Bringing Gaslighting to Light, Part I

“You’re crazy…”

“You're just being emotional…”

Sound familiar? If so, you may have experienced gaslighting, a sneaky, difficult-to-identify form of manipulation (and in severe cases, emotional abuse). The term “gaslighting” originated from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, which tells the story of a husband who attempts to manipulate his wife into believing she has lost her mind. This is accomplished by secretly dimming gas lamps throughout the house and, when the wife comments on the dimmed lights, the husband tells her she is imagining things. This, along with other small manipulations of her environment that the husband refuses to substantiate, leads the wife to question whether she might in fact be crazy.

The plot of the play captures the essence of gaslighting, which is defined as a form of manipulation on the mild end and emotional abuse, or even psychological warfare on the extreme end that results in the slow dismantling of the gaslightee’s self-trust. In other words, gaslighting leads victims to question the soundness of their own judgment, their sense of self, their perception of reality, and the validity of their emotions. Repeated over time, gaslighting can result in the victim losing the ability to trust their own memory, experiences, and in some cases, their sanity.

How does this happen? Some forms of gaslighting include denying things that were said during an argument, challenging another person’s feelings (which should not be up for debate), telling another person how to think or feel, or twisting information in favor of the gaslighter. Some gaslighting statements include:

“It’s all in your head…”

“That never happened…”

“You’re too sensitive…”

“Are you on your period or something?”

“Your feelings are wrong…”

More severe forms of gaslighting may include denying physical or sexual abuse that has occurred, or other major negative events that have happened in the past.

Of course, not remembering things said in the heat of the moment during an argument isn’t gaslighting. That’s normal, as no one can remember all conversations verbatim. Gaslighting occurs when someone denies having said or done something hurtful and turns it on the other person, accusing them of simply “being too sensitive” or “crazy” in an attempt to replace or overwrite the person’s reality. In a sense, the gaslightee who is communicating the grievance is punished for bringing up the statements or behaviors of the gaslighter. Calling someone overly sensitive or crazy is very different from a non-gaslighting response that communicates, “I have no memory of that at all,” or “I didn’t mean it like that.” It’s not that the gaslighter simply doesn’t believe they said or did something, rather, there is a need to undermine and disorient the gaslightee, criticize them, and insist that they question their own credibility.

If you feel like you are being pulled to defend your sanity or your value as a person, or if you find that your self-esteem plummets when you try to air a grievance, ask yourself whether gaslighting might have occurred. For more information about why people gaslight, how to recognize the signs of gaslighting, and what to do to protect yourself from (or recover from the effects of) gaslighting, stay tuned for the next three blog posts of the series, “Bringing Gaslighting to Light.”

This article was originally posted on Psychology Today on March 31, 2016.