Gas lighting is a type of emotional abuse. Someone who is gaslighting will try to make a targeted person doubt their perception of reality. The gaslighter may convince the target that their memories are wrong or that they are overreacting to an event. The abuser may then present their own thoughts and feelings as “the real truth.”
The term Gas Lighting originates with a 1938 play called “Gas Light.” In the play, a woman’s husband tries to convince her that she is mentally unstable. He makes small changes in her environment, such as dimming the gaslights in their house. He then convinces his wife she is simply imagining these changes. His ultimate goal is to have her committed to an asylum so he can steal her inheritance.
What is Gas Lighting?
Today, gaslighting describes any interaction where a person or entity manipulates someone into feeling they cannot trust their own memories, feelings, or senses.
A person on the receiving end of gaslighting may truly believe that they are not mentally well, that their memories are not accurate, or that their mind is playing tricks on them. This makes them feel dependent on the abusive person.
The abuse is often subtle at first. For example, if a person is telling a story, the abuser may challenge a small detail. The person may admit they were wrong on a detail, then move on. The next time, the abuser may use that past “victory” to discredit the person further, perhaps by questioning the person’s memory.
The person may argue back at first. They may intuit something is wrong in the relationship or marriage. But because each gaslighting incident is so minor, they can’t pinpoint any specific cause for their unease. Over time, the person may second-guess their own emotions and memories. They may rely on their abuser to tell them if their memory is correct of if their emotions are “reasonable.” The abuser uses this trust to gain control over their target.
Popular culture often depicts gaslighting as a man abusing his wife. Yet people of any gender can gaslight others or be gaslit themselves. Gaslighting can also occur in platonic contexts such as a workplace. Anyone can be a target.
The Early Short-Term Effects Of Gas Lighting
The early effects of gaslighting can be hard to spot. They might include:
- frustration at constantly arguing with your partner.
- pushing back against friends or family members who show concern.
- feeling tense
- a loss of focus and concentration
Methods Of Gas Lighting To Watch Out For
Gaslighting can take many forms. Sometimes it can involve manipulating a person’s environment behind their back. Other times, the abuse is entirely verbal and emotional.
Common Methods Include:
- WITHHOLDING: Refusing to listen to any concerns or pretending not to understand them.
“I don’t have time to listen to this nonsense. You’re not making any sense.”
- COUNTERING: Questioning the target’s memory. An abuser may deny the events occurred in the way the target (accurately) remembers. They may also invent details of the event that did not occur.
“I heard you say it! You never remember our conversations right.”
- FORGETTING/DENIAL: Pretending to forget events that have happened to further discredit the victim’s memory. An abuser may deny making promises to avoid responsibility.
“What are you talking about? I never promised you that.”
- BLOCKING/DIVERSION: Changing the subject to divert the target’s attention from a topic. An abuser may twist a conversation into an argument about the person’s credibility.
“Have you been talking to your sister again? She’s always putting stupid ideas in your head.”
- TRIVIALISING: Asserting that a person is overreacting to hurtful behavior. This technique can condition a person into believing their emotions are invalid or excessive.
“You’re so sensitive! Everyone else thought my joke was funny.”
A gaslighter often uses the target’s “mistakes” and “overreactions” to cast themself as the victim. For example, an abuser may scream accusations at a person until the other party must raise their voice to be heard. The abuser may then cut the conversation short, claiming the other person is “out of control” and “too aggressive.” In some cases, the abuser may accuse the other person of being the true gaslighter. Gaslighting might also be an indicator of potential physical abuse further down the line.
If you suspect you’re experiencing gaslighting, start recording events by keeping a diary or physical evidence. Reach out to trusted third parties. And try, if you can, to remove yourself from the situation.
The 3 Types Of Gas Lighting
Gaslighting By Parents
Parental gaslighting happens more than you may think. It can be as simple as enforcing blanket statements about the child’s character which invalidate their subjective experience. Telling a child who’s struggling at school that they “shouldn’t be struggling” because they are “a smart kid” is gaslighting.
It can also be done to delay or avoid awkward conversations. A pubescent child dealing with hormone changes being told “You’re just grouchy!” is gaslighting. Parents might use gaslighting to shield their kids from negative emotions, rather than teaching them to understand their feelings. Even if it’s not deliberately malicious, gaslighting can have catastrophic effects.
Workplace Gas Lighting
From insecure bosses desperate to protect their position to scheming colleagues trying to get ahead by any means, it’s a broad topic. Groups of toxic co-workers often congregate to gaslight individuals and secure their “in-group” status.
No matter how it manifests, workplace gaslighting runs on common themes. Persistent negative narratives with no evidence on which to base them are a sure sign. Abuse presented as banter or in-jokes is another red flag. Often, a gas lighter in the workplace will use the imbalance in the boss/employee relationship to force their victims to doubt what they know.
Relationship Gas Lighting
This is may be the most common version that springs to mind. An abusive partner begins subtly undermining their other half’s judgement. They’ll accuse them of being oversensitive or overreacting to issues.
Over time, this develops into outright denying that events happened the way they remember, sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence. They’ll plant false versions of events through seemingly innocent conversation.
This is a long-term process that sometimes takes years. The end goal is to be seen as the only trustworthy, reliable person in the relationship, allowing the abuser to shape the reality and dynamic as they see fit.
Abusers often seek to isolate their victims from sources of support, leaving them particularly vulnerable and feeling alone. A gas lighter might position themselves as the only one capable of making rational choices regarding the couple’s home or professional lives, and often their finances.
Why Do People Gas Light?
At its core, gaslighting is about power and control. An insecure partner or boss might gas light if they feel the victim is developing beyond their power and influence. A parent might have been abused themselves and believe the only way to raise a child is by dictating what is and isn’t real to them.
Gas lighters don’t always do so with openly hostile intent, and they may not even be gas lighting on purpose. The abuser might think they’re using their position of power to provide a good environment or positive leadership for a person. Regardless of intent, it’s still a relationship dynamic that causes more harm than potential good.
Long-Term Effects Of Gas Lighting
Gaslighting is a long-form method of psychological and emotional abuse. The real goal is to establish control and dependency — which doesn’t happen overnight. The long-term effects of gaslighting often result in the victim believing they have a mental health disorder.
This is then likely to have a real impact on their mental health. Feelings of anxiety could get worse over time. Dependency on their abuser might lead to feelings of isolation from friends and family. Depression may result from losing control over their lives.
When carried out as part of a wider abusive relationship, gas lighting makes it harder for an abused partner to leave. Given how often emotional abuse progresses to physical abuse, gas lighting may increase an abused partner’s risk of experiencing violence in a relationship.
A long-term victim can also experience:
- chronic pain
- social withdrawal or loneliness
How To Protect Yourself Against Gas Lighting
Often the first step to protect yourself from gas lighting is to recognise its presence. Once you know you are being manipulated, you can determine your own reality more easily.
Ideally, someone experiencing abuse would get help and possibly leave the relationship. Yet sometimes barriers prevent a person from leaving right away. The person may be financially dependent on their abuser, or there may be children involved.
If you are a target of gas lighting, here are some tips you can use to defend yourself:
- Don’t take responsibility for the other person’s actions. The other person may claim you provoked the abuse. If you avoid the actions that offended them in the past, the gas lighter will likely come up with new excuses for their abuse.
- Don’t sacrifice yourself to spare their feelings. Even if you dedicate your whole life to making them happy, you will never completely fill the other person’s desire for control. People who gas light others are often trying to fill a void in themselves. But they will not fix their heart by breaking yours.
- Remember your truth. Just because the other person sounds sure of themself doesn’t mean they are right. The gas lighter may never see your side of the story. Yet their opinion does not define reality. Nor does it define who you are as a person.
- Do not argue on their terms. If the other person is fabricating facts, you are unlikely to have a productive discussion. You may spend all your energy debating what is real instead of making your point. The other person may use gas lighting techniques to declare they won an argument. But you do not have to accept conclusions based on a faulty premise.
- Prioritise your safety. Gaslighting often makes targets doubt their own intuition. But if you feel you are in danger, you can always leave the situation. You do not need to prove a gas lighter’s threats of violence are sincere before calling the police. It is often safest to treat every threat as credible.
- Remember you are not alone. You may find it helpful to talk about your experiences with others. Friends and family can offer emotional support and validation.
Therapy is a safe place where you can talk through your feelings and memories without judgment. A therapist can help you recognise healthy and unhealthy behaviors. They can also teach you how to resist psychological manipulation. In some cases, a therapist can help you develop a safety plan for leaving the relationship.
Gas lighting is an abusive practice that causes someone to distrust themselves or to believe they have a mental illness. The long-term effects of gas lighting may include anxiety, depression, trauma, and low self-esteem.
Gaslighting often appears in abusive relationships but also takes place in other contexts. People from marginalised groups are especially vulnerable. If a person believes their partner is gas lighting them, they can take steps to record evidence and seek help from domestic abuse organisations.
Gaslighting is truly vile. Few forms of psychological abuse rival causing someone to question their own minds. It’s especially tasteless today, when focus on mental well-being is long overdue.
If it happens to you, it’s vital you remember that it’s not your fault. Learn the signs, distance yourself from the problem, and remember who you can trust. You’re not on your own!