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What Is Gaslighting? Examples & How To Respond

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published March 22, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Gaslighting is considered a form of psychological abuse whereby a person or group manipulates one or more people into questioning their sanity and perception of reality.

People who gaslight may intentionally or unintentionally use this form of abuse to exert power or control over others, with the goal to manipulate them.

Those who are experiencing gaslighting may often feel confused about their version of reality, experience anxiety, or be unable to trust themselves. 

The term gaslighting is believed to originate from the 1938 play and subsequent 1944 movie titled ‘Gaslight’ in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she cannot trust her own mind.

In the movie, the wife observes that the gas lights in the house flicker and change but the husband tries to convince her she is hallucinating. This form of emotional manipulation has since been known as gaslighting. 

Gaslighting is mostly known to be carried out by one person onto another person, commonly in romantic relationships. However, gaslighting can also occur in other areas such as friendships, between family members, at the workplace, or in politics. 

Gaslighters have some overlap with those who have narcissistic personality traits in the sense that both can be egocentric, manipulative, and coercive.

Although, whilst narcissists tend to focus on self-absorbed, selfish techniques to use on others, gaslighters fixate on power or control to dominate others. 

Gaslighting is often a persistent form of manipulation which over time, can cause the victims to lose their sense of perception, identity, and self-worth.

Emotional confusion appears to be the base of a gaslighter’s agenda so this may work well on someone who already does not trust their own judgement. Thus, people who trust themselves more may be more immune to gaslighting.

Despite this, gaslighters may persist in their coercion to eventually wear down their victims over time. The tactics of the gaslighter may be used to shake the confidence of their victim, lower their self-esteem, and make the victim dependent on the gaslighter.

Examples

There are many tactics that gaslighters can use to manipulate their victims into questioning their own perceptions of reality, their thoughts, and their feelings.

Below are some examples of these tactics. Many of these tactics may not be in isolation of each other, some may be used in one instance or conversation. The more that they are used against someone, the more likely they are to question their reality. 

Denial 

A gaslighter may pretend to forget events or how they happened, such as saying ‘That never happened’. They may also accuse the victim of making things up, so that the victim appears to be lying.

Even when the victim provides proof of the lies, the gaslighter will not back down and may be very convincing when denying, even if the victim knows they are lying. This can leave the victim feeling confused, unseen, unheard, and second-guess themselves. 

Shifting blame

This can often occur when in conversations or confrontations with the gaslighter. They may twist around the confrontation from the victim to make the victim look like the bad person instead of themselves, thus the blame is deflected onto the victim.

Victims may end up believing that they are the cause of the gaslighter’s bad behaviour. The person may say ‘If you behaved differently, then I wouldn’t need to treat you this way’. 

Minimising 

This can involve someone belittling or trivialising the victim’s feelings. They may often say ‘You are overreacting’ or ‘You are too sensitive’.

If they say something hurtful, they may also say ‘I was only joking’ to reinforce that the other person is overreacting. Victims may question whether their own concerns and feelings are real.

If they are dealing with someone who does not acknowledge their thoughts, feelings, or beliefs, the victim may never feel validated or understood which can be difficult to cope with. 

Withholding 

Through withholding, the gaslighter may refuse to engage in a conversation or pretend to not understand what the other person is saying to them to get out of responding.

They may say phrases such as ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’ or ‘You are trying to confuse me’.

This may also include pretending to not understand the other person’s perspective, which can be frustrating to the victim and cause them to feel misunderstood. 

Countering 

In countering, the gaslighter confronts the victim’s memories of events with an accusation or denial. They may question another person’s memory such as saying, ‘You have a bad memory’ or ‘You never remember things accurately’.

These accusations can cause the victim to believe that they may have remembered things incorrectly or that they have memory problems. 

Diverting/discrediting 

The aim of discrediting someone could be to make them appear emotionally unstable and thus more reliant on others. This can be used to change the focus of conversations and may be used to question the other person’s credibility, such as saying, ‘This is just another crazy thought of yours’.

The gaslighter may also spread rumours or lies about the victim, subtly telling others that they are emotionally unstable so that people may even side with the abuser without knowing the full story.

The gaslighter may then use this against the victim to back up their claims, saying, ‘Everyone thinks you are crazy’. 

Distraction 

When in discussion or confrontation with a gaslighter about their behaviour, they may change the subject or distract the victim with a question, rather than responding to the issue at hand.

Not only can this throw the victim off, but it can cause them to question the need to press a matter. 

Use of stereotypes

People can intentionally use negative stereotypes to manipulate others. This can include stereotypes surrounding a person’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age.

A common instance of this in heterosexual romantic relationships is where the man may tell the woman that people will think she is being hysterical or irrational, these being common harmful gender stereotypes. 

Using loving words as a weapon

Sometimes, when being called out for their behaviour, gaslighters may use affectionate language to diffuse the situation. For instance, they may say ‘You know I love you’, or ‘I would never hurt you on purpose’.

This can make the victim take a step back and feel guilty for accusing the other person of abuse. However, if the same behaviour continues, these words are probably inauthentic. 

Rewriting history 

Another gaslighting method people may use is to retell stories which work in their favour.

They could change the story to make the victim look like they are the abusive one.

The victim may begin to doubt their memories of what really happened, the confusion or second-guessing being the exact intent of the gaslighter. 

Types of gaslighting

Intimate partner relationships

Usually, the most thought of type of gaslighting occurs in romantic relationships. This was demonstrated in the movie ‘Gaslight’ whereby the abusive husband manipulated his wife into believing she was imagining things in order to make her easier to control.

Because of the intimate nature of these relationships, it can make it easier for gaslighters to use their abuse frequently and intensely.

Gaslighters may also use this type of abuse to isolate their partners from friends and family, prevent them from living their normal life, and may even escalate to physical abuse in the long-term. 

Child-parent gaslighting

Another common form of gaslighting can occur when a parent gaslights their child. The child may confront their parent as an adult, explaining that their parent may have done things to wrong them growing up.

A gaslighting parent may deny or ignore the child’s subjective experience, refuse to own their role in a problem, or act as if they themselves were the one that was wronged.

Rather than being emotionally supportive, gaslighting parents may make their child feel worse about themselves, if the blame has shifted to make the parent the victim. Another way in which a parent can gaslight is if they are overly controlling.

This means they may have controlled what their child should like, dislike, value, and believe.

They may say that their child likes particular things or tell them what they are feeling such as, ‘You’re tired’, when the child may not have felt this way. 

Institutional gaslighting

This type of gaslighting can occur at any company or organisation. The organisation may deny or hide information to make themselves look good and lie to employees about their rights.

This could occur when someone may come forward to expose the institution for any wrongdoing.

The whistle-blower could be portrayed by the institution as being incompetent or mentally unstable in order to discredit the individual. 

Political gaslighting

Whilst it is common to think that gaslighting can only occur on one person, gaslighting can be a technique used on large groups or populations of people.

Political gaslighting can occur when a political figure or group may use lies, denials, or manipulates information to control people. Examples of this can include downplaying or keeping things hidden that they may have done wrong or discrediting opponents by questioning their mental instability or bringing up past actions.

They may also use distraction tactics through controversy to divert the public’s attention away from important events that they may find threatening or uncomfortable.

Since these individuals are in positions of power and influence, this can make large groups of people more likely to be gaslighted by them. 

Racial gaslighting 

A person or groups of people may gaslight specific groups’ experiences of discrimination. They may deny that these individuals experience racism despite evidence to the contrary. Examples of this have been seen during the Black Lives Matter movement.

Individuals have shared how they experience racial injustice due to their skin colour, to which many other individuals have denied that racism exists or have downplayed the injustice.

They may have commented such things as, ‘That’s just how things were back then’, or ‘Racism doesn’t exist anymore’.

Gaslighting can occur when people who stand up for racial injustice are made to believe they are being irrational, over-sensitive, or too emotional, with the aim to undermine their message.

Likewise, the gaslighters may deflect by making themselves the victims. 

Misogynistic gaslighting

Gaslighting can be used to trivialise or dismiss problems which specifically affect women based on misogynistic stereotypes.

A study found that medical professionals were twice as likely to attribute coronary heart disease symptoms in middle-aged women to mental health conditions compared to middle-aged men (Maserejian et al., 2009).

In this way, gaslighting can be used to downplay women’s physical symptoms for mental health symptoms. They could say things such as, ‘It’s all in your head’ to reinforce the archaic stereotype that women are irrational and hysterical. 

Misogynistic gaslighting has also been found to be prevalent when women have given testimonies about the harms done to them by men (Stark, 2019).

In her article, Stark suggests that people who intend to undermine women’s testimonies of abuse may challenge their credibility by dodging evidence that supports the woman’s account, and using ‘displacing’ tactics, attributing to the woman’s cognitive or characterological defects. 

Tribe gaslighting

The term ‘tribe gaslighting’ is believed to be coined by Dr Ramani Durvasula to describe how other people may empower the abuser and further place doubt on others realities.

Tribe gaslighting can occur in all the other types of gaslighting mentioned above.

For instance, if someone is in an intimate relationship with someone who they believe is gaslighting and they share their concerns about their partner with their friends, the friends may respond by saying things such as, ‘I haven’t seen them behave that way’ or ‘Maybe you’re misunderstanding their actions’.

Another example at the workplace could be if an employee confides in their co-worker about their boss mistreating them and the co-worker responds with, ‘I don’t think they would do that’ or ‘I think this is a great place to work’. 

This type of gaslighting, as described by Durvasula, is when other people around the abuser doubt the experiences of the victim because they have not experienced this abuse themselves.

This usually happens because other people may only see one side of the abuser and thus find it hard to believe that they would be abusive.

If multiple people, including the abuser are placing doubt onto the victim, this could cause the victim to question whether they are actually being abused, or they may not want to share their struggles with anyone for fear of not being believed. 

Signs to look out for

Below are some of the signs that individuals can notice if they suspect they are being gaslighted:

  • They may doubt their own feelings, emotions, and reality as well as trying to convince themselves that the abuse they are experiencing is not that bad.

  • They may be afraid of speaking up or expressing their emotions as they have learned that sharing their opinions usually makes them feel worse. They may choose to stay silent as a result. 

  • They may feel vulnerable and insecure as well as always feeling on edge around the gaslighter. 

  • They may have low self-esteem. 

  • They may feel alone and powerless or convinced that people think they are irrational or mentally unstable. Thus, they may be isolated from other people close to them.

  • They may start to wonder whether they are what the gaslighter says they are. The words they hear may make them feel like they are wrong, unintelligent, or inadequate. This may incite negative self-talk.

  • In the past they may have felt they were strong or assertive, but now they may feel weaker or more passive. 

  • They may often feel very confused. 

  • They may worry that they are being too sensitive due to the gaslighters minimising behaviours and words. 

  • They may feel intimidated or threatened by the person gaslighting them, as if something bad is going to happen when they are in their presence. 

  • They may apologise more often, including apologising for the things they do or who they are, without understanding why. 

  • They may try to live up to the expectations and demands of others, no matter how unreasonable, resulting in feeling inadequate. 

  • They may second-guess themselves and start wondering if details of past events are real or imagined. They may even stop trying to share what they remember for fear of being wrong.

  • They may begin making assumptions that other people are disappointed in them. 

  • They may start worrying that there is something wrong with them or they have a mental illness. 

  • They may rely on others, usually the gaslighter, to make decisions for them since they may distrust themselves. 

  • They may defend the abusive person’s behaviour if they start believing what they are saying or lie to friends and family to avoid having to make excuses for the abuser. 

  • They may feel hopeless, joyless, worthless, or incompetent. 

Gaslighting can have a strain on mental health, causing anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns including addiction and suicidal thoughts.

Persistent gaslighting can eventually wear away someone’s sense of identity, self-worth, and self-confidence. People who suffer from mental health issues may be more vulnerable to negative effects of gaslighting if they have a history of abuse or trauma, low self-esteem or depression for example.

After a while, people may believe that they deserve the abuse they are facing. The impact of persistent gaslighting can last long after the gaslighter is out of the victim’s life and often leads to a lifetime of self-doubt, making this a catastrophic issue. 

Why do people gaslight?

Gaslighting is an unhealthy form of manipulative control which may arise from a need to dominate others. People are not born to be gaslighters, rather it is socially learned.

They might have witnessed gaslighting, been a target of gaslighting themselves, or happen into it. For some people, it can become an automatic response to feeling off-balance in an argument and used in a way to deflect responsibility and gain control of the conversation. 

A possible reason why people gaslight is because they were raised by a parent who gaslit them, and thus they learned these unhealthy behaviours as a survival mechanism.

From a parent, children may learn that they are the golden child who can do no wrong and so if someone criticises them, they use gaslighting as their defence.

Constantly, the child may have been treated as the scapegoat to their parents and was blamed for doing everything wrong, so they learn to portray these behaviours onto others.

Both parenting styles may teach the child the false belief that people operate in absolutes, that people are either all good or all bad, without any grey area. Therefore, they start to behave towards others as if this belief is true. 

Mental health conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder could be a cause for people to gaslight.

These mental health conditions give people a distorted view of themselves and others with an inclination towards manipulating others for their own ends.

People with these conditions may never acknowledge that they are doing anything wrong and may project their own faults onto others. Those with narcissistic personality disorder in particular often have symptoms such as a constant need for admiration and attention, as well as a lack of empathy.

This can go hand-in-hand with gaslighting as this form of abuse aims to make the gaslighter look more admirable at the expense of others feelings. 

Gaslighters might possibly lack empathy or emotional intelligence. If someone is unable to empathise with others or see things from another’s perspective, they may be more likely to act in ways without consideration for how their actions affect those around them.

Some gaslighters may be unaware of what they are doing to others. The gaslighter may not act consciously and often may not recognise their own motives for their behaviour.

Again, this could be the result of their upbringing and a genuine belief that their behaviour is normal if it is what they were exposed to as a child. 

What to do if someone is gaslighting you

  • Practice paying attention to what you think and feel. If during conversations you notice the topic turns into a blaming session on yourself, rather than a back-and-forth discussion, this may be a sign that you are being gaslighted. 

  • Pay attention to where the conversation may pivot from a balanced conversation to more hostile. You could tell the gaslighter that you wish for the conversation to end if the conversation is no longer productive.

  • Explain to the gaslighter that you can talk to them more when the conversation is not so heated. 

  • Pay attention to what the gaslighter’s actions are rather than their words, as they can say one thing but their behaviours can say another. 

  • Choose not to engage with someone if they are making you question your reality or are making negative statements about your mental stability. 

  • Avoid arguments with the gaslighter. Trying to get them to see that they are wrong can be more fuel for the gaslighter and they are not likely to back down or accept they are wrong. It may be best to end the conversation. 

  • If the gaslighter is using distractions such as changing the topic to avoid talking about their behaviour, you could respond by calmly asking if the conversation can be brought back to what you wanted to talk about or explaining that you can discuss a new topic later if that is what they want to do. 

  • Gather proof of gaslighting to help you identify that your memories and feelings are real and that someone is manipulating them.

    This can include safely keeping a journal, voice memos, or photographs in a secure location. This may also include sending emails of any proof to a trusted friend or family member.

    This way, the sent email can be deleted from the sent box, and the evidence can be removed, whilst safely in the hands of someone else. 

  • It may be useful to be direct with the gaslighter when they try to deny or evade the truth, only if safe to do so. 

  • Setting boundaries is important to help preserve emotional energy and making mental health a priority. 

  • Remember that the gaslighter is 100% responsible for their behaviour.

  • In instances where the gaslighter is negatively affecting your life and you realise there is no reasoning with them, it may be best to distance yourself from them or to cut them out from your life completely, if you are able to do so safely. 

  • People can also create a safety plan which can include ways to protect themselves from emotional abuse before, during, and after leaving the relationship or situation.

    This can include planning safe places and escape points, the contact details of someone that can be called upon for help, self-care activities to help cope, and a plan for safely leaving the abusive situation. 

Fact Checking
Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

How to reference this article:

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, March 22. What Is Gaslighting? Examples & How To Respond. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/is-someone-gaslighting-you.html

APA Style References

Davis, A. M., & Ernst, R. (2019). Racial gaslighting. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 7(4), 761-774.

Durvascula, R. (2018, November 15). Gaslighting by Tribe. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/guide-better-relationships/201811/gaslighting-tribe 

Gordon, S. (2021, November 2). What Is Gaslighting? Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470#what-is-gaslighting 

Huizen, J. (2020, July 14). What is gaslighting? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting 

Johnson, V. E., Nadal, K. L., Sissoko, D. G., & King, R. (2021). “It’s not in your head”: Gaslighting,‘splaining, victim blaming, and other harmful reactions to microaggressions. Perspectives on psychological science, 16(5), 1024-1036.

Maserejian, N. N., Link, C. L., Lutfey, K. L., Marceau, L. D., & McKinlay, J. B. (2009). Disparities in physicians' interpretations of heart disease symptoms by patient gender: results of a video vignette factorial experiment. Journal of Women's Health, 18(10), 1661-1667.

McQuillan, S. (2021, November 2). Gaslighting: What Is It and Why Do People Do It? PSYCOM. https://www.psycom.net/gaslighting-what-is-it/#howtoprotectyourself

Stark, C. A. (2019). Gaslighting, misogyny, and psychological oppression. The monist, 102(2), 221-235.

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