Gaslighting is a colloquial term that describes a type of psychological abuse in which the abuser denies the victim’s reality, causing him/her to question him/herself, his/her memory, or his/her perceptions. The term gaslighting is also sometimes used to apply to the use of inflammatory behavior or language that provokes someone to behave in an uncharacteristic way.
The term originates with a 1938 play called “Gas Light.” In the play, a woman’s husband tries to convince her that she is mentally unstable by making small changes in her environment—for example, by insisting that the gas lights he dimmed do not look dim to him and by hiding her belongings.
Gaslighting is often used an abusive tactic by those with narcissistic and psychopathic personalities, and it can happen without actual environmental manipulation. The aim of the abuse is to make the victim doubt his/her perception of reality, and gaslighting tactics can be entirely verbal or emotional.
An individual may gaslight another by:
Gaslighting can have catastrophic effects for a victim’s psychological health, particularly when gaslighting occurs over a long period in a close relationship. The process is often gradual and can seem harmless at first, but eventually, victims may begin to believe they are the cause of the perpetrator’s aggression. They may also question their own perceptions, stop seeking help, withdraw from friends and family, and become more dependent on an abuser, both because he or she now defines the victim’s reality, but also because the victim may come to fear that others will believe in the abuser’s version of reality and consider the victim to be mentally unstable.
Because this form of abuse often leads to increased dependence on the perpetrator, those who are being abused may blame themselves and experiencing difficulty in leaving their abuser. People who are victims of gaslighting may behave in ways that cause them to appear unstable because they have learned that they cannot trust their perceptions and cannot count on the validation of their thoughts or feelings.
Often, once an individual recognizes that someone is using gaslighting techniques, he or she may be able to regain faith in their own reality and perceptions. A person who has been a victim of gaslighting may benefit from reforming any relationships he or she pulled back from as a result of being abused. Having the trust and support of others can help reinforce trust in oneself and may also help provide the courage needed to break unhealthy bonds. Those who have experienced gaslighting may also wish to seek therapy in order to reinforce their sense of reality.
Last updated: 03-19-2015