“Gaslighting” became Merriam Webster’s word of the year for 2022, demonstrating that social media has effectively given it buzzword status. Yet, gaslighting has been the focus of psychoanalytical research for many years–including how it relates to attachment theory. And the reasons for why are evident…
Gaslighting is, in a nutshell, a form of covert emotional abuse in which one person creates a false narrative for another, and forces them to doubt their judgments and sense of reality. The end result of successful gaslighting is that the target becomes emotionally dependent on the perpetrator.
Gaslighting is often associated with narcissism or personality disorders, but, in some circumstances, gaslighting is the outcome of attachment trauma and the resulting inability to understand what a healthy relationship looks like, as well as how to lead one. In such cases, a defense mechanism of dependence-promoting behaviors kicks in.
In an effort to increase understanding around gaslighting behaviors, mitigate their effects, and potentially even prevent gaslighting from occurring in the first place, this article covers:
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The gaslighting definition is concerned with how one person (or group of people) uses psychological abuse to cause another person (the target) to doubt or question their sanity, recollections, or understanding of reality. As a result of this doubt, the target usually feels anxious, scared, confused, and lacks trust in themselves.
“You are not going out of your mind. You are slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.”
This quote from Gaslight (1944), in which a husband convinces his wife that she is going insane, accurately sums up the experience of gaslighting. The film (and original play) helped to highlight a particular form of abuse, and hence, became the inspiration for its moniker. Gaslighting may not have been a new concept in the early twenty-first century, but the film did help to highlight the technique and its impact on the target.
Although gaslighting predominantly occurs in romantic partnerships, it is also not uncommon in friendships, family relationships, or even work dynamics. At this point, it may be important to emphasize that people who gaslight typically have mental health issues, such as personality disorders or attachment traumas. To say as much is not an attempt to remove blame from the gaslighter, but instead to create a narrative in which gaslighting is better understood and avoided. Gaslighting is, unequivocally, still a form of emotional abuse in which someone tries to exert power and influence over those close to them.
Attachment theory is a psychological framework that focuses on the emotional bond that develops between an infant and their caregiver(s). This early attachment bond plays a critical role in shaping a child’s sense of self-worth, security, and ability to form healthy relationships in later life.
If a caregiver meets their child’s needs for safety and security, the child forms a secure attachment style and thus develops a stable foundation for relationships. In contrast, if caregivers are inconsistent, rejecting, or neglectful of their childrens’ needs they may form one of the three insecure attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, or disorganized. These latter forms of attachment can lead to difficulties in forming close relationships, as well as emotional and behavioral problems in some instances. You can find out more about the different attachment styles in our article, Attachment Styles & Their Role in Relationships.
Additionally, although gaslighting is more commonly associated with adult relationships, it is also known to occur in the caregiver-child relationship. Such actions can disrupt the caregiver-child bond, leading to an insecure attachment style and creating a maladaptive attitude toward how relationships should function in adulthood.
If you would like to find out what attachment style you have, take the free quiz on our website for your report.
Gaslighting a child can result in a disruption to the child/caregiver bond as the caregiver instills a seed of doubt in the child about the accuracy of their own thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs. In this way, the caregiver is creating a constant state of uncertainty in their child and a sense of reliance on them as a caregiver, so the child may fail to form a strong sense of self and look to others for validation. Unfortunately, such children may grow up to become more susceptible to similarly abusive relationships.
As an example of the effects of caregiver gaslighting, research into caregivers’ gaslighting of transgender children in a therapeutic setting uncovered some troubling findings. The study unveiled caregiver actions such as purposely not doing something for their child, deliberately forgetting things important to the child, and blaming them for the wrongdoings of others–in other words, using them as a scapegoat. These kinds of behaviors tie into the theory around gaslighters requiring a level of control in a relationship: When such caregivers felt like they were losing control of their childrens’ actions, they exerted manipulative techniques to regain dominance.
It’s important to keep in mind that such actions may not necessarily come from a place of malicious intent; the gaslighter may have misguided beliefs that they are helping their child. Nevertheless, gaslighting is highly damaging to a child’s mental health and potentially creates a cycle of beliefs and attitudes that stem into adulthood.
The key question on the minds of people who have been gaslit is usually, “Why do people gaslight?” As previously mentioned, people who gaslight often have a personality disorder such as psychopathy or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Gaslighting may start out as actions such as love bombing, and once the victim becomes emotionally committed, the next stage of gaslighting begins–manipulation. Whereas manipulation is a somewhat common behavior intended to exert influence on someone, gaslighting is distinct as it involves manipulative abuse with the main intent to control another person.
Also, although people commonly use the phrases “gaslighting” and “narcissist” synonymously, they are distinct conditions. Even though gaslighting can be a trait of a narcissistic personality disorder, it’s not considered to be a core trait. The central difference is that while a narcissist acts in a superior and self-promoting manner, a gaslighter’s main aim is to instill a sense of self-doubt in another person. Gaslighters also typically repeat this pattern of manipulative abuse across several relationships.
As discussed, gaslighting can also occur as the result of childhood trauma such as through caregiver gaslighting and insecure attachment styles, as the individual may strive for control in their relationships.
Gaslighting can happen in various ways, each of which has a detrimental impact on the target. The following are some forms of gaslighting, and understanding them may help people prone to gaslighting behaviors cease acting in such ways. This information may also assist those at the receiving end of gaslighting with recognizing the signs and removing themselves from the situation.
This is when the gaslighter causes the target to doubt their own memories by saying things such as “How can you be sure? You’ve always had a bad memory,” or, “You’re wrong. You must have forgotten what really happened.”
The gaslighter might trivialize the target’s feelings in response to legitimate concerns by belittling them, disregarding them for being overly sensitive, or making them think they’re overreacting.
When called out on their actions, someone who gaslights might try to use kindness and compassion to defuse the situation. They might say something along the lines of, “But I could never hurt you–I love you.” They are telling the gaslighter what they want to hear, but if their actions are a habit, such words are inaccurate.
This form of gaslighting involves the instigator refusing to take responsibility for their actions. Doing so might look like denying outright what happened, “forgetting” it, or placing blame on the target for why they acted the way they did.
The gaslighter may attempt to make the target doubt themselves by pretending they don’t understand what they’re talking about or by simply refusing to listen to them. They may say things like “You’re really confusing me,” or, “I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
This method involves rerouting the focus of a conversation by questioning the target’s reliability or integrity. One way of doing so would be to say, “Honestly, you need to stop reading trash online. It’s all lies.”
This form of gaslighting requires intentionally and negatively typecasting someone based on characteristics such as gender, sexuality, race, nationality, or age. For instance, the gaslighter may tell the target that no one would believe them due to their sexuality, gender, or age.
Gaslighting in romantic relationships doesn’t typically start straight away–it occurs gradually. It’s similar to the proverb about how if you want to boil a frog, you don’t simply place it in boiling water as it will instantly hop straight out. Instead, the trick is to place the frog in cool water and gradually raise the temperature. The frog will adjust to the rising temperature and not attempt to escape as it won’t recognize the signs of danger.
Anyone who has experienced gaslighting has been this frog. If someone were to gaslight them at the outset of the relationship, they undoubtedly wouldn’t hang around long enough for emotional damage to occur. But, unfortunately, gaslighting starts small and increases in frequency over time–so much so that the target often doesn’t realize that it’s happening.
In romantic relationships, a gaslighter might attempt to make a target doubt their judgment in subtle ways over time by saying things like:
In other forms of relationships, such as familial, workplace, or friendships, additional types of gaslighting might occur, including actions such as:
Due to gaslighting’s insidious nature, it can have severe consequences for the subject’s mental health. This is because gaslighting aims to instill doubt and uncertainty in someone’s mind. As a result, the target starts to distrust their own memories, thoughts, and feelings.
Not only does gaslighting cause someone to lose confidence in themselves, but it also often isolates them from their social circles. A gaslighter, to increase their position of power in the target’s life, might convince them to cut ties with loved ones. Alternatively, due to the target’s increasing lack of belief in themselves and their self-worth, they may choose to isolate themselves as a false form of self-protection.
Gaslighting, like any form of emotional abuse, is usually gradual, and chips away at someone’s self-esteem and self-worth over time. Eventually, the target may even start to believe that they deserve the abuse. Moreover, the effects of gaslighting often persist even after the relationship ends: The seeds of self-doubt that the gaslighter has sown continue to affect the target’s belief in their decision-making abilities and the validity of their emotions and thoughts. Consequently, this persistent self-doubt can lead to serious mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another serious consequence of gaslighting is that it may lead to codependency in subsequent relationships as the target may feel as though they need to rely on the decision-making skills of others because they doubt their own to such an extent.
How you deal with gaslighting depends on your specific circumstances, but coping usually involves tactics such as setting boundaries, keeping track of events, and stepping back to take personal time. The following strategies can be useful when coping with gaslighting in relationships.
In an age when the term “gaslighting” is receiving increased attention, it’s important to recognize the difference between “true” gaslighting and defensive behaviors.
True gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which the individual requires your dependence and encourages it by making you doubt your feelings and actions. These tactics usually start small and build in both frequency and duration as the relationship progresses. In contrast, many relationships involve defensive behaviors on behalf of one or both partners. Although these defensive behaviors may at times seem maladaptive, critical, or harsh, they’re not necessarily gaslighting actions. Furthermore, people sometimes inadvertently display gaslighting behaviors by questioning whether the other person is overreacting or by resolutely arguing about being right even when there’s evidence to the contrary. Again, these behaviors are not necessarily true gaslighting–the essential difference between gaslighting and defensive behaviors is the level of manipulation and control involved.
When determining if someone is gaslighting you or displaying defensive behaviors, try to consider all factors. How have you been feeling in the relationship in the long run? Does the other person seem to require your dependence on them? Or are gaslighting behaviors isolated to when they’re upset or during an argument?
The main aim of gaslighting is to undermine your confidence in your version of events to promote dependence on the other person. Undermining your memory of situations or events may range from targeting small details to larger ones, but ultimately, if you are confident in your memory, you should repeat it back to them calmly, but with confidence.
If you feel the need, you could document elements of situations by taking photos or notes, screenshots of conversations, and videos (in areas where doing so is allowed). Not only can doing so restore your confidence in your version of events, but it also allows you to protect yourself and maintain control. If the other person still refuses to accept the truth, you can state that you don’t wish to discuss the situation further and remove yourself safely from conflict.
One possible goal of a gaslighter is to socially or psychologically isolate you in an attempt to increase emotional dependence on them. If you feel like you’re being gaslit, make sure to reach out to trusted people in your life–even if a divide has already been created with these people. Tell them what has been happening to you and share your concerns. These people will more than likely validate your opinions and support you while you decide on the next steps to take in your life. Additionally, by voicing your concerns, you may be able to gain further clarity on the gaslighting behaviors in your relationship.
Self-care may not help to reduce gaslighting behaviors in relationships, but it can help you restore and maintain peace of mind and confidence in your version of events. Moreover, a typical symptom of gaslighting is attempting to make the other person feel unworthy of self-care activities–like the person is being indulgent or lazy for taking care of their needs.
Self-care can restore conviction in your sense of self and help you reach an internal equilibrium after a distressing event, so engage in activities that are meaningful to you, such as socializing with friends, exercising, reading a good book, or rewatching a favorite movie.
When someone attempts to invalidate your experiences of an event it can be very tempting to challenge their views, but continually doing so can be highly mentally draining as it can lead to conflict and increase feelings of distress. Although you may be entirely in the right to deny the other person’s account of events, they may use your frustration and distress against you as further evidence in support of what they’re saying.
If you feel like you’re struggling to keep calm, try to remove yourself from the situation. Doing so can compound your clarity around the events in discussion and reduce the chance that the other person will be able to sway your opinion. Take a walk, go for a coffee, have a bath–any activity that lowers your distress and allows you to regain confidence and faith in yourself.
Whether you’re in the midst of, or the aftermath of, a manipulative relationship, you may be experiencing a lot of emotions such as anger, frustration, worry, or even shame. If this is the case for you, it may be important to speak to a mental health professional who can help you unpick what happened to you and come to the realization that it’s not your fault. It can be difficult to understand why someone gaslights, but the most important thing is not necessarily comprehending their motives–it’s getting a grip on how to mentally move past the relationship (if this is the right thing for you) and learning how to heal. Or, if you choose to remain in the relationship, a professional can help you understand how to set and enforce healthy boundaries.
Gaslighting, like any other form of emotional abuse, has detrimental effects on the person on the receiving end. If you feel as though you are being gaslit, it’s important to both recognize the signs and take the necessary steps to protect yourself. Alternatively, if you suspect that you might be gaslighting someone, it’s imperative to educate yourself on why you might be acting in such ways and make vital changes to your behavior.
The most important thing to remember is that gaslighting is never the target’s fault; it occurs so gradually that most people don’t realize it’s happening until they’re fully entrenched in self-doubt and reliance on the other person. At the end of the day, gaslighting is an attempt to change the truth, so try to remember your conviction and strength–and turn to others to remind you of these things in times when you struggle to.
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