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  • Writer's pictureKim May

Understanding Gaslighting

The concept of gaslighting is not new, but the term has gained massive attention in recent years. The benefit of the increase in attention is that it sheds light on something many people have experienced and they now have a way to identify it.

The downside of important terms like this gaining so much attention is that they become over used or used incorrectly. This serves to minimize the severity of something that can be very real and very scary.

What is gaslighting?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, gaslighting happens when someone manipulates you into thinking your version of events didn’t happen the way you say they happened. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Being gaslit causes people to question their own feelings, instincts, memories, and sanity. This gives the person doing the gaslighting an enormous amount of power and control.

Gaslighting can happen in any kind of relationship—friends, colleagues, family members, and partners.

Where does the term ‘gaslighting’ come from?

The term originates from a 1938 play and a subsequent 1944 movie called Gaslight. In the movie, a woman’s husband is behind a series of unexplained incidents which leaves the woman to think that she is going mad. The most notorious of the strange events is the dimming of the gaslights in the house. The husband has intentionally and maliciously orchestrated these events in attempt to drive his wife crazy, have her institutionalized and steal from her.

Gaslighting techniques

Gaslighting is different from an occasional lie or two people genuinely having entirely different memories or perspectives. Gaslighting tends to begin gradually and then becomes a pattern of behavior, often including one or more of the following:

  • Withholding: the abuser refuses to listen or pretends not to understand

  • Countering: the abuser constantly questions memories of events, even when the victim remembers them clearly

  • Blocking and/or Diverting: the abuser changes the subject or questions the victim’s thoughts

  • Trivializing: the abuser diminishes the needs, wants, opinions, or perspectives of the victim

  • Forgetting/Denial: the abuser pretends to forget previous conversations or denies they ever took place.

Signs of Gaslighting

Gaslighting can be hard to recognize, especially if it is being perpetrated by a partner, close friend, or a boss. The primary goal of gaslighting is to get the victim to discredit their own feelings and instincts. It can be important to listen to friends, partners, and family members if they are providing feedback about how you are being treated by someone. Often gaslighting techniques are most easily recognized by people outside the relationship than within it.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, signs of gaslighting may include:

  • You constantly second-guess yourself, even about simple matters.

  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day, especially as compared to before you were in a relationship with this person.

  • You often feel confused and even crazy.

  • You’re always apologizing to this person.

  • You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.

  • You find yourself withholding information from friends and family, so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.

  • You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.

  • You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.

  • You have trouble making simple decisions.

  • You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.

  • You feel as though you can’t do anything right.

Gaslighting and substance use

Although people who use substances, particularly those who meet criteria for addiction, are often villainized, ultimately they are highly vulnerable. Psychoactive substances have the capacity to alter our perception and memory, and unfortunately this is often taken advantage of.

The Paula Hawkins book (made into a movie of the same name), The Girl on the Train illustrates this poignantly.

Support if you need it

Substance Use Therapy is here for your substance use and mental health needs. Whatever you are facing, you don’t have to face it alone.

If you are experiencing abuse and need support, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text "START" to 88788. You can also chat with an advocate online 24/7/365.

If you are in immediate danger, please contact 911.

About the Author:

Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, gambling, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.


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