Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic that can have devastating effects on an individual’s mental and emotional well-being. It is a form of emotional and psychological abuse where someone seeks to undermine another person’s perception of reality. The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play called “Gas Light” where a husband used manipulative tactics to undermine his wife’s confidence and make her believe she was going insane to maintain control over her. Since then it has been incorporated into the psychology world and popular culture as a widely recognized term to describe manipulative behaviors.
Gaslighting can be used by anyone, but gaslighting behaviours are most commonly seen in people struggling with their mental health, often in those with low self-esteem or a strong need for control, and people with narcissistic personalities. In this guide, we’ll delve into the intricate web of gaslighting, exploring its signs, and its impact on relationships in various environments, and empower you with strategies to combat this form of manipulation.
Why Do People Gaslight?
Gaslighting can have various and complex motivations. Recognizing and understanding these motivations is crucial for individuals who are dealing with gaslighting, as it can empower them to take steps to protect themselves and seek support.
It’s also important to recognize that people who gaslight are likely struggling with mental health challenges or may not notice what they’re doing to others. This doesn’t excuse gaslighting behaviour, but there may be opportunities for helping the person who is gaslighting to recognize their actions, how their actions affect others, and give opportunities for them to work on themselves. This can be challenging for those involved in the situation to help with, so it’s highly encouraged to seek professional help as well.
Here are some common reasons why individuals may resort to gaslighting:
Learned Behavior: For some, gaslighting may be a learned behavior. They may have witnessed or experienced similar manipulative tactics from their parents, siblings, friends, or co-workers, leading them to replicate these patterns in their relationships.
Control and Dominance: Gaslighting is often used as a tool for gaining and maintaining control. By undermining someone’s sense of reality, it’s easier to manipulate and dominate them and keep a power imbalance.
Insecurity and Low Self-Esteem: Gaslighters may themselves suffer from deep-seated insecurities and low self-esteem. By making someone doubt themselves, they can temporarily alleviate their feelings of inadequacy.
Narcissistic Personality Traits: Gaslighting is closely associated with narcissistic personalities. Narcissists have an inflated sense of self-importance and a constant need for admiration. Gaslighting allows them to maintain this image and control those around them. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a very challenging mental illness to manage and requires professional therapy and sometimes medication.
Avoiding Responsibility: By using manipulation to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, or blaming others, or denying reality, they can deflect accountability and escape consequences.
Projection: Gaslighters may project their negative qualities, mistakes, or behaviors onto someone else. Accusing others of the very things they are guilty of helps them evade self-reflection and guilt.
Entertainment or Amusement: In some cases, gaslighting may be driven by a desire for entertainment or amusement at someone else’s expense. The gaslighter may derive satisfaction from the power they feel when manipulating others.
Emotional Manipulation: Gaslighters may use emotional manipulation as a strategy to achieve their goals by using others’ emotions or vulnerabilities against them. This can be a learned behaviour from seeing other people do it, or something that stems from the need to maintain control.
Signs of Gaslighting
Recognizing the signs of gaslighting is crucial for understanding what is happening and how to handle the situation. Sometimes gaslighting is very subtle and it can be hard to define why one might feel uncomfortable in a situation. It can also slowly happen over time, which makes it even more difficult to pinpoint.
If you are in a position to help the person who’s gaslighting overcome their behaviour, understanding how you feel is important so you can communicate properly if it happens. Also since gaslighting typically causes someone to question their own memory, writing things down as you go can help manage upcoming situations so you have a record of your experiences, feelings, or promises that were made.
Here are some of the common tactics used in gaslighting:
- Causing confusion and twisting the truth: Manipulating information to suit an agenda, distorting facts, and making it difficult to discern the truth. This can also mean denying facts, events, or promises and commitments, making someone question their own memory.
- Minimization and discounting someone’s feelings: Dismissing or downplaying emotions, making them feel like their feelings are irrational or unwarranted.
- Projection: Accusing someone of behavior or motives that the gaslighter is guilty of, shifting blame and causing confusion.
- Withholding Information: Deliberately keeping information from someone to maintain control.
- Isolation: Separating someone from friends and family and making them more dependent on the gaslighter’s version of reality. This makes it harder to get an objective view of the situation from third parties.
- Gradual Escalation: Gaslighting often starts subtly and escalates over time, making it difficult to recognize the manipulation until it has deeply rooted itself.
- Undermining Confidence: Consistently undermining someone’s confidence, making them doubt their abilities, decisions, or worth.
- False Praise: Using flattery or selective positive reinforcement as a manipulation tactic to falsely maintain trust to maintain a position of control and influence.
- Setting Unreasonable Expectations: Setting unrealistic expectations and then criticizing someone for not meeting them, creating a perpetual sense of failure.
It’s important to trust your instincts and seek support if you suspect you are experiencing gaslighting. If you notice several of these signs in a relationship, it may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional for guidance and support. Focus Mental Wellness offers confidential and effective online therapy across Canada, get easily matched with a therapist who can help you understand your feelings and give advice for your situation.
Gaslighting in Different Environments
A common misconception is that gaslighting only happens in romantic relationships, but that’s not true. Gaslighting can manifest in various environments, and its tactics may take on different forms depending on the context. Here are some examples of gaslighting in different settings:
Gaslighting in Romantic Relationships:
- Denying Past Events: They might deny that certain promises, events, or conversations ever took place, causing their partner to question their memory.
- Withholding Affection: They may withhold affection, love, or attention, making their partner feel unworthy or unlovable. They may also withhold affection to get others to do things for them.
- Projecting Insecurities: Accusing their partner of being too sensitive or irrational, therefore deflecting attention from their harmful behavior.
- Isolation: They may attempt to isolate their partner from friends and family, making them more dependent on the gaslighter’s version of reality.
Gaslighting at Work:
- Credit Stealing: Taking credit for others’ work, denying their contributions, and undermining their professional standing.
- Constant Criticism: Gaslighting in the workplace often involves consistent criticism, making others doubt their professional abilities.
- Withholding Information: Deliberately keeping others in the dark about work-related matters to maintain power and make their performance look bad.
- Shifting Blame: Blaming others for mistakes or failures in work projects, deflecting responsibility for their work or shortcomings.
Gaslighting in Family Dynamics:
- Scapegoating: Designating others as the scapegoat, blaming them for all the family issues, and manipulating others to believe they are the problem for everything as well.
- Conditional Love: Using love and affection as a reward for compliance and withdrawing it as punishment.
- Invalidating Emotions: Dismissing or belittling others’ emotions, making them doubt the legitimacy of their feelings. This is especially harmful to young children since they may assume their parent is the source of truth and be more likely to blame themselves.
- Gaslighting by Proxy: Turning siblings or other family members against each other, creating a divisive family environment.
- Selectively Recounting Past Events: Gaslighters may selectively remember events to suit their narrative, making it difficult for others to challenge their version of reality.
- Playing Favorites: Purposefully favouring one family member over others to cause jealousy and rivalry, and manipulate the family dynamic.
Gaslighting in Friendships:
- Undermining Confidence: Friends may undermine other’s confidence, making them question their abilities, choices, and self-worth. This can be subtle and can take a while before fully understanding what they are doing. An example of this is backhanded compliments, where the compliments carry an underlying critique, leaving others feeling confused and unsettled.
- Creating Rifts and Playing Favourites: Similar to a family dynamic, gaslighters may purposefully favour one friend over another to cause jealousy and rivalry or spread misinformation to cause doubt between friends and weaken their support systems.
- Mocking or Humiliation: Mocking or ridiculing others, creating self-doubt and undermining their confidence. This may happen in private or public settings and may be hard to recognize as gaslighting if it only happens in certain circumstances.
- False Accusations and Twisting Reality: Accusing others of things they haven’t done, creating a sense of guilt and confusion. This can extend to the social circle as well and create confusion within friend groups about what actually happened.
Coping Strategies for Gaslighting
Breaking free from gaslighting requires time, self-reflection, and often professional support. If you suspect someone is gaslighting you, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself:
Trust Your Instincts: Acknowledge your feelings and instincts. If something feels off, trust yourself.
Seek Support: Reach out to friends, family, or a therapist who can provide an objective perspective and emotional support.
Seek Therapy: Seeking therapy can be instrumental in processing the emotional aftermath of gaslighting and rebuilding your sense of self. Therapists are trained to recognize the signs of manipulation and mental health issues so can be an excellent resource to help you verify and validate your feelings. You can easily get matched with a licensed and affordable therapist at Focus with our 2-minute matching tool.
Maintain Boundaries: Establish and enforce clear boundaries to protect yourself from further manipulation.
Educate Yourself and Others: Understanding gaslighting and its tactics empowers you to recognize and resist manipulation, while sharing your experiences with others may help them recognize signs in their own lives as well.
Self-Care: Prioritize self-care activities that promote mental and emotional well-being, such as exercise, meditation, and hobbies. This is important both for personal life, and for preventing burnout professionally.
For more in-depth tips, read the 7 Essential Tips to Becoming “Un-Gaslightable”.
Gaslighting is a damaging form of emotional abuse that can affect someone in various aspects of their life. By understanding the signs, motivations, and tactics of gaslighting, you can empower yourself to understand when it’s happening to you, and build healthier relationships. If you are able to help the person gaslighting you overcome their hurtful habits, or you are someone who is gaslighting others and is wanting to stop, you can read more about quitting gaslighting and reforming healthier relationships here.
Remember, you are not alone, and seeking support is a crucial step towards reclaiming your sense of self and well-being. If you need extra support with therapy, you can book phone, video, or text therapy with Focus today. Our licensed therapists are experts with many mental health issues and can help you feel and live better.