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What Gaslighting Is and Isn’t: A Guide

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

Understanding Gaslighting: A Detailed Overview

Introduction to Psychological Manipulation

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and deception that can leave you doubting your own reality, memory, and mental state. Understanding this phenomenon and its impact on mental health is crucial for protecting yourself and others from this insidious form of interpersonal manipulation. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore what gaslighting is and isn’t, its impact on mental health, and how to differentiate it from common disagreements that might just feel uncomfortable.

Woman dismissing another woman

What is Gaslighting?

Definition and Origins

Gaslighting is a specific type of psychological abuse where the perpetrator seeks to make the target question their own perceptions, memories, and sanity. The term originates from the 1938 play “Gas Light,” in which a husband manipulates his wife into believing she is losing her mind by making subtle changes to their environment and insisting she is mistaken or imagining things when she notices.

Expert Explanation

According to the research of Robin Stern, licensed psychoanalyst and author of The Gaslight Effect, gaslighting involves persistent and subtle manipulation designed to destabilize the victim’s sense of reality. This can be done through denial, contradiction, misinformation, and subtle forms of coercion. Gaslighters often use these tactics to gain power and control over their victims.

Key Characteristics

Gaslighting behavior includes:
  • Denial of facts or events that the target knows to be true
  • Insisting that the target’s memories or perceptions are incorrect
  • Creating confusion by consistently altering the narrative
  • Using positive reinforcement to distract from the abusive behavior
  • Isolating the target from their community and network including friends and family to increase dependence on the gaslighter

What Gaslighting Isn’t

Common Misconceptions

It’s important to differentiate this behavior from other forms of communication or conflict. Not every uncomfortable interaction or argument is gaslighting. Here are some key distinctions:

Common Disagreements

Disagreements are a natural part of any relationship and don’t necessarily involve manipulation. They may feel uncomfortable but are usually grounded in different perspectives or misunderstandings rather than an intent to distort reality. For example, a heated debate about household chores is likely a typical disagreement, not gaslighting.

Constructive Criticism

Constructive criticism aims to provide feedback for improvement. It’s generally specific, based on observable behavior, and delivered with the intent to help. Unlike gaslighting, it doesn’t aim to undermine self-esteem or manipulate reality. An example of constructive criticism is a manager giving an employee feedback on how to improve their performance, rather than questioning their competence or sanity.

Boundary Setting

Healthy boundary setting involves clearly communicating your needs and limits. It’s an essential part of maintaining healthy relationships. Gaslighting, on the other hand, often involves violating or undermining those boundaries. If someone is setting boundaries to protect their well-being, it should be respected and not mistaken for manipulative behavior.

The Impact of Gaslighting on Mental Health

Anxiety and Depression

Gaslighting can have noticeable effects on mental health. Targets often experience diagnosable disorders such as anxiety and depression due to the self-doubt and confusion created by the gaslighter’s manipulative tactics. The emotional uncertainty and fear of losing touch with reality can be overwhelming. In the field of psychology, these symptoms and mental health disorders are often explored to understand the deep impact of such psychological abuse.

Loss of Self-Esteem and Confidence

Constantly questioning one’s own perceptions and memories can erode self-esteem and confidence. Victims may start to believe the gaslighter’s negative portrayal of them, leading to a diminished sense of self-worth and increased dependence on the gaslighter.

Cognitive Effects

Gaslighting doesn’t just impact emotions and mood; it also affects cognitive functions. Victims might find it difficult to concentrate, make decisions, or remember things correctly. The continuous second-guessing of their reality can lead to a state of mental exhaustion and confusion.

Relationship Issues

Gaslighting strains relationships, often isolating the victim from friends and family. The gaslighter might convince the victim that their loved ones don’t have their best interests at heart, causing mistrust and distance. This isolation increases the victim’s dependence on the gaslighter, making it even harder to break free from the abuse. This is a common tactic seen in cases of domestic violence, where the abuser seeks to maintain control over the victim.

Gaslighting vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Overview of NPD

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is characterized by a long-term pattern of exaggerated self-importance, a need for excessive admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. Individuals with NPD often have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for attention and admiration.

Connection Between Gaslighting and NPD

Gaslighting is a common tactic used by individuals with NPD. By undermining the victim’s reality, they maintain control and power, which feeds their narcissistic needs. The gaslighter’s behavior serves to reinforce their own sense of superiority and to keep the victim reliant on them.

Key Differences

While gaslighting is a manipulative behavior, not all gaslighters have NPD. Gaslighting is a tactic that can be used by anyone seeking control, not just those with narcissistic tendencies. However, understanding the connection between the two can help identify patterns of behavior.

Recognizing and Responding to Gaslighting

Signs of Gaslighting

Common indicators and red flags include:
  • Frequently doubting your own memories or perceptions
  • Feeling confused or disoriented after conversations
  • Apologizing often and feeling like everything is your fault
  • Feeling isolated from friends and family
  • Being told that you are overly sensitive or paranoid

How to Respond

Practical steps to take when you suspect gaslighting include:
  • Documenting Evidence: Keep a journal of events and conversations to validate your experiences.
  • Setting Boundaries: Clearly communicate your limits and stick to them.
  • Networking and Connecting with Community: Talk to trusted friends, family, or a therapist about your experiences.
  • Prioritizing Self-Care: Engage in activities that reinforce your self-worth and mental well-being.
  • Seeking Professional Help: Consulting a therapist can provide strategies and support to cope with and overcome gaslighting.

Conclusion and Call to Action

Recap of Key Points

Gaslighting can be a manipulative form of psychological abuse that can impact mental health. It’s essential to differentiate it from common disagreements, constructive criticism, and healthy boundary setting. Recognizing the signs and understanding the impact on mental health are crucial steps toward protecting yourself from this damaging behavior.

Importance of Seeking Help

Understanding gaslighting and its effects can help you take action to protect your mental well-being. If you recognize the signs of gaslighting in your life, it’s important to seek help and support. Talking to a trusted friend, family member, or professional can provide the necessary support and guidance.


If you or someone you know is experiencing gaslighting, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support. Psychotherapy can provide the tools and strategies needed to cope with and overcome the effects of gaslighting.

Finding a Therapist on WithTherapy.com

Finding the right therapist is a crucial step in addressing and healing from gaslighting. WithTherapy.com connects you with qualified therapists who can help you navigate the challenges of psychological abuse. Visit WithTherapy.com to find a therapist who understands your needs and can support you on your journey to recovery.


What should I do if I think I’m being gaslighted?

If you suspect you’re being gaslighted, start by documenting specific incidents and seeking support from trusted friends, family, or a therapist. Setting clear boundaries and prioritizing self-care are also essential steps.

Can gaslighting happen in any type of relationship?

Yes, gaslighting can occur in various relationships, including romantic, professional, and familial relationships. It can happen anywhere someone seeks to control or manipulate another person. This is especially prevalent in domestic violence situations where control is a key element.

How can therapy help with the effects of gaslighting?

Psychotherapy can provide a safe space to explore your experiences, validate your feelings, and develop coping strategies. Therapists can help rebuild your self-esteem and sense of your own credibility, and offer tools to set healthy boundaries and recognize manipulation.

Is gaslighting always intentional?

Gaslighting is typically intentional, as it involves deliberate manipulation to control or undermine the victim. However, some individuals may engage in this behavior unconsciously, often due to their own unresolved issues.

How do I find a therapist to help?

When looking for a therapist, seek out psychotherapy from a mental health professionals who specialize in trauma, couples therapy, family therapy, psychological abuse, or narcissistic personality disorder. Internet resources like WithTherapy.com can help you find a qualified therapist who understands gaslighting and can provide the necessary support.

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