The term gaslighting originated from the 1944 Ingrid Berman movie Gaslight, where a husband slowly manipulates his wife into thinking she’s gone insane. The term resurged in popularity in 2016 thanks to a viral op-ed in Teen Vogue; it was a runner-up for Oxford dictionary’s 2018 word of the year.
Gaslighting is a real phenomenon—and it has actual consequences for its victims. So what is gaslighting? And what are the signs you’re in a relationship with someone who’s gaslighting you?
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting psychological manipulation of a person, typically through lying, until the victim questions their sanity and begins to accept the other person’s version of reality. It's an abuse of power to dominate another person.
If the gaslighter is good enough, the victim may not even realize that it's happening. Gaslighting undermines a person’s confidence in who they are and what they believe, and it can lead them to do things they don’t want to do.
Sometimes otherwise mentally stable people gaslight in a certain situation—say, to cover up an affair. But people who persistently gaslight tend to be narcissistic (they’re extremely self-centered) and sociopathic (they ignore other’s people’s perspectives and disregard their rights). These people seek to control another person to meet their own needs or desires in a way that’s manipulative or dishonest.
Here are seven signs of gaslighting in a relationship, and what to do if you think you’re being gaslighted.
Gaslighting undermines a person's confidence in who they are and what they believe, and it can lead them to do things they don't want to do.
Signs of gaslighting in a relationship
Some of these signs (lying, making false promises) tend to be more strongly associated with gaslighting than others. But several signs taken together is evidence enough to suspect gaslighting. With some of these signs, the victim doesn’t notice them at first. The person needs to gain evidence that it’s gradually occurring over time and put the pieces together to see the symptoms for what they really are.
They lie—and keep lying even after they've been caught
Does your friend never seem to be wrong? If that's the case, they are definitely lying, because we’re all wrong at some point or another. Lying is a key sign of gaslighting.
Of course people lie for many reasons. But gaslighters lie to change another person’s reality. Whatever the gaslighter wants to get from one person, they'll get one way or another through lying.
Gaslighters typically start with small lies, then build up to bigger ones. When they’re caught, even with proof—like text messages—they refuse to admit the truth. They’ll keep denying and lying until you question your memory and ultimately believe their version of events.
It becomes a real mind-you-know-what if the person who’s lying is so confident and unwavering in their position.
They play on insecurities
A gaslighter gets to know your vulnerabilities. Your vulnerabilities include your insecurities, successes, and beliefs. They’ll consistently critique these things, and make snide comments to hurt and control you. Then they will tell you to "get over it," so you begin to believe your perspective isn’t valid or important.
These comments cut down your sense of self-esteem and over time gives the gaslighter the upper hand. The person who is being gaslit will question their worthiness and identify with the gaslighter’s perspective.
Actions don't match words
Even though the gaslighter says that they care about you, they ultimately flake on plans time and again, then swear that the plans never existed in the first place. They’re telling you what you want to hear, then doing whatever it is they wanted to do in the first place.
When someone says they’re going to do something, you should be able to trust they’ll do it. You should question your trust in a person who gives you lip service—particularly if it’s a pattern.
They manipulate your relationships
Gaslighters manipulate how you see important people in your life. They tell you that your father doesn’t love you, your friend is talking behind your back, or your sister is lying to you. They also develop relationships with some of these people, then convince them that you’re crazy in order to manipulate them into supporting the gaslighting process.
By convincing everyone around you that they are the only person who can be trusted, a gaslighter becomes the master manipulator. When you’re cut off from people you trust, you don’t have access to other perspectives that might help you to question what’s happening.
They question your sanity
After lying and manipulating you, a gaslighter will question your version of events, telling you that you're paranoid or imagining things. The goal is to make you feel like you’re going insane.
Constantly questioning your reality is a way to make you feel like there’s something really wrong with you. In the end, you’ll believe you actually need the other person’s perspective to get by.
They accuse you of doing the same thing
Known as “projection” in therapy-speak, gaslighters accuse their victims of their own behaviors.
How many partners accuse their partner of cheating because they’re the one who’s cheating? The person who’s cheating sees the world in a distrustful way because they’re distrustful. They’re attempting to wiggle their way out. If their partner doesn’t have a good sense of self, they’ll buy the projection and act it out by actually having an affair.
You feel increasingly unsure of yourself
Over time, a gaslighter’s behaviors cut into the self-confidence of their victim. You might think everything’s your fault and apologize all of the time, then wonder if you’re too sensitive. Maybe you feel anxious and isolated. You may question your impressions, thoughts, and feelings, and have a hard time making decisions.
What should you do if you're being gaslighted?
\\If you think believe that you're being gaslighted, find a person to confide in, a person that you can trust. You need to get out from under the influence of the gaslighter and have your perspective heard and understood.
It’s entirely possible to fall for someone and realize that they’re gaslighting you after a date or two. Get rid of them. If this isn’t the first time you’ve been attracted to a gaslighter, therapy might be in order. Consider how you become attracted to this type of person. Ask yourself if you're playing a subservient role, and was that something that person smelled out? People who control are looking for people they can control.
Things get more complicated if you’re being gaslighted in a long-term relationship.
If gaslighting is linked to specific circumstances, like covering up an affair, there’s hope to salvage the relationship if the person is truly sorry and willing to try couple’s therapy. If the gaslighter recognizes what they are doing and changes, and you determine why the cheating happened and address those issues, there’s a chance you can recover.
Many people who have affairs never thought they would and are grasping for ways to make it go away or pretend like it never happened.
If, however, a person is slowly gaslighting you, and they aren’t remorseful when you confront them, they may have a serious personality disorder. You may also be grappling with insecurity yourself or seeking a strong connection during a vulnerable time of your life.
Changing this type of behavior in a person takes time and a lot of motivation. It’s much more complicated and often never occurs.