These days, it seems like the word “gaslighting” is everywhere. The term has surged in popularity over the past decade, given new life by political commentators and columnists and buoyed by social media, where it now attracts billions of views across Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. In 2022, Merriam-Webster crowned gaslighting its word of the year.
But despite the term’s increasing ubiquity in pop culture, it underscores a serious reality.
What Is Gaslighting?
Broadly speaking, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse or manipulation. It often occurs in abusive relationships, where the perpetrator intentionally misleads their target — essentially, distorting reality to make it seem like what the victim is experiencing or feeling isn’t real.
“It tries to make someone seem or feel ‘crazy,’” says Paige Sweet, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies gaslighting in relationships and in the workplace. “There’s so many types of psychological abuse, but gaslighting has that extra quality of convincing someone that their reality isn’t shared by other people or trying to convince them that their understanding of what’s going on is distorted or wrong.”
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The Rise of Gaslighting
The term “gaslighting” made its debut in the 1938 British stage play, Gas Light, which was adapted twice to the silver screen — most famously as the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the film, Paula (Bergman) is isolated by her husband Gregory (Boyer), who is committed to making her believe she’s going insane. Notably, one of Gregory’s tactics is to dim the house’s gas lights before insisting it’s all in Paula’s head.
More recently, the term recaptured public attention in 2016, when it was frequently used to describe former President Donald Trump’s strategy of creating false realities through repeated lies. One essay by journalist Lauren Duca, “How Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” quickly went viral after it was published in Teen Vogue that December.
Gaslighting has since been used to describe various manipulative tactics and distortions of reality — for example, patients who feel that their symptoms are unfairly dismissed by doctors may refer to their experiences as “medical gaslighting,” according to a 2022 article in The New York Times. That same year saw a whopping 1740 percent increase in lookups for “gaslighting” online, according to Miriam-Webster.
Still, although the term is admittedly trendy, the behavior it's meant to describe can be intensely toxic — and potentially dangerous.
Examples of Gaslighting
Primarily, gaslighting happens in romantic relationships, but it can also occur within friendships, between family members and even among coworkers. In certain cases, abusers might exploit their victim’s vulnerabilities, or prey upon stereotypes or imbalances related to an individual’s gender, sexuality, race, nationality and class.
Below are just a few of the examples of gaslighting that Sweet documented through 12 months of intensive interviews with 43 heterosexual women who had survived domestic violence, published in a 2019 article in American Sociological Review.
Simone’s ex-husband hacked into her social media profiles during their divorce, crafting posts that made her seem mentally unstable.
Jenn referred to her ex-boyfriend as a “chameleon” who tried to disorient and confuse her with subtle fabrications, like lying about the color of the shirt she had worn the day before.
If Brittany displayed emotion or lost her composure during an argument, her abuser would repeatedly call her “crazy,” making her question her own mental well-being.
What Gaslighting Looks Like in a Relationship
These women often recalled how their abusers would bend reality and sow confusion to make them feel “crazy” or emotionally erratic, drawing on the gendered idea that men are more “rational” than women.
“Femininity itself is sort of stigmatized as ‘irrational,’” says Sweet. “Men, or masculinity, is granted the power of [being] the arbiter of what’s ‘rational’ — the decider of what is authoritative or credible. That’s one of the reasons that gaslighting is a gendered phenomenon.”
Still, that doesn't mean that gaslighting only takes place when it's perpetrated by men against women. In her latest research, Sweet is looking at how parents, for example, might gaslight their own teenage children when talking about experiences of childhood abuse.
"The lines of authority and social power are really important to pay attention to," she adds.
Signs of Gaslighting
Victims of gaslighting may experience serious mental health consequences like anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder and thoughts of suicide. As such, it’s crucial to look out for signs that you — or someone you know — might be experiencing gaslighting.
“People often talk about this moment where they know something is wrong — if what someone’s telling you gives you that icky feeling in your stomach,” says Sweet. “Thinking, ‘This isn’t quite right, but I don’t know how to explain it.’ That’s sort of the core of gaslighting and the power of having a name for it: It’s really hard to put it into words.”
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Gaslighting can also prompt feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, or the pervading sense that everything is somehow the victim’s fault. It can even make targets question their own reality. One woman who Sweet interviewed in her 2019 study describes how her abuser made her feel like she was living in the Twilight Zone.
“Often, in intimate relationships especially, [gaslighting] goes along with other forms of control like isolation or name-calling,” says Sweet.
How to Deal with Gaslighting
If you suspect you are experiencing gaslighting, there are certain steps you can take to protect yourself. For starters, reaching out to other people in your support system who can help to validate and verify your experiences.
“Being able to rely on other people is really helpful,” says Sweet. “Getting counter-narratives from others is the most reality-reasserting thing you can do to reestablish yourself as a credible interpreter of the world.”
One way to deal with gaslighting is by talking to other people about what’s happening in your relationship — even if it’s intimidating or uncomfortable. Beyond that, if you feel yourself becoming isolated in your relationship, continues Sweet, it’s even more critical to reach out to those in your support network.
“That [isolation] is the thing you want to fight against; hang onto your existing relationships, and rely on those people,” she adds.
Leveraging existing resources and hotlines — like the National Domestic Violence Hotline — related to abuse and domestic violence can prove invaluable, as well.
"Those help systems are really good for gaslighting," says Sweet. "People in those advocacy communities really speak that language.”
Additional Support and Resources:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 800-422-4453
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