How Does Gaslighting Work?: Understanding Gaslighting and Learning to Trust Yourself Again

In my twenties, I was in an abusive relationship with a partner struggling with a substance use disorder. I didn’t know what was going on until I was way too deep into the relationship, and at the time, I didn’t know enough to get him (or myself) the support necessary. What I do know is that the relationship made me my worst self. My partner had a history of arrests related to his substance use, but when he explained the situations that led to his arrests, there was always something he would identify as the problem (not that he was using). He also denied that he was using anymore after court-mandated classes. And yet, when he would come home, sometimes very late at night/early in the morning and sometimes just after walking our dog, I would smell alcohol on him. Sometimes he wouldn’t come home until 4 or 5 in the morning. When I asked him if he had been drinking, he would deny it. Sometimes he would tell me that he was working late. Sometimes he would tell me I was making things up or trying to pick a fight. 

Over time, I came to believe that maybe I was just too sensitive or picking a fight when I didn’t need to. I remember asking my therapist if I was controlling and offering that maybe my anxiety was the problem. I wondered if maybe other partners wouldn’t take issue with my partner’s behaviors. Maybe I should be more “chill,” more understanding. My therapist didn’t agree.

It wasn’t until later that I understood that my partner was gaslighting me.

I now see the abuse I was experiencing and understand the role of the substance use disorder in our relationship. Substance abuse disorders can be insidious and damaging, both to the person struggling with them and their loved ones. At the time, I found myself losing my grip on reality. Over time, I wasn’t sure what to trust anymore. Yes, I was often questioning my ex. But I was also doubting myself: my senses, gut feelings, everything. 

I have processed this relationship and want to believe that the denial and gaslighting I experienced weren’t purposeful. I think that it resulted from the substance use disorder and that my ex was suffering even more than I was. Nonetheless, I can still remember the feeling of being unsettled almost all the time and questioning myself on a daily basis. It took me years to recover from this relationship and to learn to trust myself and others.

So What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which one person tries to make another person question their perception of reality, memory, or even their sanity. The term originates from the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton called “Gas Light,” where a husband manipulates his wife by dimming the gas lights in their home and then denies that the light changed when she questions it. In the play, the husband’s purpose in gaslighting his wife was to drive her to insanity so that he could have her committed. 

In the play and in relationships, gaslighting is mainly about control and the ability to exert that power over others. It involves deliberately distorting or denying facts, events, or experiences to undermine the target’s confidence in their own memory, perception, or judgment. And then communicating that the problem is with the victim or target. 

Paige L. Sweet, a researcher on gaslighting, explains that gaslighting is not an incident but a process. The first step is to deny the victims’ experience, memory, or perception. Then the gaslighter will “flip the script” and communicate that the victim is overreacting, making things up, being too sensitive, and ultimately, that they are at fault and cause them to doubt themselves. 

We often see gaslighting in romantic relationships, but gaslighting can also occur in other types of relationships, including friendships, familial relationships, work relationships, and medical relationships. Gaslighting can even impact entire communities or countries; think war propaganda or state-sanctioned racism/discrimination. Any relationship with a prior foundation of trust between the gaslighter and the target is susceptible. Gaslighting is so pervasive because of its subtlety. It can creep up in such a way that makes almost none of us immune to its effects. Even those familiar with the concept can experience gaslighting. 

How Does Gaslighting Work? 

In the most general sense of the term, gaslighting works by manipulating someone to the point where they can no longer trust themselves, and this manipulation usually plays out through different tactics. The first and most common tactic is denial. Gaslighters will look someone straight in the eye and deny events, conversations, or actions that have occurred, even when there is evidence to the contrary. They may insist that something didn’t happen or claim to have said something different, making their target question their own memory and perception. 

Then there’s minimization; a gaslighter may work to ensure that their target thinks they’re overreacting or being irrational by minimizing or making light of their feelings. For example, a parent may gaslight their child by enforcing an extreme punishment and then yelling at the child for crying. This tactic ultimately shows the child that their feelings are invalid. 

Blame-shifting is another tactic often employed by gaslighters. The gaslighter avoids taking responsibility for their actions or mistakes by blaming others. Instead of acknowledging their own faults or errors, individuals who engage in blame-shifting will point fingers at someone else or external circumstances as the cause of the problem. And just like any other form of abuse, this type of manipulation can create a sense of guilt or self-doubt in the target. Gaslighters also often use contradiction to cause confusion and make the target question their understanding. They may twist their target’s words or intentionally misinterpret and misrepresent what was said or done. 

And another typical form of emotional abuse used by gaslighters is withholding. Gaslighters may deliberately withhold information, emotional support, validation, or affection to create a sense of dependency and powerlessness. By selectively providing or withholding certain information, they maintain power over the target and keep them off balance. Withholding can prompt the target to constantly strive for the gaslighters’ approval and create anxiety and desperation for the target.

And finally, one of the most essential tactics in a gaslighters arsenal is isolation. In many cases, gaslighting is most effective when the gaslighter is able to keep their target away from outside perspectives and sources of support that could challenge the gaslighter’s narratives. This tactic also has the bonus effect of making the target entirely reliant on the gaslighter for validation, making them more likely to remain stuck in this cycle of abuse. 

Why Do People Gaslight?

People engage in gaslighting for various reasons, primarily to avoid consequences and to gain power, control, and dominance over others. Gaslighting is a form of coercive control employed by people seeking to manipulate a person or set of persons to their advantage, often at the expense of their target’s overall well-being. The causes for people engaging in gaslighting can be as diverse and varied as the people themselves. Based on a recent study by Klein, Li, and Wood, most gaslighters either gaslight to avoid accountability or to control their victim’s behavior.

Additionally, some individuals may gaslight others because of their deep-seated insecurities or low self-esteem. The gaslighter may temporarily boost their sense of superiority by tearing down the other person’s confidence and making them doubt themselves. People with narcissistic traits tend to need those around them to feel small so that they may feel superior, and they often use gaslighting as a tool to fulfill this need. 

However, gaslighting is not always a conscious act, and there are instances when someone might gaslight those around them without even realizing it. This happens most frequently when someone fears losing a relationship or the consequences of their actions.  

How Does Gaslighting Impact Mental Health?

Unsurprisingly, gaslighting can be incredibly detrimental to an individual’s mental health. It can work to undermine someone’s self-esteem, sense of reality, and overall well-being. Researchers support that victims of gaslighting may have a diminished sense of self, including feeling worthless and confused. Furthermore, gaslighting can affect future relationships, too, causing the victim to be guarded and distrustful. 

Victims of gaslighting may also feel anxious, depressed, angry, or constantly on edge due to the emotional roller coaster created by the gaslighter’s tactics. Gaslighting also makes it challenging to tune inward and trust yourself. The self-doubt and insecurity can spread beyond the specific issue with the gaslighter into other areas and other relationships. 

Those who already struggle with mental health conditions will likely find their symptoms exacerbated by their experience of being gaslighted. Gaslighting can even contribute to developing mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and complex trauma. The long-term effects of gaslighting can lead to chronic emotional and psychological distress. 

How Do I know if I’m a Victim of Gaslighting?

The challenge with gaslighting is that it can be insidious, and again, there needs to be a foundation of trust for the gaslighting to work. Knowing the signs to look for can help you think critically about your relationship if you think you may be the target of a gaslighter. Here are some signs you’re being gaslighted:

Not being able to trust yourself:  

Gaslighters are adept at making their targets feel like they’re the “bad guy” in times of conflict, and they can even go so far as to make them feel like they’re at fault for any conflict or issues within the relationship and even more generally. Questioning your memory, perceptions, or judgment regularly could signal gaslighting. Gaslighters aim to make you doubt your version of events and reality.

Always apologizing: 

More empathetic or compassionate people are often more susceptible to gaslighting because they’re already poised to focus on the other person’s needs. It’s not unreasonable for a compassionate person to consider their partner’s perspective and want to take accountability for causing harm. Once the gaslighter has got you in a place where you constantly doubt yourself and your actions, you might feel the need to apologize, even for things you know weren’t your fault. 

Feeling inadequate: 

Gaslighters may criticize you, belittle your accomplishments, or undermine your abilities, making you feel worthless or inadequate. Gaslighters often use insults and accusations about their target’s ability to comprehend and respond to reality accurately and rationally (you’re too sensitive, you overreact, you’re crazy). Insults and accusations can contribute to how they see themselves, leaving the victims vulnerable to accepting criticism and feeling even smaller.

Being confused: 

Gaslighters often present conflicting information or narratives, leaving you confused and unable to make sense of the situation. Given that gaslighters often shift blame onto you, making you feel responsible for their actions or emotions, even when you logically know you aren’t at fault, it makes sense that you would feel confused.

Finding yourself feeling lonely and isolated: 

Gaslighters might withhold information, emotional support, or affection to control and manipulate you. If you’re in a relationship with a partner who frequently gives you the silent treatment or stonewalling, this may be a sign that your partner is gaslighting you. If your partner has prompted you to withdraw from other relationships or you’ve elected not to tell friends or family about the relationship out of fear of judgment, that could also be a sign.

How do I Deal with Gaslighting?

Get educated:

Learning about gaslighting, including the signs and how it manifests in relationships and society, can help you spot it. Understanding the behavior lets you take the first step towards regaining control of your thoughts and emotions.

Access social support:

Reach out to trusted loved ones, including friends or family, to share your experiences. Therapy can also give you space to process and better understand your experiences. Having people who believe and validate your reality can empower you and help counteract the gaslighter’s influence.

Distance yourself from the gaslighter:

You may decide to end a relationship once it becomes clear that they’re gaslighting you, or that may not be an option (for example, if you have to continue co-parenting with them or if it’s your current supervisor at work). If you can’t remove yourself from the relationship at this time, you may still want to set boundaries and keep yourself at a distance to reduce the gaslighter’s reach and impact.

Keep records:

Write down or document conversations when possible to confirm instances of gaslighting. The records are not to prove to the gaslighter that they’re gaslighting you (while you’re welcome to try this, it doesn’t generally work, and sometimes the gaslighter will double down their efforts). They can, however, provide you with tangible evidence of the gaslighter’s behavior and help you maintain clarity about what’s happening.

Tune in to yourself:

It will take time, but start listening to your gut instincts, especially if something doesn’t feel right or you sense manipulation. Gaslighters often make you doubt your intuition, so remind yourself that your feelings are valid and seek out experiences that will let you reinforce your relationship with yourself. Journaling and other expressive hobbies can also help with this process. Recognize your strengths and accomplishments, and remind yourself of your resilience in overcoming challenges.

I struggled with the start of this article, considering how much of myself I wanted to share. I felt embarrassed about the relationship and how much I tolerated. But it was through sharing about my romantic relationship with my loved ones that I could finally see it for what it was and could eventually leave. Even in writing this, I recognize the isolation the gaslighting caused by making me question myself and because of my desire to protect the relationship and my ex. I’m sharing now because we are all vulnerable to gaslighting and emotional abuse. When you’ve come to trust someone, it’s difficult to question that trust, to have it erode, and to have it weaponized. 

I hope understanding the mechanisms behind gaslighting and its effects can help you know it when you see it. If you recognize that you have been a victim of gaslighting, I also hope you know that you can regain your sense of self. Some research also suggests that post-traumatic growth is possible after surviving gaslighting. I want to believe that this is what I experienced. Yes, the gaslighting I survived took its toll on me. It took me time to rebuild my sense of self, understand the relationship dynamics, and build healthy relationships again. I also believe that I am better able to understand relationships and am better able to trust myself now. I hope this can be true for you too. Remember that you are not alone, and if you need help recovering from gaslighting or better understanding if gaslighting is what you’re experiencing, I hope you reach out. We’re here and glad to help you see things more clearly and move forward more confidently.

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