What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories.

In 1938, a play called Gas Light (known in the U.S. as Angel Street) introduced the concept of gaslighting. The play tells a story of a man who convinces his wife that she is insane so that he can access her inheritance.

In 1969, an article in The Lancet popularized the idea of gaslighting even further. The psychology scholars who wrote the article legitimized gaslighting as a form of abuse.

In 2015, the word gaslighting was included in part of a criminal domestic violence law enacted in the United Kingdom. For the first time, laws recognized that domestic violence isn’t always as obvious physical or sexual abuse. Instead, it can involve isolating a victim, controlling every aspect of their lives, or undermining their mental health.

Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., wrote a book called Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—And Break Free which made the term even more common. In her book, she says her research found that these are the common strategies gaslighters use to convince victims that they’re losing touch with reality:

  • They tell blatant lies. They want you to question everything. So they lie about all things, big and small.
  • They deny saying things they said. Despite that you may have proof that they said something, they’ll insist they never did just so you’ll question your reality.
  • They wear you down. They persist at gradually wearing their victims down over time. They work so slowly that most victims don’t even realize it’s happening.
  • They use what’s important to you as ammunition. Whether they know you value your kids above all else, or they know your career is very important to you, they attack the foundation of your being.
  • Their behavior doesn’t match their words. What they say is meaningless. They act completely contrary to their words by their behavior.
  • They use positive reinforcement to confuse you. They cut you down to cause you to lose confidence. But then they offer praise as a way to convince you that they aren’t so bad.
  • They confuse you. Gaslighters want to confuse you about everything. But at the same time, they want you to look toward them as a sense of stability.
  • They project onto others. They might constantly accuse you of doing the things that they’re doing, like using drugs or cheating.
  • They try to align people against you. They may try to convince you that your loved ones “know you are worthless” or “think you are bad.” This makes it difficult for you to know who to trust.
  • They call you “crazy." They question your sanity and tell other people that you are “crazy.” If you eventually reach out for help, other people might question whether to believe you if the perpetrator has already tried to convince them that you have lost touch with reality.
  • They tell you everyone else is lying. They may say that everyone in your group of family and friends is lying. They may also say the media lies as a way to manipulate you. They want you to have to rely on them for the “correct” information.