What Is Gaslighting? Here's What to Know About This Form of Emotional Abuse
This sophisticated emotional abuse tactic makes victims question their own sanity.
Once in a while, it's normal to have a fleeting moment where you question your own sanity, like when you're severely sleep deprived or stressed out. But if a relationship leaves you constantly second-guessing your own instincts and feelings, you may be a victim of a sophisticated form of emotional abuse: gaslighting. Like other types of abuse, gaslighting can happen in all sorts of relationships, including personal, romantic, and professional.
Ben Michaelis, PhD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, has worked with victims of gaslighting. For one of his patients—we'll call her Marie—the gaslighting began when her husband shouted another woman’s name during sex. When she tried to discuss the incident with him, he flatly denied what he’d said and told Marie she was hearing things. Marie figured she must have had too much to drink. But then the lying continued: Marie’s husband would change his alibi constantly, and when Marie questioned him, he'd say she was acting delusional. It wasn’t until almost a year later when Marie realized her husband had been hiding an affair the whole time.
“[Gaslighting] is like someone saying the sky is green over and over again, and at first you’ll be like ‘no, no,’” says Gail Saltz, MD a psychiatrist and host of the podcast The Power of Different. “Then over time the person starts to manipulate you into saying ‘I guess I can’t really see what color the sky is.’ It’s just this sense of unreality.”
Acknowledging you’re a victim of gaslighting like Marie did can be tricky at first, says Michaelis, who is the author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. “Initially, if someone is insisting on a reality that is different from your own, you’ll think, Why was I off that day? Was I tired?” As the gaslighting continues, victims begin to question themselves and their judgment more and more. Michaelis says this can go on for months or even years before they realize they’re being gaslighted. “People who experience gaslighting may show obsessive-compulsive symptoms because they want to constantly check themselves and recheck themselves,” says Dr. Michaelis. The confidence-depleting nature of gaslighting could contribute to increased anxiety in many or all aspects of a victim’s life, not only in the relationship. Many gaslighting victims berate themselves or feel the need to apologize all the time, explains Dr. Saltz.
Gaslighting can manifest in a workplace environment as well. “Your boss may use gaslighting to hide a mistake or cover up information they didn't mean to share,” says Michaelis. “It can also be a passive-aggressive gesture used among peers who are competing.”
If you realize you’re being gaslighted, the first thing you need to recognize is that a gaslighter may not be conscious of the effects of their actions, especially if they have issues with being wrong or out of control. In this case, confronting the gaslighter could work. Michaelis suggests conducting all conversations you have with the gaslighter in a recorded format, like through email or text. Then, when gaslighting occurs, tell the person what they originally said. “If they continue do deny what they said, you can supply the recorded evidence so they have a concrete understanding of what happened,” says Michaelis. This method works best when confronting a friend or partner.
In professional relationships, Michaelis suggests reaching out to a third party, like human resources, which can make the confrontation more objective. You can take this route in your personal relationships as well by enlisting a friend or family member to help. “If you find it happening to you, be thoughtful of the person’s motivations,” Michaelis says. “They don't usually do it out of pure ill-will. It usually correlates with trying to cover something up, so first try to repair the relationship if it’s worth it.”
If confrontation fails and ending the relationship is an option, Dr. Saltz recommends doing so. Michaelis agrees: “All relationships are changeable. Maybe not immediately, but they are changeable or severable if need be,” he says.
If you have to stick it out with a gaslighter, though, try to boost your confidence with the support of good friends. “If you’re having a hard time changing the situation, they can bolster your reality otherwise,” says Michaelis. In a work environment, you should also be wary of what information you share with a gaslighter. Michaelis suggests withholding personal life details with a gaslighting co-worker or boss to protect yourself from emotional abuse in the office.
No matter which method you choose, it’s important to take control of reality again, says Dr. Saltz. This involves setting limits that stop gaslighting attempts in their tracks. For example, if your boss calls you overly sensitive when you ask, “Why won’t you let me work on big company projects?” demand true feedback rather than accepting blame on your character. “It’s holding the line for what you’re wanting to achieve," Dr. Saltz says, "and not buying into accusations intended to knock down self-confidence."