence.
Consequences of gaslighting
By constantly doubting their own perceptions and feelings, and by constantly changing them to accommodate those of the gaslighter, the victim gradually loses contact with him- or herself. It becomes increasingly difficult to judge what he or she may or should think about something, and which feelings and thoughts are logical. A victim of gaslighting may come to believe so strongly in the gaslighter’s truth that he or she completely loses touch with themselves. Especially as the victim starts living more and more according to the ‘truth’ and wishes of the gaslighter. Gaslighting can therefore lead to extreme insecurity, isolation, loneliness and depression.
- The tendency to justify an unpleasant remark, attitude or action by the person in question to yourself, or to defend it to others. (‘It must be just me’, ‘He probably doesn’t mean it.’);
- Doubting your own perceptions;
- Going along with the other person’s views, after previously being convinced of the opposite;
- Feeling oversensitive;
- Apologising a lot for your own choices or behaviour;
- Becoming increasingly isolated from family and friends;
- Feelings of loneliness and/or depression;
- Feeling like a different person than before;
- Enjoying things less and less;
- Finding it more difficult to make decisions;
- Being more nervous and/or insecure.
If you recognise many of these, it is good to take a close look at your relationship with the person in question. It can also be valuable to write out the conversations you have. This way, you can look at it from a distance and discover patterns more quickly. In addition, you may benefit from discussing your feelings with a loved one: they can assess the situation objectively.
How should you deal with gaslighting?
As a victim of gaslighting, there are a number of things you can do to be more aware of it.
Try to stop the conversation the moment you suspect an attempt at gaslighting. And point out the gaslighter’s behaviour if necessary. Give the gaslighter space to express his/her views, but do not get involved. Stay aware of what you feel or think about it at that moment, and stick to that as much as possible.
Do you notice that you can no longer trust your own perception at all? Do you feel like you are no longer yourself? And/or have you become more isolated by gaslighting? Then it might be a good idea to ask yourself whether it would be better to end the relationship with the gaslighter, and/or to seek professional help. A therapist could help you look at the situation objectively and take the necessary steps.
To make yourself more resilient to gaslighting, you can also work on your own insecurity. Often, sensitivity to this stems from an insecure attachment in childhood. It may be valuable to investigate what underlies this in yourself, for instance under the guidance of a therapist. It is important to realise that this does not excuse the gaslight’s behaviour.
How do you recognise the gaslight pattern?
If you often have thoughts in a relationship where you’re doubting yourself and your own perceptions (‘’It must be me’’ or ‘’Am I losing it?’’) whether it’s with a partner, family member or colleague, you might think of it as a flickering lights warning of a gaslight pattern. Just like constantly being told in an annoying tone that you are too sensitive when you try to bring something up. So what? How do you ‘turn off the gas’, so to speak?
The best you can do, Robin Stern shows, is to accept that you will never get the affirmation or approval you want from a gaslighter, no matter what you do. Furthermore, you can train yourself not to go along with the gaslight tango. Robin Stern gives practical advice and example sentences for this. Including these:
- Distinguish truth from distortion
If you notice that the gaslighter is telling pertinent untruths, do not doubt yourself (seek confirmation from others if necessary). If you notice the discussion becoming a power struggle, cut off. ‘I don’t like this conversation, shall we talk about it again later?’
- Focus on feelings, not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’
It does not matter who is right, it is all about tone. ‘Maybe you don’t mean to belittle me, but that’s how it feels to me and that’s why I’m stopping this conversation now.’
- Accept: you cannot determine someone’s opinion, even if you are right
If someone thinks you are unreasonable, or oversensitive, or not that smart – well, they think so, no matter what you argue against it. If you accept that (for instance by saying, “That’s your opinion then. I think something else”), you don’t have to try your best to change it either. That saves a lot of energy.
Put your energy into other things
And you can put that energy to better use. Because whether it’s a partner, a colleague or a family member, gaslighters suck the energy out of you, and that energy is better spent on the goals and dreams that you find important than participating in psychological games about whether or not a carton of milk is empty. The fact that this makes you insecure is often not even the gaslighter’s intention. In fact, gaslighting is often just a reaction to insecurity and stress. But although you can understand the latter, you can of course reconsider whether this relationship is a perfect match. Let’s face it: after all, relationships are not meant to make you insecure and unhappy.
Like our in-depth psychology articles? be sure to check out our psychology section for more interesting reads!
Gaslighting is not limited to adults, please read our article on gaslighting in children to read about its’ detrimental effects on the young.