What Is Gaslighting, Really? How To Tell if It’s Happening to You and Protect Yourself

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The destigmatization of mental health has opened the door for more candid conversations about it—objectively, a good thing. But one negative side effect of that discussion spike is the spread of misinformation. Of all the therapy terms tossed around on social media, “gaslighting” might be one of the most widely used—and misused (“triggered” is a close second, with “boundaries” following suit). Somewhere along the way, gaslighting became synonymous with lying and coercion, but psychologists say that those acts are only small parts of a much larger picture. So what is gaslighting, really?

“[Gaslighting is] a technique used to manipulate and distort,” says Dublin-based integrative psychotherapist Sarah Jane Crosby, author of Five Minute Therapy. “The greater the level of self-doubt, the easier it becomes for the gaslighter to dictate situations to their liking.”

Below, we explore the ins and outs of the manipulative tactic of gaslighting with real-world examples, and share advice from experts on what to do if you determine that you're the victim of gaslighting.

Experts In This Article

What is gaslighting?

In therapeutic terms, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that is used to maintain power and control over another person by destabilizing their reality. In simpler terms, gaslighting is when one person tries to make another person doubt their own perceptions, thoughts, feelings, memories, or sanity.

After planting that initial seed of doubt in their victim, a gaslighter will further destabilize the target by telling them that there's something wrong with them, says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of It's Not You: Identifying and Healing from Narcissistic People.

To sum it up, in order to fit the definition of gaslighting, a gaslighter must do two things, says Dr. Ramani:

  1. Deny the victim’s perception of reality
  2. Suggest that something is wrong with the victim

While anyone can gaslight another person, gaslighting rarely occurs between strangers, says Dr. Ramani. Rather, it most commonly occurs in relationships predicated on some amount of trust or closeness. The person doing the gaslighting uses that established level of trust to discredit the other person’s experiences. “It's often considered a form of emotional abuse, and it usually happens repeatedly,” adds Dr. Ramani.

Unfortunately, as usage of the term "gaslighting" has skyrocketed in recent years (“gaslighting” was Merriam Webster’s Word of the Year for 2022), the misuse of gaslighting has become increasingly common, too. Dr. Ramani says that people often use the term when the behavior they’re experiencing is actually one of two things: deception or a difference in opinion. While a gaslighter may use deception to gaslight their victim, there needs to be an attempt to discredit the other person’s perception of reality for the behavior to be considered gaslighting.

The same applies to a difference in opinion: If someone says they don’t believe something happened the way you said it did, that doesn’t mean they’re gaslighting you—they are just expressing that their recollection doesn’t match yours. However, if they say there must be something wrong with your memory of the event, then they are, indeed, gaslighting you.

Why is it called gaslighting?

The origin of the term “gaslighting” stems from Gas Light, a British play from the 1930s that was later adapted into a film. The play tells the story of a man who tricks his wife into believing that she’s losing her sanity by making small tweaks to her environment and later denying that those changes ever happened. His goal is to damage her sense of self-trust more and more over time, to the point where he can eventually steal her valuable heirlooms without causing suspicion. In the end, he gets exactly what he wants: She gets admitted to a mental institution against her will, and he gets all of her money.

Among the most notable “tweaks” that the husband makes to his wife's environment in the play is the dimming of gas lights in their home, causing them to flicker on and off. When she points out their flickering, he denies that there’s anything wrong with them. Thus, the term “gaslighting” was born.

How do you tell if someone is gaslighting you?

Dr. Ramani says that if someone repeatedly denies your perception of reality and tries to tell you that something must be wrong with you in order for you to have that perception of reality, it’s very likely that you’re being gaslighted.

It’s common to feel confused after you’ve been gaslighted. If a gaslighter is truly effective, you might then begin to doubt your own memory, emotions, and experiences. “With enough time, a person will slowly find themselves giving into the other person [in order] to maintain the relationship, or because they no longer trust themselves,” says Dr. Ramani.

Below, Dr. Ramani outlines a few common gaslighting tactics to look out for:

1. They trivialize your emotions and experiences

Trivializing is a tactic that involves downplaying or dismissing someone's feelings, experiences, or concerns, making them feel insignificant or irrational.

2. They say your memory is flawed

This gaslighting tactic, called “countering,” involves contradicting or denying the victim’s experiences or perceptions, causing them to question their memory or judgment. Discrediting the victim’s memory can then lead them to doubt their past and future perceptions of reality, setting the stage for repeated abuse.

3. They withhold information purposefully

This aspect of gaslighting involves the deliberate omission of important information to manipulate someone's understanding of a situation. By keeping certain information close to their chest, the gaslighter is more easily able to twist the facts around.

4. They turn the blame onto you

This final gaslighting tactic, often referred to as “diverting,” involves shifting the focus of a conversation away from the issue at hand and deflecting or redirecting blame onto the victim. “When you show a gaslighter the evidence [of the truth], they double down and tell you you're crazy, so that there's no path forward,” explains Dr. Ramani. By shifting the blame onto the victim, the gaslighter retains the power in the relationship.

What is an example of gaslighting?

We often associate gaslighting with romantic relationships, but this insidious form of emotional abuse can appear in platonic and professional relationships, too. Below, you'll find real-world examples of several common types of gaslighting you might encounter.

Relationship gaslighting

As the name suggests, this form of gaslighting occurs within a close relationship. Whether platonic or romantic, the gaslighter in this relationship uses the established trust and intimacy of the relationship to manipulate the victim.


  • “I never said that—you’re imagining things.”
  • “You seem angrier than usual. Are you on your period?”
  • “You’re remembering things wrong.”
  • “Why can’t you take a joke?”
  • “I feel like you don’t trust me. You must not be committed to our relationship.”

Workplace gaslighting

Gaslighting at work can happen between colleagues, a boss and their subordinate, or work friends. While other forms of workplace bullying like sexual harassment might be easier to spot, gaslighting often flies under the radar; still, one 2019 poll found that 58 percent of people have reported experiencing some form of gaslighting at work.

If you believe workplace gaslighting is happening to you, Crosby encourages you to speak with someone in the human resources department of your company (if it has one). “When this isn’t possible, it's important to form solid boundaries around what you’re willing to give and say to this individual,” she says. The less you can engage, the better.

If it's not feasible to limit communication, Crosby recommends you “log your reality” and chat about your experiences with supportive friends and a therapist (if you have one) every week. She also suggests further educating yourself on the subject by reading about it (she likes Gaslighting: The Narcissist's Favorite Tool of Manipulation and Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free).


  • “I told you to file this yesterday; you just don’t remember that I did.”
  • “No, we agreed upon an 8 percent raise, not 10; you must have forgotten.”
  • “I was just giving you feedback—stop being so sensitive!”

Medical gaslighting

Medical gaslighting occurs when a medical professional—like a doctor, nurse, or surgeon—minimizes or dismisses the symptoms and experiences of a patient dealing with real pain, causing doubt and confusion. Research shows that women are more susceptible to having their concerns dismissed by medical professionals: A 2022 gaslighting survey conducted by SHE Media revealed that 72 percent of women say they’ve experienced medical gaslighting outright.


  • “Your medication is the correct dose. You’re exaggerating how it’s making you feel.”
  • “You don’t need anesthesia for this procedure—you’ll be fine.”
  • “Your knee isn’t hurting because you fell. It’s hurting because you need to lose weight.”
  • “It’s probably just menopause.”

Racial gaslighting

Racial gaslighting, also known as “racelighting,” occurs when Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) individuals are gaslighted through racial messages, leading the victim to question their own experiences in regard to their race. Often, racial gaslighting takes the form of microaggressions1, or subtle acts of racial discrimination.


  • “You’re making a big deal out of nothing—anyone can say that word.”
  • “Maybe if your hair was more professional, they would have hired you.”
  • “I don’t see color.”
  • “I can’t be racist, I have black friends.”
  • “You know Aunt Suzie was raised in a different time; she wasn’t trying to be racist.”

What causes gaslighting?

While gaslighting itself is an abusive act not tied to any specific mental disorder, there are certain kinds of people who often intentionally use gaslighting in order to manipulate others. Dr. Ramani says that people who gaslight are usually insensitive, insecure, and power-hungry. “They only feel comfortable in a relationship when they hold dominance,” she says.

Research shows2 that people who have one or more of the negative Dark Tetrad personality traits (which expands upon the Dark Triad)—including narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism—are more likely to see gaslighting tactics as acceptable within a relationship. Dr. Ramani says that people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are also more likely to be gaslighters, since they struggle to feel emotional empathy toward others3. Because vulnerable narcissists (a subtype of NPD)4 tend to have shaky self-esteem, they may especially turn to gaslighting to retain control of a narrative.

No matter the origins of the gaslighting behavior, though, Crosby says it's important to remember that emotional abuse is never the fault of the victim, but rather, the choice of the abuser. It's essential to seek support if you feel you're being gaslighted in any way.

How to deal with gaslighting

1. Identify how you’re being gaslighted

In order to circumvent a gaslighter’s manipulation, Dr. Ramani says you must first fully understand the ways in which you’re being gaslighted. Ask yourself: What is this person gaslighting me about? How are they discrediting my perception of reality? What events led up to the gaslighting? Answering these questions can help you better identify any future attempts to continue gaslighting you. “Only when you know what it is can you disengage with it,” says Dr. Ramani.

2. Keep a record of the times you’re being gaslighted

Gaslighting is rarely an isolated incident; rather, it’s often a repeated form of abuse, says Dr. Ramani. If you believe you’re being gaslighted, take the time to document the instances of gaslighting as they occur. Include specific details about what they said, how they made you feel, and the events surrounding the interaction. Having a record can help you learn to recognize the gaslighter's patterns and retain your sense of self-trust, even as the gaslighter attempts to break it down.

Recording particular instances of gaslighting can be especially helpful when it comes to workplace gaslighting or medical gaslighting, given you may be required to document such abuse in order to get different treatment.

3. Disengage with the gaslighter

Depending on the severity of the gaslighting and your relationship with the person involved, you may need to distance yourself or end the relationship altogether for the sake of your well-being. According to Dr. Ramani, it’s difficult to convince a gaslighter that they’re being abusive—even if you can share clear evidence of their abuse with them. “They don’t care about the evidence because they’re not just lying,” explains Dr. Ramani. “Lying can be stopped with evidence. But when you show a gaslighter the evidence? They double down.”

While cutting ties may feel difficult, Dr. Ramani stresses that maintaining a relationship with a gaslighter can worsen your emotional and mental health over time. “If you are in a toxic relationship with a narcissistic person or with a gaslighting person, you're never really psychologically fit,” she says. “You're not in a relationship with someone who's offering empathy or compassion, but rather a person that is willing to emotionally abuse you to keep their dominant position.” And that kind of relationship is never one worth staying in.

4. Create clear boundaries

If the gaslighter is someone with whom you must continue to interact, establish clear boundaries for what you will and won't discuss (keeping certain contentious topics off the table), and when (perhaps requiring that someone else is present for certain conversations). And set aside times during which you will not engage with this person at all.

It's important to retain these moments of solitude wherein you can touch base with yourself and reconnect with your thoughts and feelings outside of the gaslighter, says Dr. Ramani. This way, you can ensure you stay connected to your truth and your emotional baseline, so that you're less likely to lose your grip on self-trust amid this person's gaslighting tactics.

5. Seek professional support

Instances of emotional abuse can be just as damaging to a person as physical abuse (and can often lead to physical abuse, too). For this reason, if you believe you’re the victim of gaslighting and are unable to cut ties or set strong boundaries with the perpetrator, consider reaching out to your local domestic abuse nonprofit; you can use the National Domestic Violence Hotline site to search for local assistance providers.

If you are already in the care of a mental health professional like a therapist or counselor, you can also seek support from them for dealing with gaslighting and other manipulative relationship tactics.

Do you think you may be a victim of gaslighting or another form of emotional abuse? You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text “START” to 88788 for help today. This resource is free, confidential, and available 24/7. 

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Johnson, Veronica & Nadal, Kevin & Sissoko, Gina & King, Rukiya. (2021). “It’s Not in Your Head”: Gaslighting, ‘Splaining, Victim Blaming, and Other Harmful Reactions to Microaggressions. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 16. 1024-1036. 10.1177/17456916211011963.
  2. March, E., Kay, C.S., Dinić, B.M. et al. “It’s All in Your Head”: Personality Traits and Gaslighting Tactics in Intimate Relationships. J Fam Viol (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-023-00582-y
  3. Baskin-Sommers, Arielle et al. “Empathy in narcissistic personality disorder: from clinical and empirical perspectives.” Personality disorders vol. 5,3 (2014): 323-33. doi:10.1037/per0000061
  4. Zajenkowski, Marcin et al. “Vulnerable and Grandiose Narcissism Are Differentially Associated With Ability and Trait Emotional Intelligence.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 9 1606. 28 Aug. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01606

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