You're probably heard the word "gaslighting" before, but do you know what it actually means? Simply put, "gaslighting" is a manipulative tactic used to shift the power dynamic in a healthy relationship so that one person has complete control over the other. To gain insight into the psychology behind this toxic relationship dynamic, we asked psychotherapist Jeremy Bergen, MS, LCPC, to weigh in.
Meet the Expert
Jeremy Bergen, MS, LCPC, is a Chicago-based psychotherapist specializing in individual, family, and couples counseling. He is the founder of Bergen Counseling Center.
Simply put, it's a form of emotional abuse exerted to gain power in a relationship. According to Bergen, "Gaslighting is such a malicious form of emotional abuse because it causes you to question your experiences, so it can be difficult to identify the warning signs."
Ahead, Bergen breaks down the psychology behind gaslighting in relationships, including identifying the warning signs, understanding the reasoning behind this venomous behavior, and navigating the next steps.
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What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of sustained psychological manipulation that causes the victim to question or doubt their sanity, judgment, and memories. "At its heart, gaslighting is emotional abuse," explains Bergen. "It's a tactic one partner uses in an effort to exert power over, gain control over, and inflict emotional damage on the other."
Signs You're Experiencing Gaslighting in Your Relationship
According to our expert, there are five major signs of gaslighting in relationships. Here's what to look out for and why.
They Make You Question Your Perception of Reality
The major warning sign of gaslighting is that "your partner challenges your perception of situations, of yourself, of your thoughts, of your feelings, of their behavior," explains Bergen. "One of the big warning signs is this persistent sense that what you saw, you didn't really see. And what you experienced, you didn't really experience. What you felt, you didn't really feel."
They Persistently and Blatantly Lie to You
According to Bergen, "Their lies are designed to be manipulative for control." If you think your partner may be gaslighting you, Bergen suggests asking yourself questions such as Does my partner consistently make me question my thoughts and experience of things? Do I catch them in lies?
They Make You Feel Insecure by Breaking You Down
In order to gain control and power, a gaslighter will harp on the gaslighted's insecurities. To help determine if your partner is breaking you down, Bergen suggests asking yourself, Is this person saying things that are designed to make me feel bad? Is the level of criticism pervasive in that sense of they're going at the same thing consistently?
They Try to Alienate You From People Who Care About You
"They do this because they want to control the narrative," Bergen explains. "They want to separate these relationships, so they'll cause conflict."
They Lie About Saying Something When You Have Proof
Gaslighting is all about making the victim question their reality and sanity. Often, a gaslighter will deny saying or doing something and treat the victim as if they are crazy. Sometimes referred to as "countering," the gaslighter will question the victim's memory of an event, will deny it ever happened, or will pretend to forget what actually happened, even if you have proof. They'll either discount or twist the reality of your evidence.
Examples of Gaslighting in Relationships
When you're in it, it can be hard to realize that you're experiencing gaslighting. Here are some common examples to be mindful of.
Use of "Love" as a Defense
If someone says, "You know I only do it because I love you," or, "Believe me, this is for the best," when doing something you perceive as abusive, controlling, or wrong, they are probably gaslighting you. Gaslighters might use love as a defense for their actions and suggest that you don't love them equally if you don't agree with what they say or do. For example, the gaslighter might sabotage opportunities (jobs, friendships) for you in order to control you, then justify it by saying they were concerned or that they did it because they care about you.
Accusations of Paranoia
One of the most common tactics of gaslighters is accusing their victim of paranoia. This often happens when a romantic partner is cheating. Gaslighters will deflect the problem onto their partner instead of taking responsibility for their own bad behavior. They'll say things like, "You really think I would cheat on you? You're just insecure," or, "Why are you so paranoid? You know I would never do that." The gaslighter will accuse the victim of being overly sensitive and jealous in hopes that they will no longer trust their instincts or observations.
Constant Criticism or Disparagement
A gaslighter may use verbal abuse to wear their victim down in an attempt to keep them stuck in the relationship. They may use constant insults or comments like, "You know you'll never get anyone better than me," or, "You're terrible with money. That's why I have to control the finances." They want to make you believe you're unlovable or useless without them and therefore must stay in the relationship. Other insults, like calling you "dramatic," "hysterical," "ungrateful," or "crazy" are meant to make you question your sanity.
Why Gaslighting Happens
People seek power and control in relationships for a wide variety of reasons, so the rationalizations for gaslighting vary from case to case. However, there are a few patterns, Bergen shares.
They Believe It's the Only Way to Sustain the Relationship
"In some cases, gaslighting is a way to try to keep somebody who you want to be in a relationship with around in a very abusive way—there's this notion that this is the only way to sustain the relationship," says Bergen.
They Feel Better About Themselves When Controlling Someone Else
"Sometimes, there's a genuine sense of, 'If I'm controlling other people, then I feel better about where I'm at,' and that search for power is something that expresses itself in the relationship," explains Bergen.
They Just Enjoy the Power and Control
According to Bergen, there's "a decent amount of research that shows there are people who genuinely find pleasure in having control over others."
What to Do If a Partner Is Gaslighting You
The first step in recovering from gaslighting is to commit to breaking the cycle of abuse. Don't allow your plans to be derailed by your abuser, who will likely ramp up his or her manipulations upon recognizing your intent to escape the relationship. Prepare yourself for this, and likewise aim to stay one step ahead in the pattern so that you're able to remain as disassociated as possible. Here are some additional tips that may help:
Seek Help from Someone Outside the Relationship
Turn to a friend, family member, or trusted coworker to validate your feelings. This won't be easy, as a byproduct of gaslighting is the feeling of isolation; the victim has been manipulated to believe that their abuser is the only one who truly understands them. Realize that this isn't the case, and seek out a confidant who can help you assess the situation, corroborate your memories, and/or confirm that something's not right.
It's not advised to talk to your partner about feeling like you're being gaslit because they'll likely tell you that what you're seeing isn't what you're actually seeing. They want to maintain control in the power dynamic.
Approach Your Recovery Like a Marathon, Not a Sprint
While speaking with a loved one is therapeutic, you might need the counsel of an impartial third party (think psychologist or therapist) to not only guide you out of the smoke and mirrors but to help ensure you don't slip back into the cycle of abuse, no matter the nature of the relationship in question—romantic, familial, platonic, professional, or otherwise.
Considering couples' therapy with your partner? Go for it, but be sure to book your own, private sessions, too. And remember: Long-term, regular therapy with a qualified professional might be necessary to equip you with the tools needed to break free from (or at least distance yourself from) a toxic or one-sided relationship. After all, building a sturdy bridge between your past missteps and your future successes is unlikely to happen in a single session.
Focus on Yourself
Do not lose your sense of self. This, coupled with the aftershocks of a breakup (even if the split is from a family member or a friend), can create the perfect conditions for wallowing. Still, it's important to ditch your couch-and-sweatpants habit before it becomes routine. "Create space internally, mentally, emotionally, and then externally by engaging with people outside the relationship," advises Bergen. Direct some much-needed attention to any relationships that may have been on the back burner, and open yourself up to meeting new people, too. A shared interest is always a great ice-breaker, so think about signing up for a workshop, class, retreat, or another opportunity to combine a pastime with socialization.
Get out of your rut—and reclaim your identity—by partaking in activities that you love or once loved. Go for a hike, scribble in a journal, cook up some comfort food—whatever it takes to make you feel whole again.
Trust Your Gut
Now and always, resolve to heed your intuition and follow your instincts. "The internal step, in terms of what to do if you feel like you're being gaslit, is to make the commitment to yourself that you do not have to question your thoughts, feelings, perceptions about anything," advises Bergen. "That is a choice that you make as an individual to reassess a situation that nobody is allowed to re-narrate anything for you." In other words, your emotions, thoughts, and memories should never be subject to debate—period.
Does gaslighting only happen in romantic relationships?
Gaslighting can happen in any interpersonal relationship from those with family members and friends to colleagues. The relationships do not have to be romantic in nature for gaslighting to exist.
What Is Breadcrumbing? A Relationship Expert Explains
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in relationships. It happens when one person convinces their target that they're remembering things wrong or that they're misinterpreting events. The gaslighter is trying to manipulate the other person and presents their own thoughts and feelings as the truth.What is the easiest way to explain gaslighting? ›
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in their victim's mind. Typically, gaslighters are seeking to gain power and control over the other person, by distorting reality and forcing them to question their own judgment and intuition.What is gaslighting in a romantic relationship examples? ›
- "That never happened." ...
- "You're crazy — and other people think so, too." ...
- "I'm sorry you think that I hurt you." ...
- "Do you really think I'd make that up?" ...
- "You're just trying to confuse me. ...
- "You know I'd never intentionally hurt you." ...
- "I did that because I love you."
It could be divided into four different types: outright lying, manipulation of reality, scapegoating and coercion.What are gaslighting phrases? ›
- 'You're being crazy. ...
- 'You're overreacting. ...
- 'I was just joking! ...
- 'You made me do it. ...
- 'If you loved me, you'd let me do what I want. ...
- 'I'm only telling you this because I love you. ...
- 'This is all your fault.
- "We remember things differently."
- "If you continue to speak to me like this I'm not engaging."
- "I hear you and that isn't my experience."
- "I am walking away from this conversation."
- "I am not interested in debating what happened with you."
Unintentional gaslighting refers to when someone unintentionally tries to discount or deny your reality to make you feel crazy, confused, or doubt yourself. Traditional gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. While unintentional gaslighting is done without malice, it is still a form of mental abuse.What is the first stage of gaslighting? ›
(1) The first stage is initial disbelief. It often begins with the gaslighter making a statement that seems outrageous and the individual being gaslighted, the gaslightee, may brush it off as temporary or make excuses for the behavior.What is the simplest example of gaslighting? ›
Gaslighting parents will blatantly lie about certain situations. For example, they might insist they never said something or that the child is making things up. They may pretend to have no idea what the child is talking about. This can cause children to question themselves and feel perpetually uncertain.Am I gaslighting or is my partner? ›
Even when you are called out, you refuse to back down and try even harder to convince them you're right. If you're spreading rumors, lies, and gossiping to others about loved ones to try to get them to side with you as a way to justify your actions, then this may be a sign you're gaslighting.
A person who is gaslighting may use the withholding technique. This means that they may refuse to listen to what the person being gaslit has to say. The gaslighter might also accuse you of being the one trying to confuse things. They will pretend that they don't understand your perspective.How do you know if someone is gaslighting you in a relationship? ›
- insist you said or did things you know you didn't do.
- deny or scoff at your recollection of events.
- call you “too sensitive” or “crazy” when you express your needs or concerns.
- express doubts to others about your feelings, behavior, and state of mind.
- twisting or retelling events to shift blame to you.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. People who experience gaslighting may feel confused, anxious, or as though they cannot trust themselves.