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Gaslighting: What It Is and How to Recognize It

Gaslighting has become the term used to describe a particular type of emotional trauma inflicted upon people by their abusers. The term comes from the name of a British play called “Gas Light” that was later made into a popular film, also called “Gaslight.” In the play and film, the victim notices that the gas lights in her home dim every evening, but the abuser manipulates her into doubting this reality, and ultimately, her sanity.

Gaslighting is not a general term for all psychological or emotional trauma caused by abuse. It has a specific definition that includes:

  • Intentional manipulation. The person doing this knows what he or she is doing, and is doing it on purpose for reasons related to power and control.
  • The purpose of the manipulation is to create self-doubt, making the victim question their own perceptions and memory, and their own sanity.
  • This may involve directly manipulating external reality (as in the film, where the abuser dimmed the gas lights in the home, then denied having done so), but it always involves the spoken or unspoken accusation that the victim’s perception of reality is inaccurate.

Abusers engaging in gaslighting use a set of specific psychological mechanisms or behaviors to create self-doubt in their victims. These include:

  • Countering. The abuser challenges or “counters” the victim’s memory, even when it is accurate.
  • Forgetting. Very similar to countering, when this technique is employed, the abuser pretends to forget an event the victim mentions. Some professionals call this technique denial, since the abuser denies remembering the incident.
  • Withholding. This technique eliminates communication with the abuser because he or she just shuts down. This may involve refusing to discuss an issue completely, or it may involve pretending to try to understand an issue that is raised, only to claim it is impossible to understand.
  • Trivializing. Abusers create emotional trauma by making the victim question their perception of their own feelings. The victim raises an issue and the abuser trivializes it, insisting that it is too minimal or ridiculous to even consider.

Once you recognize that your relationship contains elements of gaslighting, what can you do? Chances are good that confronting your partner will only yield more gaslighting efforts. It may be time to cut your losses and end the relationship. If you’re struggling with this decision, seek help. Talk with a therapist or call a hotline. The emotional trauma of being gaslighted is something you can overcome with support. Reach out today.


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