What Gaslighting Is, What It Is Not

Humantold June 24, 2022

So what does gaslighting mean? And, more importantly, what does it—and does it not—look like?

You’ve almost certainly heard the term “gaslighting.” Over the past decade, the phrase has become increasingly popular—in headlines, pop psychology, and even in internet memes. Gaslighting is seemingly everywhere. And that’s both a good thing, and a bad thing.

The good: Gaslighting is a very real phenomenon, and bringing more awareness to it helps those who are dealing with gaslighting. But the bad is what’s true of any therapy term that sneaks into the everyday lexicon—the term sometimes gets misused, and, as a result, misunderstood. 

So what does gaslighting mean? More importantly, what does it look like—and what doesn’t it look like? Read on to learn more about this everyday phrase with a complicated meaning. 

What does gaslighting mean?

In the typical therapeutic sense, gaslighting is a form of manipulation that often shows up in abusive relationships (though not always). It’s best known as a covert type of emotional abuse, where the abuser creates a false narrative for their target that ultimately makes them question their reality and their thoughts. Eventually, a gaslighting victim may feel unsure of what’s real and wonder if they’re losing their sanity. 

The term has decades-old origins. Gaslighting originally comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, in which a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she’s losing her sense of reality so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance. 

These days, we use gaslighting to describe a situation in which one person manipulates another into questioning their reality. Though gaslighting most often occurs in romantic relationships, it can crop up anywhere: at work, among friends, between family members, etc. It almost always happens as a result of a power imbalance, whether that imbalance was already present or manufactured by the gaslighter.

What are the signs of gaslighting?

According to the National Domestic Violence Helpline’s fact sheet on gaslighting, a gaslighter may employ the following techniques:

  • Withholding: The gaslighter pretends not to understand, or refuses to listen. 

  • Countering: The gaslighter questions the victim’s memory of events, even if the victim’s memory is accurate.

  • Blocking/Diverting: The gaslighter changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts.

  • Trivializing: The gaslighter makes the victim’s needs and feelings seem unimportant.

  • Forgetting/Denial: The gaslighter pretends they forgot what actually happened, or denies things like promises they made to the victim.

While those are commonly recognized tactics, gaslighting may take many other forms as well. The primary sign that gaslighting is occurring is a feeling that events aren’t as you thought they were, a feeling that you’re being manipulated into feeling something you don’t, and/or remembering something as it didn’t occur. 

A more complete list of what you might feel if you’re being gaslit is available via the National Domestic Violence Helpline. 

What do I do if I’m being gaslit?

Even though you may not feel immediately threatened or unsafe, gaslighting is still a form of emotional abuse. There a few key ways you might try to alleviate the situation:

  • Set boundaries: If the gaslighting primarily occurs via text or phone, tell the person you will no longer speak to them that way. Or if not, make it generally clear that they can’t communicate with you in a way or at a frequency that upsets you.

  • Take some distance: One reason gaslighting is so sinister is that it can be really hard to tell that it’s happening, because it’s gradual and occurs over time. If you find that you’re losing grip on reality in the context of a specific person, take some space from them. If they refuse to allow this, seek the help of a therapist or a trusted friend. 

  • End the relationship: If the gaslighting is occurring in a romantic or friend relationship, you can always try to cut ties with that person. Cutting off a relationship with a gaslighter can be difficult—you can always consult the National Domestic Violence Helpline for help with how to end an abusive relationship. 

  • Seek out a therapist: As stated, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, and both recognizing and recovering from it can be a difficult process. A therapist can help validate your feelings and perception of reality and help you recognize what was happening, and why it made you feel the way you did.

What isn’t gaslighting?

An important distinction is that gaslighting is an intentional, malicious practice. The gaslighter may not be calling what they’re doing gaslighting (in fact, they probably aren’t), but they’re acting the way they are to gain a sense of control and power. 

So then what isn’t gaslighting? Harmless clarification and misunderstandings are not gaslighting. Two people having varied interpretations of the same event is not gaslighting. Making an earnest clarification of something you previously meant is not gaslighting. 

And, just because it’s 2022, it’s almost certainly true that you can’t be gaslit by a singular TikTok or social media post—unless that post is coming from an entity of significant power, and what they say has implications on many people’s lives. So while it may be funny to say “I’m feeling gaslit” in a TikTok comment, it’s almost always not literal.

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