What Is Gaslighting?

There is a common misconception around domestic violence — that it must involve some type of physical abuse. While many people who engage in domestic violence do hit, shove, or strangle their victims, domestic violence often involves more than physical harm. At its heart, domestic violence is about power and control. For this reason, people who abuse typically engage in many forms of domestic violence, including:

One common form of emotional abuse is known as gaslighting. This type of abuse causes a victim to question their own perception of reality, their feelings, instincts, and even their sanity. This gives the person who abuses a significant amount of control, making it more difficult for the victim to leave.

But what exactly is gaslighting — and how did it get that name? The term comes from a 1938 play, “Gas Light,” which was turned into a more successful movie in 1944, “Gaslight.” In this drama, the husband manipulates his wife by turning the gas-powered lights down, then denying that the lights have dimmed when she comments on them — making her believe that she is losing her sense of reality. He also hides things and tells her that she has put them away, and plays other tricks to make her think that she is going mad. His goal is to have her committed to a mental institution so that he can steal her inheritance.

Gaslighting is a specific type of manipulation that occurs when one person is trying to get another (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory, or perceptions. It usually involves a power dynamic, where the person doing the manipulating holds enough power so that the victim is terrified to change the relationship or challenge the gaslighting.

There are five techniques that a person might use to gaslight someone else:

  1. Withholding: refusing to listen or saying that they do not understand (“I don’t want to talk about this again.”)

  2. Countering: questioning the victim’s memory of an event (“That never happened — you have such a bad memory.”)

  3. Blocking/diverting: changing the subject or questioning the victim’s thinking (“You’re imagining things.)

  4. Trivializing: making the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant (“You’re too sensitive.”)

  5. Forgetting/denial: pretending to have forgotten what actually happened or denying something previously agreed to (“I never agreed to that.”)

One of the biggest red flags that you are experiencing gaslighting is that you start to question yourself a lot, or have trouble making decisions. This could be a sign that your partner or another person in your life is gaslighting you. If you spend too much time thinking about a perceived character flaw, like being overly sensitive, that may also be a sign of gaslighting. Similarly, if you feel fuzzy or unclear about your thoughts, feelings or beliefs, it may be a signal that you are being manipulated through this technique.

Gaslighting is just one form of abuse that can occur in a relationship. If you are experiencing — or have experienced — any type of violence, including emotional abuse, we can help. Our hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at no cost to you: 724-836-1122 or 1-888-832-2272.

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Since 1976, Blackburn Center has been providing services to victims of domestic and sexual violence and other types of violence and crime in Westmoreland County, and presenting education programs across this community.  You can learn more about types of abuse, our services, or ways to get help if you are a victim of violence or crime.  All of our services are FREE and CONFIDENTIAL, and can be ANONYMOUS.


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