Gaslighting 101: Definition, Origin, Signs, and Examples
“That never happened.”
“I only did it because you made me.”
Have you ever heard these phrases before? These are gaslighting examples in relationships.
The subtle escalation between these phrases is where gaslighting starts. Just like physical abuse rarely starts with a punch, gaslighting starts small and grows. Soon, you don’t even recognize yourself.
In this piece, we're covering:
- The definition of gaslighting
- Origin of gaslighting
- Gasilghting examples in romantic relationships
- What to do if you're being gaslit in a romantic relationship
- Gaslighting friends
- Gaslighting in the workplace
- Whether gaslighting is illegal
What is gaslighting?
The definition of gaslighting is the use of tactics to manipulate another individual’s reality.
It is a form of psychological manipulation and abuse. The goal of gaslighting is to foster and grow seeds of doubt in a person, making them question their own reality, memory, judgement, and perception. It has a high impact on someone's mental health and self-esteem.
The goal of gaslighting is to gain control over another person by making them doubt themselves and their perception of reality. When gaslighting someone, an abuser will make them feel like they can’t trust themselves.
Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting. It’s commonly used by abusers, dictators, and cult leaders in order to gain control or power over a person or group of people. It can also happen between family members.
While not every abuser who gaslights is a narcissist, sociopath or have another personality disorder, these folks tend to use gaslighting as way to get their own way. Gaslighting starts when there is an imbalance in the power dynamics between the individuals – because like all forms of abuse, gaslighting is about power and control.
The process of gaslighting is a slow distortion of reality — which is why it works. It plants the seeds of self-doubt and makes you question your own self-worth.
To define gaslighting, we must look at the origin of the phrase.
The term gaslighting originates from a 1938 stage play titled Gas Light.
In the play, the husband performs acts to distort his wife’s reality including slowly dimming the gas lights in their home throughout the performance. His goal is to manipulate her reality and have her believe she is going insane to gain power over her.
The term gaslighting has been used since the 1960’s to describe the manipulation of another person through distorting their reality.
Gaslighting behavior in romantic relationships
Gaslighting is often seen in emotionally abusive relationships where the gaslighter wants to be in control and have power over their partner.
Some examples of early red flags in a relationship (which can lead to gaslighting in the future) include:
- Love bombing
- Separating you from things and people who are close to you
- Verbal abuse including cruel jokes
- Telling your support system negative stories about you
- Taking what you say out of context in arguments and conversations,
- Making decisions for you and insisting it’s because you’re not as capable of making them
The three most common signs of gaslighting are:
- Hiding — The abuser hides information from the victim and covers up the truth
- Changing — The abuser starts to mold the victim into their fantasy. Can include changing their appearance, personality, career, how they dress, etc…
- Control — The abuser gets pleasure in having full control over the victim’s thoughts and actions and will isolate them from any outsiders
Some other gaslighting techniques include:
- Withholding information — Will not provide full details of a situation
- Countering — Counters your version of reality with their own
- Blocking/Diverting — Changes the subject to avoid questioning
- Trivializing — Making the victim’s needs and opinions unimportant
- Denial — When an abuser “forgets” or straight denies something occurred
Some gaslighting examples and signs include:
- Lying about an incident
- Denying something happened
- Actions do not match words
- Projecting their problems onto you
- Saying you’re crazy or mentally ill
- Manipulating what you look like or how you act
Gaslighters often project their own reality onto another individual. It’s likely that whatever they’re saying you did, they likely did. This is abusive behavior performed by abusive people. Gaslighting is not something to be taken lightly as it often leads to more serious forms of emotional and physical abuse.
You might even recognize some of these gaslighting phrases once you spot the pattern. Some gaslighting phrases include:
- “You’re crazy”
- “That never happened”
- “You’re exaggerating”
- “I never said that”
- “You’re being too sensitive”
- “You’re making a big deal out of nothing”
- “You’re lying”
- “No one likes you”
- “What are you talking about?”
- You’re not telling my side of the story
- I only did this because you made me
- You were the one that caused this
We could go on and on with gaslighting phrases, but we hope you get the point. These gaslighting phrases are designed to distort your reality and have you question everything about yourself, your opinions, and even facts. Taking what the gaslighter says seriously forces you to also take some, or often all, of the responsibility for whatever abuse has occurred. This is not okay and is a form of emotional and mental abuse.
How to handle gaslighting abuse in a romantic relationship
First, you must recognize that you are being gaslit. Gaslighting is a form of abuse and, therefore, is domestic violence.
To understand if you’re being gaslit, ask yourself if the offender has made you feel any of the following ways:
- You’re too sensitive or emotional
- You feel constantly confused and/or even crazy in the relationship
- You’re always apologizing.
- You’re frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior
- You start lying to avoid negative interactions
- You start having trouble making simple decisions
- You’re to blame for every problem that occurs between you and your partner
It can be a scary realization when someone is gaslighting you. You realize that your whole world has been manipulated. It’s normal to feel scared, nervous, emotional, and even embarrassed. Do not blame yourself for the gaslighting — it is never your fault.
If you’re asking yourself how to stop gaslighting in a relationship, it’s likely that it’s gone so far that you can’t actually stop the other person’s behavior and actions.
If someone is trying to control you and your reality, it’s not a healthy relationship. In fact, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse.
It’s likely that you’re experiencing other types of abuse in a relationship that uses gaslighting to control you. If you’re still not sure if this is happening to you, we recommend reaching out to a friend or domestic violence advocate about what’s been going on in your relationship. Telling someone you trust about the types of arguments you’ve been having with your partner might be less intimidating, and they can even call a hotline with you to help you create a safety plan if that’s a next step that you think will work for you.
In reality, you can’t stop someone from gaslighting. People who are gaslighters will likely never take responsibility for their actions and admit to their problems.
The safest thing to do is to come up with an exit strategy for the relationship and begin your healing journey.
Resources to help you understand your gaslighting experience and get assistance include:
Gaslighting in the workplace
While most people think about gaslighting in relationships, this experience can also happen in the workplace. You make encounter a gaslighter in the form of a bad boss, a condescending coworker, or even a disgruntled client or customer.
Another example of gaslighting in the workplace is a systemic presence of institutional bias and prejudice.
A gaslighter at work might:
- Create a persistent negative narrative about your performance even when you’re excelling in your role
- Share opinions on you are based on personal judgement and opinions rather than facts and figures
- Gossip about you behind your back
- Make negative and condescending comments online or in-person in group settings to humiliate you
- Tries to use humor or sarcasm to cover up their insults
- Deny you promotions and other opportunities
- Sexually harasses you
- Denies you shared work with them like a presentation or feedback
- Occasionally provides positive feedback and commentary to keep you in the cycle of abuse
- Makes racist comments
- Purposefully doesn’t invite you to meetings you should be in
Gaslighting in the workplace is a real issue. Whether it’s a systemic issue across the organization or one bad apple, it’s up to you on how to handle it.
You can try reporting to a supervisor or your boss and create a document of your experiences with dates and times. If you can, you can also choose to leave the job all together as you might be unable to change the overarching gaslighting occurring in the workplace.
Gaslighting in friendships
Sadly, gaslighting can also occur in friendships — even with your best friend.
Gaslighting friends will do things like:
- They love to gossip (and probably gossip about you behind your back!)
- The feed you lies about other people - even if they’re “little white lies”
- They tell you someone said something negative about you
- They often cause fights and arguments within the friend group
- They befriend your significant other and often tell them things you trusted the gaslighter with
- They split you off from your other friend groups
- They stonewall or ignore you when you reach out
- They make plans but don’t follow through
You might be asking...how do I deal with a gaslighting friend?
The easiest way to deal with a gaslighting friend is to completely cut them out of your life. You don’t need that kind of toxicity!
Is gaslighting a crime?
While it might feel like a crime is being committed because of the constant emotional manipulation by the gaslighter, whether gaslighting itself is illegal or not depends on where you live.
For example, in the UK patterns of coercive or controlling behavior can be punishable by up to five years in prison.
Gaslighting is often a sign of other forms of emotional abuse — which can be considered a crime. Gaslighting, and other forms of emotional abuse, are usually a much larger sign of other forms of abuse — like financial abuse (which occurs in 99% of abusive relationships) and potential physical violence.
Regardless of whether gaslighting is a crime, it is a form of abuse — whether it’s happening at work, in a friendship, or with an intimate partner.
How to get help if you're being gaslit
There is help and support available to you if you are experiencing gaslighting in any type of relationship. Talk with trusted loved ones, a mental health professional, utilize hotlines like VictimConnect, and/or create a safety plan to escape the situation.
When you start questioning your own memory, your own sanity in a relationship, know that it is not likely a mental illness — it is you being gaslit by the other individual.