What Is Gaslighting? Psychology, Effects On Relationships, And Treatment

By Lydian Shipp

Updated November 19, 2019

Reviewer Aaron Horn

The term "toxic relationship" is not new; it has been used to describe unhealthy attachments for many years, It is a common, straightforward way to describe the dynamic associated with a relationship between two people, where one or both individuals are not getting what they need, and are being used or abused. One of the most toxic relationships and one that has become increasingly common to discuss, is a relationship that involves gaslighting.

What Is Gaslighting?

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Gaslighting is, in effect, the process of making someone feel as though they are crazy. The term was derived from a play and subsequent film that detailed the process of a man gradually suggesting to his wife that she has lost her mind, all in the name of having her committed, and taking possession of her money. The term comes from the husband's behavior in the film. Throughout the film, he is seen fiddling with the gaslights on their property, then acting as though the flickering lights are entirely in his wife's imagination.

Although this is an extreme example and is unlikely to be the exact motivation or reasoning behind a gaslighter, the basis of the behavior is the same: it is behavior designed to create doubt about your sanity and is used as a powerful manipulative tool.

Gaslighting is not always intentional, though, and can be a behavior that is learned throughout childhood and perpetuated in adulthood. Often, gaslighting is attributed to romantic relationships, but virtually every relationship in existence can be affected by gaslighting. This includes friendships, familial relationships, workplace relationships, and even the relationship shared between a political figure and his or her constituents.

The Meaning Of Gaslighting And How It Affects You

Why is gaslighting so important? Gaslighting amounts to psychological warfare, in that it can make you question your sanity, and can destroy your ability to tell fiction from reality. Gaslighting can create extremely unhealthy, co-dependent relationships that can feel impossible to get out of. Parents can gaslight their children, leaving lasting psychological scars, and romantic partners can gaslight one another, creating an unhealthy relationship dynamic. A boss can gaslight his subordinates, creating a dangerous and unhealthy workplace dynamic, or can keep a strict authoritarian reign over his employees through the use of ( intentional or unintentional ) gaslighting.

Gaslighting is problematic because recovery from It can prove extremely difficult. Trust is usually eroded entirely-including trust in yourself. This can make identifying what is real and what is not nearly impossible, This leaves the victim making a slow, steady plod forward, with numerous setbacks and roadblocks in the way.

Treatment can also be difficult because recognizing that you are gaslit is similarly tricky. Many people have developed such strong, unhealthy dependencies on their abusers that they are unable to recognize their behavior as inappropriate, dangerous, or abusive. Instead, they might feel grateful for even being able to keep the attention of someone, and will likely cling even more tightly to the relationship although there may initially be pangs of distrust, suspicion, or doubt, many people who continually gaslight can quell these moments of insight to create a compelling, convincing narrative of their victim's descent into madness.

Gaslighting In Psychology

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Although the actual carrying out of gaslighting in the play and film is over-the-top, most gaslighting is far more covert and therefore, in some ways, more sinister. Gaslighting might start with small, seemingly normal quips, such as, "You're so dramatic." Or "Why do you have to be so emotional?" Reacting emotionally to an emotionally-trying situation is a reasonable response. Being told that your behavior is dramatic, unreasonable, or over-emotional can pave the road to gaslighting, as it can slowly make you start to question your behavior and ideas.

From a psychological perspective, this is extremely dangerous; the way that you view yourself powerfully influences the way you behave in your day-to-day life, It influences the way you engage with the people around you, and the way you go about setting and chasing goals. If you are perpetually unsure of yourself, riddled with doubt and anxiety, and wholly dependent on the person who is gaslighting you, you are vulnerable to developing severe anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders that can pose serious risks to your health. Gaslighting is not merely a symptom of a toxic relationship; it is a pathway to effectively losing your sense of agency.

Warnings Signs: Are You Experiencing Gaslighting?

There are some warning signs to suggest that a partner, loved one, friend, or coworker is gaslighting you. These might show up right at the beginning of your relationship, or they may show up down the road; regardless of the exact timing, though, the effects of gaslighting usually remain the same:

  • You question your perception. When the person in question seems to lie all of the time-or even lie on occasion-but is so confident in what they are saying, do you begin to wonder if maybe you just understood something wrong? For instance, if you have a coworker who gets into trouble for letting a project fall behind, and he immediately turns to you, with a pained look on his face, and says, "But…he was assigned to the project, not me," what is your immediate instinct? To emphatically deny this claim, or to pause and question yourself? Gaslighters keep their victims on edge by regularly lying, often about seemingly unimportant things.
  • You don't feel under attack when you are insulted or demeaned. The natural, healthy reaction to being defamed is to feel insulted, upset, or indignant. After all, if you are not cruel to your children, why would you sit by and let someone claim that you are? If, however, you find yourself sinking down and blithely accepting someone's claims that you are worthless, low, or lucky anyone is willing to spend any time with you, you might be a victim of gaslighting. Although gaslighters will start these attacks slowly, they gradually increase the frequency and scope of the attacks, which can leave you feeling as though you are worthless, and your perpetrator is right.
  • Other people are used to discrediting you. Gaslighters are often very intelligent too and know how discrediting works. Gaslighters often up to the ante by not only claiming that they find you a certain way, but that others agree with them. A coworker, for instance, might casually suggest that another colleague also can't stand working on projects with you. A friend might suggest that your siblings also just put up with you because they have to, and she is practically a saint for sticking around. These types of jabs leave you feeling isolated, alone, and (once again) dependent on your abuser.

Treatment After Experiencing Gaslighting

Fortunately, many people who have experienced gaslighting are able to get help. Whether their abuser slips up one too many times and is caught in their lie, or they gain the clarity required to stand up for themselves, it is possible to get help and recover from the negative effects of gaslighting. Some relief can be found in work done on your own, and some relief requires more significant intervention.

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The first step in recovering from gaslighting is getting away from the relationship. If you are in a romantic relationship or friendship, you can cut off all contact. If you are in a familial or workplace relationship, you can create boundaries and limit contact as much as possible. In any situation and any relationship, getting some distance from your abuser will be an important part of setting yourself toward the road to healing.

You can also begin from square one, identifying things that you like and dislike about yourself-without the input of anyone else. Perhaps you like that your eyes get misty when you see a child holding a parent's hand. Maybe you love that your voice is a low, soft purr when you speak of something you feel passionately about. Maybe you don't like that jealousy claws its way into your chest in romantic relationships. Perhaps you aren't the biggest fan of the way your pants fit on your hips after years of stress eating. Determining what you do and do not like about yourself can be extremely empowering, and can help you develop a working grasp on yourself and your identity.

Therapy can be an important part of recovering from gaslighting. Therapists are trained to help you find more detached, objective ways of looking at your life and options, and might be able to help you find your way back to a healthier, stronger sense of self, and a brighter perception of how you can exist in the world. The therapists employed through ReGain.Us operate online and can provide therapy at a variety of price points, all from the comfort of your home, where you can feel safe and protected as you discuss the horrors you may have experienced through your time with a gaslighter.

Final Thoughts

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Gaslighting is abusive behavior that has grown increasingly common and, fortunately, increasingly easy to recognize due to greater awareness of exactly what it is, what it looks like, and how it can be escaped from. People who have experienced gaslighting might question their sanity, their reality, and their worth, and often require the help of a support network and mental health professional to climb out of the mire created by their abuser. While there are different severities associated with gaslighting, the overall effect of the abuse is the same: severe psychological wounds, lost trust, increased anxiety and increased depression. Gaslighting is never the victim's fault. If you feel you may be in the midst of this type of relationship, have been a victim of gaslighting in the past, or find yourself displaying the symptoms of perpetrating this form of abuse, reach out to a trusted mental health professional to start your path to health and freedom.


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