by Allie Dainow, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying), in Toronto, ON, Canada
“That Never Happened” — Experiencing Gaslighting
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is when someone distorts reality, which has the intentional or unintentional effect of causing another person to doubt their own perceptions. It has become such a commonly used term that there are even songs about it. In the Chicks’ (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks) song titled “Gaslighter,” Natalie Maines sings about someone cheating on her and trying to convince her she was imagining it:
You just had to start a fire, had to start a fire
Couldn’t take yourself on a road a little higher
Had to burn it up, had to tear it down
Tried to say I’m crazy
Babe, we know I’m not crazy, that’s you
The term first originated from the 1944 movie Gaslight (based on a play written in 1938), in which a husband tries to prevent his wife from realizing that he’s a criminal by altering her reality and trying to make her believe she is imagining what’s happening. The title itself specifically comes from a scene where he makes the gaslights in the attic flicker and, when she asks him why they’re flickering, he tells her that she’s hallucinating it.
Gaslighting is a very common behavior that is used in many different situations and relationships to gain power and control. It also occurs at a group level, often with women and other marginalized groups, whose experiences are frequently dismissed, seen as “crazy” and “too emotional,” and judged by double standards (Sweet, 2019).
Understanding Why People Gaslight
Healthy ways of dealing with negative behavior involve acknowledging it, reflecting on why it happened, and trying to learn from it. Gaslighting occurs when the person is aware, either consciously or unconsciously, that their behavior is inappropriate in some way, but they are unable to acknowledge this because they cannot handle the guilt and shame associated with it. It is very commonly used as a narcissistic defense, because narcissists attempt to compensate for a core of shame by presenting themselves to others (and often convincing themselves) that they are perfect. They cannot admit to negative behavior (even if it’s actually quite minor) because it’s too threatening to this image. Narcissists also become immune to this sense of shame by developing a sense of shamelessness, which allows them to engage in unethical and cruel behavior that others wouldn’t.
Strategies Used in Gaslighting
There are several common tactics that gaslighters use to manipulate others. They can have a preferred strategy that they use the majority of the time or cycle through several of them, especially if the first ones they use are not having the desired effect. These tactics include:
- Denial — Claiming that something that happened didn’t happen or that something that didn’t happen did.
- Distraction — Changing topics to something unrelated.
- Deflection — Blaming the situation on someone other than themselves. There are several different ways they try to deflect, including:
- Projection — Denying they behaved negatively and accusing someone else of the behavior they engaged in.
- False equivalencies — Excusing their inappropriate behavior by comparing it to a minor mistake that the other person made and acting as though those actions are of the same severity, e.g., “Yes, I did that, but what you did was just as bad (or worse).”
- Black and white standards —Emphasizing mistakes the other person made to make them believe they’re at fault. This is effective because the other person will almost always make some mistakes, since no one handles situations perfectly. This is different from false equivalencies because when using false equivalencies, the gaslighter will acknowledge mistakes on their part, but claim that other person’s were worse. With black and white standards, they will deny any wrongdoing on their part.
- Bringing up past mistakes — Causing the other person to doubt themselves by bringing up previous incidents that are irrelevant to the current one where they did or remembered something incorrectly, e.g. “You know you have a problem remembering things.”
- Claims of misinterpretations — Saying that they didn’t do anything wrong and the problem is that the other person misinterpreted or misunderstood what they said or did.
- Omitting context — Presenting the other person or their behavior as bad by neglecting to mention the context in which it occurred, which would make it understandable or reasonable.
- Overnormalizing — Insisting that their behavior is fine because “everyone” does it when in actuality most people would not behave this way.
- Comparing to extremes — Downplaying the severity of their actions and framing them as acceptable or even good by bringing up examples of worse behavior that they didn’t do e.g. “What I did wasn’t that bad.”
- Invalidation — Minimizing and trivializing your feelings and the effect that an experience had on someone else, e.g., “You’re oversensitive,” “This isn’t a big deal,” “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
- Non-apologies — Giving apologies that deny any responsibility and put the blame back on someone else, e.g., “I’m sorry you felt that way,” “I’m sorry that you saw it that way.”
- Guilting/shaming — Making it seem as though the other person is doing something wrong or is a bad person for standing up against mistreatment, e.g., “You’re making me feel bad by bringing this up,” “You’re so negative.”
The Experience of Being Gaslit
Gaslighting can feel very disorienting, almost like having whiplash. It often causes us to leave a situation completely confused, wondering what just happened or thinking that something was wrong, but not being able to pinpoint what it was. It can lead to intense rumination where you go back and analyze every detail of a situation to ensure that you’re not imagining it. It’s exhausting to do this and it’s scary to feel like you can’t trust your own perceptions. Once you start to uncover what really happened, it can be extremely upsetting, disturbing, and infuriating. Gaslighting, especially when experienced repeatedly, can cause adverse psychological effects, including chronic self-doubt, shame, isolation, depression, anxiety, impaired relationships, trauma, and physical symptoms related to stress (Christensen & Evans-Murray, 2021, Pietrangelo, 2019).
Responding to Gaslighting
Trying to have a conversation with someone who’s gaslighting you is incredibly difficult and draining. Here are some strategies for how to communicate with them:
- Redirection — If they’re trying to distract you by changing the topic, keep redirecting the conversation back to the situation at hand.
- “I” statements — This is an assertiveness skill where you communicate how their behavior affected you and set a boundary (“I felt ______ when you did ______ so I would like it if you did/didn’t ______”). This is meant to be a non-blaming way of communicating that focuses on your experiences, which can reduce denial and defensiveness from the other person.
- The broken record technique — This is also an assertiveness skill where you can repeat what you’re saying if you think the other person is not hearing you (Larsen & Jordan, 2017). In this case, if the gaslighter is claiming you’re wrong about the facts, you can repeat and assert the facts.
- Collaboration — Try to find common ground by talking to the other person about the shared goal or values you have and how you can go about achieving them. This can shift the conversation’s tone to cooperation, rather than antagonism.
- Walking away — Talking to someone who’s gaslighting can be like talking to a brick wall. No matter what you say or how much evidence you provide, nothing gets through to them, and sometimes it’s just not worth it to keep trying. You can let the person know that you don’t think this conversation is productive and you’re not going to continue it.
Recovering from Gaslighting
It is important to give yourself time to identify that you were gaslit and process what happened. You can use mindfulness strategies to detach from your thoughts and reduce the urge to ruminate about it until you’re ready to reflect on it or if the distress from this is interfering with other aspects of your life. These might include meditation or thought diffusion techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, such as saying to yourself “I’m having the thought that…” before a distressing thought in order to distance yourself from it (Harris, 2006).
In order to process the feelings that arise from being gaslit, we need to identify and validate them. We often invalidate ourselves and say that we shouldn’t feel a certain way or that our reactions don’t make sense, but when we try to understand why we might have reacted that way, we realize it makes sense and stop criticizing ourselves. In the case of gaslighting, it is an extremely unpleasant experience, and it makes sense that you would experience negative emotions in reaction to it. It’s very helpful to practice self-compassion, which involves noticing these difficult thoughts and feelings and being kind to yourself about them. Many people describe self-compassion by saying it’s like speaking to yourself the way you would to a good friend.
Sometimes knowing that you were gaslit can stop you from criticizing yourself, but other times this just makes us feel bad and blame ourselves for being manipulated. Unfortunately, gaslighting is a very common behavior because it’s effective. The very nature of gaslighting makes it so difficult to identify what’s happening because it disorients you and makes you even wonder if you’re being paranoid for questioning the gaslighting behavior. Many of us also want to give others the benefit of the doubt and think that perhaps we did misremember or misinterpret their behavior because it can be so difficult to accept that not only did the initial hurtful behavior happen, but that the gaslighting did as well. It’s important to be self-compassionate about the pain you have experienced from both. Try to remember that the problem isn’t you, it’s the person who did the gaslighting.
Christensen, M., & Evans‐Murray, A. (2021, May). Gaslighting in nursing academia: A new or established covert form of bullying? In Nursing Forum.
Harris, R. (2006). Embracing your demons: An overview of acceptance and commitment therapy. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12(4).
Larsen, K. L., & Jordan, S. S. (2017). Assertiveness training. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1-4.
Pietrangelo, A. (2019, March 29). What are the short and long-term effects of emotional abuse? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/effects-of-emotional-abuse
Sweet, P. L. (2019). The sociology of gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851-875.
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