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Gaslighting: What It Means and How it Manifests Itself

Updated: Apr 30, 2023


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In an age defined by terms like “deepfake”, “fake news”, and “alternative facts”, it takes a lot to stand out as the most impactful term for deception of them all. But that’s exactly what “gaslighting” did in 2022:

gaslighting is the word of the year
(from Smithsonian Magazine)

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group makes someone question their sanity, memory, or perception of events – and it can range from a minor frustration to genuine emotional abuse. The person who gets gaslit has a strong emotional investment for it to happen in the first place. For example, you love your job and want to succeed, or you trust your partner and don’t believe they would lie to you. It can be maddening because those strong, loving feelings are not reciprocated.

Here at Flourish, we’re experts on the subject. You could say that our founder, Dr. Phoenix Brill, wrote the book on the subject…because her dissertation about it, “Gaslighting: Sophisticated Abuse Disguised in the Workplace”, was published in 2017!

Who Invented Gaslighting?

Wondering where “gaslighting” came from? The term originates with the 1944 film "Gaslight,” in which a thieving husband, after his wife’s inherited jewels, tricks her with lies and manipulation into thinking she is insane. He falsifies evidence, insists she feels sick when she doesn’t, and of course, dims their home’s gas lights and then denies it when she notices. His plan is to have her institutionalized and steal her inheritance.

trailer for 1944 movie Gaslight
Trailer for “Gaslight” (1944)

How Gaslighting Manipulates Reality

Gaslighting can take many forms. Typically, it involves a person (or group of people) using manipulative tactics to make the victim question their own memory, perceptions, or even sanity. There are six main types:

  1. Countering – making you question your memory

  2. Withholding – refusing to engage in conversation

  3. Trivializing – belittling your feelings

  4. Denial – denying saying or doing certain things

  5. Diverting – changing focus without responding to concerns, often questioning your credibility

  6. Stereotyping – claiming negative traits of an entire group are involved – e.g., “all females are irrational”

Gaslighting can be difficult to detect, especially in the early stages, because the abusers often start with small lies or exaggerations that can be easy to overlook.

Signs of Gaslighting

While this is not a complete list, and each situation is different, some warning signs of gaslighting may be:

  • someone close to you constantly denying that remembered events occurred

  • feeling confused about the legitimacy of your reactions

  • questioning your own memory or the way you perceive events

  • feeling guilt or shame about something you’re not even sure you did, or for the way you feel

  • feeling isolated or cut off from friends and family

Who Uses Gaslighting?

Gaslighting can manifest in many different types of relationships – family, friends, and romantic partners. But it can also occur in professional settings, which is an often-overlooked situation in modern workplaces (refer back to Dr. Brill’s book, for example).

Regardless of whether it’s interpersonal or in a business, gaslighters are always trying to change the power dynamic of a relationship. By doing it, they invalidate the genuine feelings and concerns of the person on the other side, causing the recipient to become defensive and confused.

Imagine if your valid concerns and responses to a situation were instantly and constantly diminished and dismissed – and the other person labels you too sensitive, emotional, uptight, or any one of many other disrespectful adjectives. If that goes on long enough, you will question if you actually embody all of those qualities, and if your reactions are inappropriate. At the same time, you won’t get a meaningful answer to your concerns, which amplifies the sense that it was “nothing to worry about.”

Gaslighting at work may include situations like:

  • not being invited to meetings or events, and being told that you must have missed the email/call about it when there wasn’t one in the first place

  • Getting bypassed for a promotion when you were told you would get it. To rub more salt in that wound, instead of being allowed to be upset about it, victims may then be told they are being too sensitive, or that they misinterpreted something else

  • Telling you that you’re making mistakes when you know you’re not.

This leaves the victim feeling invalidated as well as wrong – like they can’t be trusted to know their own emotions.

Why People Gaslight

People who engage in gaslighting may do so for a variety of reasons. They may be trying to gain control over the victim or trying to avoid accountability for their own actions, mistakes, insecurities, and feelings. An underlying mental health condition, like narcissistic personality disorder, may also play a part . This comes across as malice, but at the core, it is often done from a place of defensiveness – one so firm that it causes other people to doubt their own sense of reality.

It's important to note that not every disagreement or confusing situation – professional or personal – is an act of gaslighting. The key is to have open, honest communication and to be able to express your own instincts and judgement. If you are unsure if you’re being gaslit, seeking help from a therapist is a good way to gain more perspective and clarity.

Getting Over Gaslight

Gaslighting can have serious consequences for the victim, including feelings of confusion, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. It can also lead to isolation due to being cut off from friends and family.

Remember that gaslighting is not the fault of the victim – the manipulator is responsible for their actions and it’s not your job to change them. Sometimes, we must prioritize our own well-being and make sure we are mentally healthy above all else.

If you suspect that you are being gaslit, reaching out to a therapist familiar with the topic will help you process your feelings, discover the reality of the situation, and develop strategies for coping if necessary. Remember – there is always hope and help out there!



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