What is gaslighting?

“Gaslighting” is a term that has become popular in recent years, but it’s a term hard to define. This is because ‘gaslighting’ is not classified as a psychological disorder, but refers to one form of sustained psychological manipulation and coercion commonly seen in unhealthy and abusive relationships. In fact, it’s name is derived from the titular British play and films, ‘Gas Light’ (1938, 1940, 1944), where a husband attempts to undermine his wife’s sense of reality to serve his own ulterior motives.

What are the hallmarks of gaslighting?

Gaslighting aims to gain power and control over (a group of) victims by insidiously wearing away at their sense of reality and identity. Some gaslighting tactics include (but are not limited to):

  • Withholding information from the victim
  • Countering information to fit the abuser’s perspective (e.g., using the fact there is no rubbish as evidence that they took the rubbish out, when it was something you did, or accusing the victim of offending/abusing them in a confrontation about the abuser’s wrongdoing or misdeeds).  
  • Using verbal abuse, usually in the form of jokes (e.g., ‘you know you can’t do anything right’, or repeatedly bringing up small mistakes) 
  • Blocking and diverting the victim’s attention from outside sources (e.g., downplaying the importance of others’ advice, discouraging or even blackmailing to prevent contact with family and friends)
  • Trivializing or “minimising” information or the victim’s worth (e.g., “it was nothing, you’re just overreacting” or “you’re always wrong [so your information must be wrong]”

What are the effects of gaslighting?

Most of us have used these tactics, either consciously or unconsciously, at some stage. Gaslighting, however, is a consistent and targeted use over time, which can lead to adverse mental health effects.

For individuals, especially in abusive relationships, gaslighting can lead to depression and anxiety, impact self-esteem, and result in the alienation or cutting-off of friends and family. This results in a dependence on the manipulator for truth as confidence in their own judgements and decisions deteriorate (similar to learned helplessness).

On a social level, gaslighting behaviours have been pointed out in politics or within cults. Some journalists have written about Donald Trump’s tendency to misrepresent facts and deny events, despite evidence to the contrary.

Why is this important?

First and foremost, we can all be more aware of the different kinds of unhealthy/abusive relationships. White Ribbon has more information about domestic violence and support services are listed at the bottom of this article.

Gaslighting also has implications for everyone because our attitudes, ability to think independently and critically are crucial to detecting the confusion caused by abusers’ misinformation. For most people, friends and family can often serve as an indicator of changes in our usual attitudes and behaviours.

On a social level, the speed and ubiquity of social media and news means if you say something enough, some will believe it (a.k.a. the “Illusory Truth Effect”). Taking time to refine our critical thinking and fact-checking skills can help us identify objective facts and quality evidence, and can have benefits in all areas of life, e.g. we can be more alert to negative thoughts that impact our moods, improve our critical reasoning and problem-solving at work, or help friends, family, and children.

Honesty with ourselves is as important as critical thinking. Emotions can determine what information we choose to believe without us even noticing it. Whether it is siding with our partner, political party, or anything else, people are more inclined to seek out and believe information that suits their views of the world (a.k.a. confirmation bias).

What should people do if they suspect or recognise gaslighting?

For suspected unhealthy/abusive relationships:

  • Since leaving an abusive relationship can be a very dangerous process, we encourage contact with specialist services that can help.
  • Victims of gaslighting may be resistant, confused, or reluctant. In most cases, it is appropriate to understand the victim’s experience, sensitively voice the changes we’ve noticed, and direct them to information and help to persuade them to seek help without confronting the abuser.

In the event of an emergency, call: 

  • Emergency services 000
  • Lifeline (24 hour crisis line): 131 114

At other times, information and supports are available from:

For fact-checking and critical thinking:

  • Critical thinking courses and textbooks about logic, cognitive biases and heuristics are a good (but often dry) starting point. Try ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Khaneman.
  • For media and news, fact-checking websites are available but be warned, some may be more or less trustworthy than others (but don’t take our word for it – nor theirs!). The best way to make sure fact-checking websites are doing a good job is to learn how to fact-check stories and issues, rather than relying on others too frequently.

Clinical and Registered Psychologists are trained to help spot unhelpful thinking patterns, cognitive biases, and heuristics within your personal issues. If you’d like to discuss any issues, please feel free to contact us.

Written by Eddy Chiu (Psychologist) for Sydney Psych Hub

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