Gaslighting is the Merriam-Webster 2022 word of the year. According to Semrush, Americans also type the word into search engines around 550,000 times a month. If you’re a social media user, you probably see the gaslighting flying off the handle on your news feed too. Since it’s such a popular topic, now may be a good time to clarify what exactly gaslighting is, what it looks like, and how to deal with it.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and abuse with the intent to control an outcome, says Dr. Ajita M. Robinson, a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in grief and trauma located in Bethesda, MD. The outcome the gaslighter may be trying to control could be another individual’s behavior, perception, or sense of reality,” she tells ESSENCE.
“The control aspect of it doesn’t have to be malicious, but there is, at its core, a control element to gaslighting,” says Robinson.
FYI, the term is relatively new and stems from the 1938 British thriller play Gas Light written by Patrick Hamilton. It’s about a husband nearly driving his wife to insanity by doing some of the things mentioned in the next section.
What Are Signs of Gaslighting?
At the core of gaslighting is a state of questioning your reality. Some common signs you may be experiencing gaslighting include:
Your feelings are dismissed and met with a lack of sensitivity
You’re constantly being told your perception is wrong
You’re lied to about things you have proof of
You don’t have space to speak during conflicts
When you try to address an issue, the subject is changed or avoided
You begin questioning your reality
Dr. Ebony Butler, a licensed psychologist based in Austin, Texas, provides an example of gaslighting using an instance of someone minimizing your feelings after you address an issue. They may say things like, “you’re too sensitive” or “you’re taking it the wrong way”, Butler says.
“Basically, [they] manipulate you into thinking that your boundaries don’t make sense or that you don’t make sense for saying something bothers you.”
Gaslighting can also happen at work too. It could look like someone else taking credit for your work, constantly knocking your ideas down, questioning your recollection of events, or spreading lies about you. According to Robinson, gaslighting by a boss or superior at work can be extremely damaging and harmful because of the power dynamic.
Effects of Gaslighting
Over time, gaslighting can seriously affect your mental health and well-being. It could lead to depression, anxiety, isolation, and trauma. The effects of gaslighting can be even more damaging when there’s an uneven power dynamic, and the abuser refuses to acknowledge it exists, says Robinson.
“Those are the ones that I find to be most concerning that often end up in therapy or that we ultimately see escalate to domestic violence,” she tells Essence.
Gaslighting can also affect your self-confidence or self-esteem when you begin internalizing the messaging of the gaslighter.
“If you’re constantly being told that what you think is happening isn’t real or that your feelings aren’t valid, over time you begin to internalize those messages, especially if it’s coming from someone you have some love of respect for because you’re wanting to be kinda closer to that person and you value what they’re saying, even when it’s not true,” says Robinson.
Why Do People Gaslight?
If you look at gaslighting through social media’s lenses, you’ll be convinced that there are a group of bad people who gaslight. However, this is a polarizing way of looking at it.
Butler says with social media popularizing topics like gaslighting, there’s an emerging theme of finger-pointing and everyone thinking they’re incapable of doing it.
“It’s just the same with narcissism, right?” she says. “Everybody’s like, Oh, that’s you, not understanding that we all carry traits with everything all the time, depending on the situation and context.”
She continues, “Given the context and pressure of [the] situation, we are likely to show up in any given way. We will likely use coping skills we may not be proud of.”
The reality is that anyone can be guilty of gaslighting someone, and as Robinson stated earlier, the person gaslighting doesn’t always have malicious intent. Us humans are nuanced, which means we should leave room for duality. We can have bad behaviors, but that doesn’t always mean we’re bad people.
So, why do people gaslight? Oftentimes people gaslight because they don’t have the tools or self-awareness needed to deal with confrontation. So, instead of accepting, acknowledging, and validating the other person, they deflect, deny, or minimize in response to feeling ashamed or vulnerable.
According to Robinson, people may also gaslight as a way to consciously or subconsciously avoid accountability.
“I don’t think people like being accountable or called on the carpet for their stuff,” she tells ESSENCE. “And when they don’t have the coping skills to deal with feeling responsible or guilty or needing to apologize, they deflect and turn it back on the person.”
Robinson also explains that gaslighting allows people to feel safe or maintain control when they think they might be abandoned. This fear of abandonment could have much to do with an insecure attachment style.
Sometimes, it could be because the person gaslighting you doesn’t see the world from the same perspective.
How to Protect Yourself
Dealing with gaslighting can be frustrating, hurtful, and sometimes intimidating. To protect yourself from long-term effects, you may want to set boundaries and find safe outlets to vent.
Robinson says setting boundaries around access and communication are ways to protect yourself. In terms of access, it could look like limiting the time you spend with the person to avoid situations where gaslighting occurs.
“Maybe we reduce access to ‘I’ll drop the grandkids off and I’ll stay as long as there’s another family member there’ or ‘I’ll do groups, but I won’t do individual because that’s when those situations occur.’”
Regarding communication, you can let the person gaslighting you know that you won’t engage in certain conversations and what the consequence will be if they don’t respect your boundary.
Finding safe spaces where you can share what you’re experiencing can also be a helpful tactic to protect yourself from gaslighting.
“I think for our self, it’s important that we have support so that we have spaces where we’re able to share the narrative, at least, what our truth is,” Robinson says. Not having those spaces could lead to unconsciously internalizing what the gaslighter is saying, especially when the negative messaging comes from someone you care about.
Holding Space For Loved Ones Who Gaslights
We’ve established that not all people who gaslight have ill intent or do so on purpose. How do you deal with gaslighting from someone who fits into that category? The answer isn’t always to ‘cancel’ or cut them off. Sometimes it’s to hold space, which means extending empathy and giving them space to change.
Butler says that if you’re in a relationship with people who are gaslighting you and show a willingness to change, consider exploring that. Remember that self-awareness and healing are lifelong journeys; some people are further along than others.
“If you were with somebody doing their work [and] they wanna have a better relationship, then you wanna make space in a relationship where both people can be seen or heard.”
Find ways to meet in the middle and bridge the gap between differing perspectives, especially if the gaslighting stems from that. The goal should be to validate the other person’s experience instead of trying to convince them about the experience you’re having.
“No matter if we grew up in the same house, no matter if we have the same parents, we all see the world in a different way,” she says.
She advises against this if you’re dealing with an abusive person. She says you don’t have to sit around and wait for someone not willing to acknowledge the ways their behavior is harmful.