Please note that this post contains references to domestic violence and bullying.
Many of us would now be familiar with ‘gaslighting’ — a form of emotional abuse where perpetrators convince a target that they’re crazy. Without leaving a visible scar, gaslighters gradually erode their target’s sense of self and reality, keeping them under their control.
When we think of gaslighting, the most common examples that come to mind would likely be those in intimate partnerships. Gaslighting is very prevalent in cases of domestic violence, where abusers use this form of psychological control to further undermine and isolate their targets.
Gaslighting also occurs in the workplace, where toxic managers and coworkers will often use gaslighting to torment employees they’re threatened by.
From an intersectional feminist perspective, it’s important to recognize that gaslighting is not just something that happens between perpetrators and targets. Gaslighting is effective precisely because the interlocking systems of gender, sexual, racial, and ableist oppression in our societies create power imbalances that render some people more vulnerable to others’ manipulation.
People living in the margins experience more gaslighting and abuse and when they try to seek help, they’re often gaslit by institutions and the wider culture who are prone to disbelieve their accounts and blame the victim.
This post will discuss what gaslighting is, including its signs in both gaslighters and gaslightees. I’ll discuss how gaslighting might on occasion be unconscious and clarify what may be abuse but not necessarily gaslighting.
I’ll then talk about the forms of gaslighting that emerge, providing examples of what gaslighting can look like in personal relationships and the workplace, as well as how gaslighting takes on gendered, racial, queer, and ableist tones.
At the end of the post, you’ll find advice and guidance for how to deal with gaslighting whether it appears in relationships or at work. And when you know it’s happening to you, how you can navigate your way to safety and begin healing your wounds.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and emotional abuse where the gaslighter deceives the target or targets into doubting their own sense of reality.
The term “to gaslight” comes from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton that was later adapted into a chilling film in 1944 called Gaslight. It told the story of Paula, an heiress whose husband tries to convince is going mad to steal her riches.
While the husband rummages for her family jewels in the attic at night, making the gaslight lamps in the house dim in the process, he denies it and makes her believe she’s paranoid. This sociopathic abuser lies to Paula throughout the film, watching her fall to pieces for his own avaricious ends.
“Gaslighting” has now become a much more common term, giving name to an insidious tactic that is used everywhere from romantic/sexual relationships to political campaigns. Gaslighting can appear in the workplace as well as manifest through the everyday microaggressions faced by marginalized people such as women, LGBTQIA+ folx, people of color, and disabled people.
Gaslighting occurs when the abuser seeks to gain control over the situation. Therapist Haesue Jo offers a great basic overview of what gaslighting is in the video below.
Signs of Gaslighting
Gaslighters usually exhibit domineering personalities and seek to gain the upper hand in relationships whether they be personal or professional.
The signs that you’re dealing with a gaslighter can include:
- They frequently tell lies and are prone to exaggerations of events and experiences
- They rarely admit to their own flaws or mistakes
- They aggressively attack when they’re criticized (or think they’re being criticized)
- They can also become defensive, using tears or tantrums to shut down critiques or objections to their behaviors
- They frequently engage in emotional manipulation, such as guilt-tripping
- They’re inconsistent and unpredictable, where they may praise you to the high heavens one day and then denigrate you the next
If you’re being gaslit, these are some of the signs that might be reflected in your behavior:
- You’re constantly questioning your perception of reality
- You’re frequently feeling confused
- You struggle to make decisions
- You question your self-worth
- You’re fearful and nervous before interacting with the gaslighter as though you don’t know which ‘version’ of them you’ll get on any given day
- Gaslighters can constantly unseat and unsettle your thoughts and feelings. If you try to question or challenge their manipulation, they may accuse you of being too sensitive, insecure, even paranoid or hysterical.
- In my experience, gaslighters can also keep you under their control by simultaneously playing the aggressor, victim, and savior. For example, they’ll start by convincing you that you’re a terrible person, tearing down your sense of self. Then they’ll tell you how you let them down and hurt their feelings (e.g., guilt-tripping), demanding your sympathy and soothing. When you’re devastated, they might pivot again, expressing ‘forgiveness’ for your alleged wrongdoing to make you think they genuinely care for you.
- This cycle can hook the target on the gaslighter, sometimes even becoming dependent on the gaslighter for exoneration for made-up crimes.
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Although gaslighting is commonly understood as an intentional and malicious act, some researchers are recognizing that certain gaslighting behaviors can be unintentional and inadvertent.
I believe that emotional manipulation and psychological control are so normalized in dominator culture that many of us might engage in gaslighting behaviors without consciously realizing what we’re doing.
Gaslighters may have grown up around that behavior, where a parent or other close family member regularly used gaslighting tactics to get their way.
However, I also think it’s important to not get so caught up in intentionality that we forget about the real harms gaslighting inflict on the targets.
Where we’ve seen the concept of unconscious bias used in many ways to excuse the perpetrators of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, we need to be wary when valid conversations about ‘unconscious gaslighting’ start to become more about absolving gaslighters of guilt and evading responsibility for their abusive behavior.
Gaslighters in my experience may intend or partly intend to harm without always being strategic in their manipulation. Some people gaslight almost as an instinctual grasp for control.
Unlike the husband in the original 1938 play who deliberately tried to deceive his wife to get access to her inheritance, gaslighters I’ve met often lack the self-awareness to realize they’re being manipulative. They might convince themselves of the truthfulness and righteousness of their behavior.
Some of them sincerely believe that they’re justified in their abuse, with staggering exhibits of projection, delusion, and denial.
What Isn’t Gaslighting
Gaslighting often accompanies but is not exactly the same thing as bullying or abuse more broadly.
It requires a core component where the abuser attempts to convince the target or targets that they’re crazy, or otherwise wrong, about their perception of reality.
Gaslighting is also not simply confined to lying. It’s a specific ongoing practice of deception that sows the target’s self-doubt.
Even if the abuse you’re experiencing may not be defined as gaslighting, it doesn’t excuse or diminish the harm caused to you. I’ve previously written about dealing with online hate as well as harassment and bullying so please read these articles for specific strategies with those forms of violence.
Forms of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can occur in personal relationships as well as the workplace.
Given the power imbalance that’s often necessary to perpetuate psychoemotional manipulation, it’s no wonder that many documented forms of gaslighting (whether in personal relationships or the workplace) are distinctly gendered, queer, and racial.
Growing research is also documenting forms of gaslighting the disabled.
This section will provide a deeper overview of each of these forms of gaslighting.
Gaslighting in Relationships
Gaslighting in romantic and sexual relationships is the most well-known form of gaslighting, extending directly from the original play that the name came from. Research suggests that in the majority of cases, the gaslighter is someone who identifies as a straight cis-man and the gaslightee someone who identifies as a straight woman.
This is partly due to our patriarchal society in which women are typically socialized through sexist norms to doubt ourselves and accept the authority of men. Perpetrators often mobilize intersecting gendered, sexual, racial, and class inequality in society to exact their abuse in intimate relationships.
Women and other marginalized people typically don’t possess the cultural, economic, and political capital necessary to gaslight men. Although some women may still attempt to gaslight, their gaslighting is less likely to be as effective. The combination of structural power and gaslighting can not only be effective, but devastating.
Research has shown that gaslighting is a pervasive tool in domestic violence cases. When abusers successfully make their targets feel ‘crazy’, the gaslightees are much less likely to seek out support.
Gaslighting in the Workplace
I’ve personally witnessed and experienced more instances of gaslighting in the workplace than in my personal relationships.
Gaslighters at work can be an unethical manager, a jealous coworker, or a prejudiced workgroup. The gaslighter (or gaslighters) might target a vulnerable individual or victimize a group of workers.
Gaslighting can be more subtle, insidious, and strategic than overt forms of bullying. Overt bullying can be highly visible with open criticisms and attacks of the targets. Gaslighting may leave fewer traces in the organization. It may begin with establishing trust and affection with the target, and then gradually wearing them down over time.
In a testimony published in Body+Soul, contributor Natalie King shares the ways her manager tried to gaslight her. The manager first claims King missed a meeting with her when she was sure she did not and then blamed her for failings at work, only to flip-flop the next day and claim she never criticized King. She sowed the seeds of doubt and suggested King’s “pregnancy hormones” were clouding her judgment.
These tactics in Natalie King’s story are very familiar among the gaslighters I’ve worked with. One person I knew would subtly insert “as we previously agreed” before making up a claim for something that I or another coworker were supposed to do for them.
Like King, I initially convinced myself that I had missed some communication, but then this happened over and over again and to several other people that it all quickly became clear to all of us when we traded notes that we had a gaslighter in our midsts.
In my case, it was much easier for me to notice the gaslighting when it was happening to others. A brave coworker confided in me their experiences and showed me the emails they had received from the abuser that helped me realize they had used the exact same tricks on me.
I was also fortunate to have a wider support network around me. For example, a psychology scholar who witnessed my experiences at my work intervened and sent me articles about gaslighting and bullying to help me make sense of what was happening. This inspired me to pay it forward and send resources to another colleague when I witnessed the gaslighting they faced.
Gendered, Queer, Racial, Disability Gaslighting
Whether in personal relationships or the workplace, gaslighting can take on distinctly gendered, queer, racial, and disability forms.
Gendered gaslighting may involve a woman confronting her partner that she thinks he’s having an affair and he responds with, “You’re being hysterical”.
Hysteria (from the Greek word for uterus, hystera) was once a common diagnosis of mental illness for women attributed to our ‘weaker’ dispositions as the presumedly inferior sex.
At work, gendered gaslighting may look like a woman reporting sexual harassment and being told by colleagues that she’s being “too sensitive“, “can’t take a joke”, and asked if her “PMS“ is making her “crazy”.
Queer gaslighting also involves the frequent homophobic and transphobic violences that are often normalized and institutionalized. When LGBTQIA+ people challenge this violence, they can be taunted and ridiculed, made to feel like they’re insane.
Education scholar Boni Wozolek shares her story of the gaslighting and bullying she experienced as an advisor for a Genders and Sexualities Alliance at a high school. Her analysis suggests that gaslighting involves both the interpersonal component where specific bullies at her school sought to wear her down and destroy her reputation and a systemic component where school administrators colluded to deny her claims of reality.
One of the most galling forms of racial gaslighting occurs when privileged white women weaponize their tears to recast the targets of racism as the aggressors. In a common experience among women of color, when we speak out about racism, a white woman frequently (though not exclusively) would accuse us of being too harsh and too threatening.
Black women in particular bear the brunt of this gaslighting behavior due to the stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman’ who supposedly makes everything about race. Even when they are measured and calm, Black women are frequently labeled as bullies when they bring up legitimate critiques against racism.
When white women cry when they’re called out for racism, they leverage their racial privilege to shut down critique and redirect everybody’s energy towards soothing their emotions. This practice is powerfully examined by writer Ruby Hamad in her book, White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color.
Finally, disabled people are especially vulnerable to gaslighting. Whether their disability is physical or mental, disabled people are often seen as ill or ‘broken’, and therefore, their perceptions and accounts are less likely to be believed.
Abusers take advantage of the injustices in our society as they believe they can more easily get away with it. If someone already has a diagnosed mental illness, an abuser might think it easier to convince them that their own sense of reality can’t be trusted.
How to Deal with Gaslighting
If any of the descriptions and signs of gaslighting feel familiar to you, whether in personal relationships or the workplace, the first thing to do would be to learn more about gaslighting.
In this post, I’ve drawn together my extensive research of gaslighting from both psychological and sociological perspectives and applied an intersectional awareness of how gaslighting, like other forms of abuse, is exacerbated at the intersections of multiple oppressions.
I speak from my own experiences of gaslighting, which are confined to workplace bullies. Your experiences may look different from mine.
At the end of the post, I’ll include some more resources where you can extend your learning about gaslighting under the section “Learn More”.
Gaslighting in Relationships
Take some time off and create some distance between you and the gaslighter. Use that space to reflect on your experiences in the context of your research about gaslighting and psychoemotional abuse.
Even if it’s just to help you rebuild your sense of self, start documenting and collecting evidence for the gaslighting. This can involve saving texts and emails and writing down summaries of verbal conversations as soon as you can after they happened (while they’re fresh in your memory).
When your partner claims you’re misremembering a conversation or they never said what you believe they said, look back on your notes to check what actually happened.
Enlist trusted and wise friends and family. Seek a ‘reality check’ from those who love you and might be able to offer a helpful outsider’s perspective on your relationship.
While collecting evidence, especially if you’re living alone with your partner and relatively isolated from a support network, make sure you’re maintaining your boundaries and practicing regular self-care. Re-reading abusive communications can trigger anxiety, depression, and trauma, so please make sure you’re pacing yourself and buffering your documentation and analysis with activities that nourish and restore your wellbeing.
Seek out online support groups on social media for domestic violence and psychoemotional abuse to discuss your experiences and seek advice from others who can relate to your situation. Read books and blogs of survivors and advocates and listen to podcasts or watch videos to remind yourself of the possibilities for survival, justice, and healing.
Confronting a gaslighter directly can be risky. When the gaslighter feels like they’re losing control over you, they may lash out and get more aggressive. Some may also use it as another opportunity to convince you that you’re crazy and hysterical for suspecting them of gaslighting in the first place.
Exercise your best judgment.
If it’s within your means to do so, seeking therapy could be critical to help identify gaslighting for what it is in your relationship and start the process of healing.
You may want to start developing a plan for how you can safely leave the relationship.
Gaslighting in the Workplace
Much like other forms of harassment and abuse, gaslighting in the workplace should be documented as soon as you realize it’s happening. Assemble as much evidence as you can of the gaslighter’s deception. For example, if they claim you refused to contribute or assist in a work meeting, can you review minutes from that meeting that may vindicate you?
As gaslighters are prone to lies and exaggeration, the versions of their stories may also change over time. Track this in your notes as well as in any written communications.
For example, a gaslighter may first criticize you for being late, then when you show them proof that you’ve arrived to work on time, they’ll revise the story that you leave work early, then when you show them evidence otherwise, they’ll revise their story yet again to say you’re incompetent, unreliable, and defensive.
It’s easy to get sucked into this endless dance with a gaslighter where you’re anxiously running around to disprove their accusations (which can be part of their control).
Document as dispassionately as possible all the lies fabricated by the gaslighter but make a conscious effort to emotionally detach from them.
Once you’ve assembled the documentation, report the gaslighting to your manager and/or human resources. Provide as much evidence as you can of the ways the gaslighter’s accusations have been false and inconsistent.
Depending on the organizational structure and culture, you may not always have a positive outcome. Although many people in organizations may understand the damaging consequences of gaslighting and bullying in the workplace, they may lack the experience, skills, or motivation to sensitively and effectively handle gaslighters.
Like with many forms of workplace violence, you need to become your own advocate.
Get clear on why you’re reporting the gaslighting and detach from the outcome. If your only aim is to see the gaslighter punished, you may end up tying your self-worth, happiness, and overall peace onto a result that’s out of your control. It might be more helpful to think about how your actions are aligned with your values to speak truth to power, stand courageously in your integrity, and minimize the harms that’ll be inflicted on others after you.
Seek out a support system of colleagues, family, and friends who can offer you a ‘reality check’ whenever the gaslighter tries to manipulate and control.
Healing from Gaslighting
Like other forms of abuse, if you’ve been gaslit, it is not your fault.
You may have been gaslit simply because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Or perhaps you were targeted by the abuser because they sought to mobilize the inequities that already exist in our society to their advantage, understanding that your marginalized identity or identities make you more vulnerable.
They likely saw qualities in you — your intellect, your charisma, and other capabilities — that threatened their own low self-esteem. Your kindness and conscientiousness may have also been qualities that led them to believe that they could gain your trust in order to destabilize your sense of reality.
You’re not weak, stupid, or anything else you may be telling yourself for having suffered this abuse. You don’t deserve what happened to you.
The antidote to abuse is not self-loathing but self-love.
It’ll take time, practice, and patience on your part, but when you’ve emotionally detached yourself from the abuser, you can begin rebuilding your sense of self-worth again.
Be gentle with yourself, forgive yourself, and make peace with your own decisions and actions. Learn to set and maintain your personal boundaries, honor your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, and practice ongoing compassionate self-talk and self-care.
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‘Emotional abuse’ (2020, July 28) on Ladies, We Need to Talk. This episode of an Australian podcast hosted by Yumi Stynes explores various forms of emotional abuse in intimate partnerships through insightful and revealing interviews with survivors.
Paige L. Sweet (2019). The sociology of gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851–875.
Rachel McKinnon (2018). Allies behaving badly: Gaslighting as epistemic injustice. In I. J. Kidd, J. Medina, & G. Pohlhaus Jr. (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice (pp. 167–174). Routledge.
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Featured image is film still from Gaslight (1944)