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What is Gaslighting?

In the US, Dr Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, helped bring the term “gaslight” into public consciousness with her 2007 book The Gaslight Effect. However, the term took a little longer to be more widely recognised in the UK.

The word “gaslighting” featured as one of the Oxford Dictionary’s words of the year when it appeared on their shortlist in 2018, following media coverage of the charity Women’s Aid’s condemnation of the behaviour of a Love Island contestant.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, issued a statement warning about emotional abuse. “On the latest series of Love Island, there are clear warning signs in Adam’s behaviour. In a relationship, a partner questioning your memory of events, trivialising your thoughts or feelings, and turning things around to blame you can be part of a pattern of gaslighting and emotional abuse,” she said.

The term is thought to have originated from a 1938 play, Gas Light, which was made into a more widely known film Gaslight in 1944, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Paula (Bergman) begins to notice strange goings-on such as missing pictures, strange footsteps in the night, and gaslights that dim without being touched, hence the term gaslighting.

Her husband convinces her that she is imagining things, but is in fact manipulating her to make her think she is actually losing her sense of reality so that he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance. This, of course, is an extreme example of gaslighting, but not an isolated one.

Whilst gaslighting is most often associated with romantic, personal or family relationships, it also exists in:

  • The workplace – A Twitter poll of 3,033 people aged between 18 and 54 found that 58% of respondents have experienced what they consider to be gaslighting during their working lives. 30% of respondents said they hadn’t experienced gaslighting in the workplace, with 12% saying they didn’t know.
  • Education – Gaslighting has been cited as a contributor to the epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff in a study by Liz Morrish, an independent scholar and Visiting Fellow at York St John University.
  • Healthcare – Doctors may be gaslighting when they suggest that you have imagined your symptoms, insinuate that you are exaggerating your pain, or recommend therapy instead of medical treatment. According to a report in SW Londoner, “84% of women in the UK feel as though whenever they visit their GP, they aren’t listened to, and end up being gaslighted into believing their issue isn’t a big one”.
Businessman gaslighting employee

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is often associated with bullying; however, despite some similarities, bullying is, in the main, an overt abuse of power, whereas gaslighting is a manipulative power game, an insidious and even deceptive behaviour. It is often difficult to prove and even harder to discuss.

Gaslighting is a very subtle form of psychological abuse and manipulation which can destroy a victim’s confidence, leaving them feeling extremely vulnerable. It can make survivors doubt themselves, their memories and their judgement, and it has a devastating impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

Like bullying, gaslighting is a crime, criminalised in December 2015 under Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act (2015), which provides for the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour (CCB). The number of CCB offences that reached a first hearing at a magistrates’ court has increased year on year.

From 2016/17, the first full year in which CCB cases reached this stage of the Criminal Justice System, to 2017/18, for instance, numbers increased threefold from 309 to 960. The number increased by a further 23% in 2018/19, to 1,177 prosecutions and to 1,208 in 2019/20. (Source Gov.UK)

On 20th January 2022, there was a landmark judgment in the British courts, which recognised the seriousness of gaslighting in relationships as a form of hidden abuse for the first time. The judgment, which was handed down in the family courts, was the first ever to specifically mention the term “gaslighting”. In his judgment, the Honourable Mr Justice Cobb said, “Dr. Proudman’s use of the term ‘gaslighting’ in the hearing to describe this conduct was in my judgment apposite; the father’s conduct represented a form of insidious abuse designed to cause the mother to question her own mental well-being, indeed her sanity.

The assertion to the mother and others was ostensibly given greater credibility by the fact that at the time the father was a mental health nurse; he may be thought (and doubtless wanted to be thought) to have drawn on specialist expertise or experience to make his diagnosis/assertion”.

With the courts now officially recognising the seriousness of gaslighting it may help other victims of this crime to come forward for support and protection.

What is gaslighting someone?

Gaslighting is a very serious form of emotional abuse. Abusers gaslight their victims in order to assert and maintain control in the relationship, and to make their victim question their own sanity. As we have seen, that relationship can be either personal, romantic, family or professional.

When you are on the receiving end of gaslighting you may experience someone:

  • Disagreeing with or ridiculing your recollection of events.
  • Always insisting that they are right.
  • Refusing to consider the facts or anything from your perspective.
  • Insisting that you said or did things you know you didn’t do.
  • Saying that you are oversensitive or being ridiculous when you state your needs or concerns.
  • Spinning or retelling events to transfer blame to you.
  • Telling others that they have concerns about your feelings, behaviour, and state of mind.

A gaslighter will strive to make someone lose trust and confidence in themselves or feel confused about reality. They may try to distract or deflect guilt or accountability and responsibility. Sometimes, it is even harsher, with someone trying to belittle you or damage or chip away at your self-esteem.

Some common examples of phrases that may be “red flags” of gaslighting, might include:

  • You’re being over dramatic.
  • If you cared about me, you would …….
  • Stop being so sensitive.
  • You’re blowing things out of proportion.
  • Why can’t you take a joke?
  • You’re making things up.
  • Stop exaggerating it wasn’t that bad.
  • That never happened.
  • You’re worthless or useless.
  • You’re cracked.
  • Everyone else thinks you’re ridiculous, too.
  • That’s not what I meant, you’re taking it the wrong way.

Gaslighters accuse their victims of exaggerating or misunderstanding a situation and sometimes deny that an event ever happened. This leaves victims of gaslighting questioning a past or present situation, as well as the intentions of others’ statements or actions and whether they are reacting appropriately. At its most extreme, gaslighting is used by abusers in conjunction with physical abuse to prevent it from being reported.

Parent gaslighting with manipulation

What is gaslighting behaviour?

Gaslighting involves the covert use of mind games that make it difficult for someone to know if they are even experiencing gaslighting. Isolation is a key tactic of gaslighting, where perpetrators try to make their victims feel alone or powerless.

They prevent their victims from hearing others’ perspectives so that they can bring them into line with their own beliefs and requirements. The victim may withdraw from friends and family to save face or because they feel misunderstood, judged, stigmatised, or not supported. Particular tactics aimed at isolating the victim can lead the victim to become extremely dependent on the gaslighter.

Gaslighters override their victim’s reality to the point that they question their own judgement. There are degrees of this behaviour, for example, on a small scale it could be as simple as saying something like, “You can’t possibly be hungry again, you just had lunch” even though you ate hours ago, or more seriously, denying fully obvious facts as a figment of their victim’s imagination.

Gaslighters work to undermine their victims so they can’t challenge them. They want the victim around on a specific set of terms, with themselves in charge without having to discuss things or compromise, making disagreement impossible.

When their credibility is undermined, the victim is told that they are crazy, a liar, unstable, a failure, or have lost their mind; anything that they say is automatically suspect and builds the case against them so that they cannot disagree or protest. Gaslighters then make their victims agree with their point of view.

The gaslighter will occasionally treat the victim with kindness or remorse, another manipulative tactic, to give the victim false hope so that the victim starts to think, “Maybe it’s really not THAT bad”, “Maybe things are going to get better, if I give it a chance.”

Gaslighting is often misogynistic and used as a form of emotional abuse against women. However, women are not always the victims – analysis of Merseyside Police domestic abuse data found that 95% of coercive control victims were women and 74% of perpetrators were men. 76% of coercive control cases happened within an intimate partner context.

The same study also found that common abusive behaviours used in coercive control included “…use of technology, such as phone trackers, controlling social media usage, barrage of text messages or monitoring phone usage, sexual coercion, monitoring behaviours, isolation, threats, financial abuse, deprivation (depriving access to support) and physical violence (63% of coercive control cases featured reports of physical violence).” (Barlow et al, 2018)

When does gaslighting happen?

Gaslighting often occurs in abusive relationships and happens when an abuser tries to control a victim by twisting their sense of reality. It often begins gradually and may take place over years or even decades before a person realises what is happening.

The abusive person gains the trust of the other person, sometimes with an initial period where there is no abusive behaviour. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and persuasive, creating false narratives, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see reality and the truth.

Whilst commonly related to romantic relationships, coercively controlling behaviour or gaslighting can also happen between, for example:

  • Parents and their children.
  • Friends.
  • Employees and managers or colleagues.
  • Teachers and students.
  • Medical practitioners and patients.

In fact, it can happen in most relationships where an unhealthy imbalance of power is allowed to develop.

What are the signs of gaslighting?

Earlier we looked at some of the behaviours associated with gaslighting such as:

  • Manipulation.
  • Denial.
  • Misdirection.
  • Contradiction.
  • Lying.

Someone trying to gaslight you typically wants to confuse you and make you doubt yourself to make it more likely you will go along with what they want.

Some of the signs that someone might be gaslighting you may include, but are not limited to:

  • You find yourself doubting your reality.
  • You start to question your competence.
  • You feel that you are not good enough.
  • You start seeking approval for everything.
  • You start to justify everything you say and do.
  • They are dismissive of your feelings.
  • They never let you talk during disagreements or they talk over you.
  • They don’t apologise when you express hurt.
  • They always blame you or outside circumstances when things are or go wrong.
  • You start believing that you are just not working hard enough in your relationship.
  • You find yourself apologising often, even if you have said or done nothing wrong.
  • You make excuses for your partner’s behaviours.
  • You feel guilty expressing your own opinions.

Spotting the signs of gaslighting in the workplace might include:

  • Undermining behaviour intended to destroy an employee’s confidence. For example, open criticism or alleging that others have complained about you or your work, where, in fact, there is no evidence of any complaint.
  • A lack of openness and transparency. This may be with immediate line management in a one-on-one relationship or it may be at a more senior management level.
  • A reluctance to minute meetings or draw up file notes. This is not always down to a lack of management skills, it could be intentional and therefore far more serious.
  • Refusal to follow policies or reluctance to acknowledge a verbal employee complaint or investigate a formal grievance. Warning signs include a refusal to appoint an independent, impartial, workplace investigator in grievance and disciplinary cases.
  • Drip-feeding information or failing to provide full facts or repeatedly re-scheduling meetings or withholding important information.
  • Moving goal posts or changing elements of an employee’s job description without first engaging in discussion.
  • Springing surprises such as calling last-minute meetings but failing to share data or advise in advance what the purpose of the meeting is and what the likely outcomes may be.

An employee experiencing gaslighting in the workplace feels constantly undermined or excluded and they start to develop trust and confidence issues within the workplace.

Medical gaslighting can include misdiagnoses or denial of needed tests, medications and treatments. If you experience medical gaslighting and the doctor is unresponsive when you explain the symptoms are not normal for you, remember that you are the expert regarding your own body.

Speak up, but if this proves difficult, try bringing a friend along as a medical advocate. Medical gaslighting can be unconscious, non-intentional and without malice; however, when a patient feels ignored, minimised or dismissed, or when diagnosed with depression or anxiety without exhibiting the emotional cognitive symptoms associated with this disorder, it may be a case of gaslighting.

Employer undermining behaviour to destroy confidence

How to deal with gaslighting

Victims of gaslighting will often doubt themselves. Their self-esteem will be undermined and they will believe that they can’t trust their own instincts, so identifying whether or not you are being gaslighted can sometimes be difficult. If you suspect that you or someone that you know is being gaslighted, recognising the problem is the first step.

Name what is going on between you and your partner, friend, family member, colleague, manager or whomever you suspect of gaslighting. Start by keeping a diary, recording all events of lying or the conversations during which abuse is trivialised or completely ignored.

Note any events of undermining or times when you feel that you have been manipulated. Write down your conversations so that you can take an objective look at them. Where is the conversation veering off from reality into the other person’s view? Then after you look at the dialogue, write down how you felt. Look for signs of repeated denial of your experience.

If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again and can’t seem to convince them to acknowledge your point of view, you might be being gaslighted.

Talk to your close family or friends. Ask them if you seem like yourself and ask them to do a reality check on the behaviours. Ask them to be honest with you. Focus on your feelings – if your interactions leave you feeling bad or second-guessing yourself, that’s what you need to pay attention to.

Try to take some space away from the situation, as it is understandable to experience a lot of strong emotions when dealing with gaslighting. Feelings of anger, frustration, worry, sadness and fear are all completely valid, but try not to let them guide your immediate reaction. Remaining calm can help you handle the situation more effectively.

Try to speak up about the behaviour. Gaslighting works because it confuses you and shakes your confidence. If you show that the behaviour doesn’t bother you, or that you will not accept it, the person trying to gaslight you may decide it isn’t worth it.

Remain confident in your version of events – your brain typically doesn’t fabricate entire memories. Everyone remembers things a little differently than how they happened on occasion, and you might wonder, “What if it did happen the way they said?”

However, if you remember something clearly and they flat out deny your memory, that’s gaslighting. You know what happened, so repeat it calmly with confidence. You could say something like, “It seems that we remember things differently, but I don’t want to argue about it.” Avoid further discussion by changing the subject or leaving the room.

A gaslighter may try to make you feel undeserving of self-care, or label these practices as lazy, or indulgent.

However, it is important to maintain self-care habits despite this, so try:

  • Making time for hobbies – It helps to do things you enjoy and that you get personal satisfaction from.
  • Meditation or yoga – These will help you to relax.
  • Physical activity – This can also help. It is not only good for physical health but can also serve as an outlet for tension and distress. Exercise can also help you get better sleep, so if worries over gaslighting have started to interfere with your rest, regular activity can have some benefits here, too.

If gaslighting continues you may need to end the relationship. While it can be difficult to end a relationship with someone who repeatedly gaslights you, it is often the most effective way to end the abuse.

This may also be the case if you are experiencing workplace gaslighting, although you should first use the grievance process to raise the issue formally, as your employer has a duty of care to address the issue.

You may also find it helpful to talk to a mental health professional. They can help you learn more about the situation, gain perspective, and develop new coping strategies that can help you deal with the behaviour.

If the behaviour becomes emotionally damaging and controlling, or physically abusive, report it to the police, or call 999, as coercive control is a criminal offence.

Other contacts that you may find useful include:

Final thoughts

Occasionally, the person doing the gaslighting doesn’t even know they are doing it. Sometimes, it is as much to do with their own insecurities around being wrong, or having less power in a relationship, as it is out of an active desire to undermine their partner.

In other cases, this behaviour can be a deliberate tactic used to make their victim feel less confident and less likely to challenge them. If you do feel they are doing this intentionally, it’s important to understand that this is not ok. Whichever the case, this is a totally unacceptable thing to do and a highly abusive pattern of behaviour.

If you have been a victim of gaslighting, remember it is not your fault that you are in an abusive relationship; you need to re-establish your self-esteem and rebuild a trustworthy network of friends and advisers to support you.

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Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.

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