The Psychology of Gaslighting

The Psychology of Gaslighting

What is the nature of gaslighting and how do you deal with it? Q&A with world-renowned expert Robin Stern.

What is the best way to tell if I'm being gaslighted?

If you suspect you are being gaslighted, ask yourself these questions – if you answer 'yes' to any of them, you may be in a gaslighting relationship and need to continue to look more deeply at the interactions you are engaged in with your partner (or friend, parent, sibling, co-worker)


  1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself
  2. You ask yourself, "Am I too sensitive?" a dozen times a day.
  3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
  4. You're always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend, boss.
  5. You can't understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren't happier.
  6. You frequently make excuses for your partner's behavior to friends and family.
  7. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family, so you don't have to explain or make excuses.
  8. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
  9. You start lying (https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/deception) to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
  10. You have trouble making simple decisions.
  11. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person - more confident (https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/confidence), more fun-loving, more relaxed.
  12. You feel hopeless and joyless.
  13. You feel as though you can't do anything right.
  14. You wonder if you are a "good enough" girlfriend/ wife/employee/ friend; daughter.
  15. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family, so you don't have to explain or make excuses.
How does The Gaslight Effect happen?

The Gaslight Effect happens over time, gradually, and often, by the time you are deep into the Gaslight Tango (the dance you do with your gaslighting partner, where you allow him to define your reality) you are not the same strong self you used to be. In fact, your ego testing has been compromised and, no longer being certain of your reality, you are not often able to accurately identify when something is "off" with your partner.

The process of gaslighting happens in stages, although the stages are not always linear and do overlap at times, they reflect very different emotional and psychological states of mind.

The first stage is disbelief: when the first sign of gaslighting occurs. You think of the gaslighting interaction as a strange behavior or an anomalous moment. During this first stage, things happen between you and your partner, or your boss, friend, family member that seem odd to you.

A young woman I know—let's call her Rhonda, just told me about her second date with Dean. She was shocked when, after a terrific dinner, he left her at the bus stop. He told her she was nuts to wait for a bus, and if she wanted to travel that way, he was not going to wait with her and would just see her another time. But, the piece de resistance was that he called her later that night (note that she picked up the call) and, he was insistent that there was nothing wrong with his jumping on the subway while she took the bus. Further, he told her that he was certain there was something wrong with the way she made choices about traveling. She argued but ultimately wrote off his behavior as "really weird." In recounting the story, she says it is "weird" and that he must have a "thing" about buses—but she does really want to see him again—they have so much in common and he is really romantic.

Unlikely that this is going to be an isolated incident. Dean sounds like he has to get his own way—and he has to be right. Rhonda is very attracted to him and wants things to work out, so she is likely to explain away his behavior, at least for a while.

The next stage is defense: where you are defending yourself against the gaslighter's manipulation. Think about it—you tell your boss, for example, you are unhappy with the assignments you have been getting; you feel you are wrongly passed over for the best assignments. You ask him why this is happening. Instead of addressing the issue, he tells you that you are way too sensitive and way too stressed..... well, maybe you are sensitive and stressed, but that doesn't answer the question of why you are being passed over for these better assignments. But, rather than leave it at that, or redirect the conversation, you start defending yourself, telling your boss you are not that sensitive or stressed or that the stress (https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/stress) doesn't interfere with your ability to work. But, during this stage, you are driven crazy by the conversation.... going over and over, like an endless tape, in your mind.

What's worse is that these kinds of conversations characterize your relationship more and more. You can't stand that your boss sees the situation like that, and you work even harder on the assignments you find boring, even demeaning, just to prove that you are not overly sensitive and stressed out. The next stage is depression (https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/depression): By the time you get to this stage, you are experiencing a noticeable lack of joy, and sometimes, you don't recognize yourself anymore. Some of your behavior may feel truly alien. You feel more cut off from friends—in fact, you don't talk to people about your relationship very much—none of them like your guy. People may express concern about how you are and you are feeling—they treat you like you really do have a problem.

One of the examples I wrote about in my book The Gaslight Effect concerns a lovely woman, Melanie. In the story told, Melanie was frantic because she couldn't find the "right" kind of salmon (her husband likes wild salmon and the grocery only had farm-raised) to serve at the dinner party for her husband's company. She knew her husband would accuse her of not caring enough about him to go to the store earlier in the day. Incidents like this were happening so much at home, Melanie began to believe he was right. After all, what was more important than her husband? Why wasn't she a more considerate wife? She was unhappy almost all the time and, she really believed that she could be a better, more considerate wife. She began to look for evidence of her poor behavior. Melanie had lost the ability, over time, to see anything else wrong with the relationship, besides that she was a less than adequate wife.

It took a long time and a lot of reflection and analysis, reality testing and self-management (https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/basics/leadership), for Melanie's view, to shift and for her to reclaim her reality and her life.

Is gaslighting considered a form of abuse?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation, in which the 'gaslighter' seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual (the 'gaslightee') or members of a group, intending to make targets question their own reality – or question their memory, their character and/or sometimes their sanity. 'Gaslighters' use the following techniques to destabilize and undermine the reality of their targets ('gaslightees'): persistent denial, deflection, reality spinning, blaming, contradiction, and outright lying as the gaslighter attempts to destabilize the target and cause them to second guess their own reality.

Could a person be engaging in gaslighting behaviors and not know it or is it always done with intent?

No one is born a gaslighter. And, not all gaslighting is done with intent or at least with conscious intent. Gaslighting is socially learned – either someone sees it, experiences it, or happens into it as a way of gaining control of the moment and stabilizing themselves and it works! People engaging in gaslighting can feel less anxious, avoid taking responsibility, avoid a difficult conversation. They can feel more in control of the moment and reaffirm the attachment their partner has to them.

When the target of gaslighting understands the dynamic – the gaslight tango – and wants to stop the gaslighting, the 'gaslighter' can join them in healing and stopping the manipulation - it will take vigilance and commitment and awareness and working together. It is possible – just not easy. Of course, if the gaslighting is not consciously intended, the unwitting gaslighter is likely to be more easily onboard.

What is my best defense against gaslighting, and can I stop it from happening?
  1. Be willing to leave - even if you don't ultimately have to; it's important to know that you don't have to live with being gaslighted if you make every attempt to change the dynamic and it doesn't work.

  2. Engage with your social support network, have compassion for yourself. You will need to have patience with your own process.

  3. Take action to stop this destructive dynamic: • Opt-out of the power struggle – when the conversation is a tug of war, just opt-out • Write down conversations verbatim and sort out truth from distortion • Identify when the conversation pivots away from you and your partner responding to each other and veers off in another direction where you are the target of gaslighting • Identify gaslight triggers and stay away from them in your conversations • Talk to people who really know you • Focus on feelings, not on right or wrong – if you are feeling horrible after each interaction, it doesn't matter who is right.'

  4. Decide whether to stay or go. Here are four questions to ask yourself: • Can I act differently with this person? • Is he capable of acting differently with me? • Am I willing to do the work it might take to change our dynamic?
    • If we give it our best effort, will I be happy with our relationship?

  5. Keep your life gaslight free: • Be aware of how you feel and when you feel the interaction is not OK • Be committed to standing in your integrity and stopping the gaslighting • Be honest with yourself • Be disciplined – when you feel at risk, don't engage • Be receptive to help and stay in touch with your support network • Be patient with yourself and give yourself compassion • Stay in the present – avoid projecting into the future or ruminating about the past • Remember that you can be kind and firm in setting limits at the same time.

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