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If you've read anything about gaslighting, chances are you've come across the work of Dr. Stephanie Sarkis. She wrote a post on the topic that went viral in 2017 ("11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting"), and now she's written a book on the topic entitled Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free.
Stephanie's blog post introduced me to the concept, and I've since read her book and interviewed her on the Think Act Be podcast. One of the things I was most interested to explore with her was the boundaries of gaslighting since it overlaps with other types of not-nice behavior in relationships. We discussed several of these distinctions.
Gaslighting Versus Manipulation
Manipulation is a key part of gaslighting, but there are many more manipulators than there are gaslighters; after all, we're all capable of manipulation, and thankfully most of us aren't gaslighters.
Seth J. Gillihan: So what would you say is the difference between gaslighting and what we might call more run-of-the-mill manipulation?
Stephanie Sarkis: I think that's a great question because there is a fine line. Influence or manipulation is used in various fields, particularly marketing and advertising, to get us to buy things. And you can say that kids learn manipulation at an early age — how to get something from one parent if the other one says "no" — so it's something that's not always bad. It's just how we learn to work the system. But when it becomes a series of behaviors where the sole intent is to gain control of someone else, then you're getting into gaslighting behaviors. It's a form of abuse, and usually, the person displays a pattern of these manipulation tactics throughout several relationships.
As Stephanie suggests, a major component of gaslighting is the intent. More common forms of manipulation are about getting our own way — "gaming the system" — whereas gaslighting is about controlling another person. And it's a consistent pattern of behavior, both within a single relationship and across multiple relationships.
Gaslighting Versus Narcissism (or Just Being a Jerk)
I continued to try to clarify the concept of gaslighting with Stephanie by comparing it to other types of difficult personalities.
SJG: A related question: How is a gaslighter different from a narcissist, or just a jerk?
SS: Gaslighting can be part of a narcissistic personality, but there are other pieces to narcissistic personality disorder. And it's more sociopathic behavior than just being a jerk. We can usually say, "That person is a jerk — whatever." But the gaslighter really gets under your skin and starts making you question your self-value.
SJG: It seems like a jerk just repels you — pushes you away — but the awful thing about a gaslighter is you're both repelled and hooked at the same time.
SS: Right, and when you try to leave a gaslighter, they do this thing called "hoovering," just like the Hoover vacuum. They will tell you all the things they love about you, and how things are going to be different this time, and as soon as you get back into the relationship, the gaslighter knows you're in their clutches. And things go right back to where they were and then start getting worse and worse.
- What Is Gaslighting?
- Find a therapist who understands manipulative behavior
SJG: So they're only better for as long as it takes the person to come back and lose momentum to leave.
SS: Exactly, because when you're a gaslighter, and you lose that person's attention, it triggers your narcissistic injury — your bottomless pit of need. So you'll try to get that person to come back to fill that void that can never truly be filled. And if that doesn't work, then you'll try to find that next person. Gaslighters will either try to hoover you back into the relationship, or they'll have someone waiting in the wings, and they'll drop you like a hot potato and move on to the next person. They don't realize that no one will ever fill that void for them, so they just keep hopping from person to person.
Gaslighting Versus Healthy Romantic Attachment
Stephanie describes in her book the ways a gaslighter can attract an unsuspecting person, which unfortunately can look a lot like the positive signs of a strong romantic attachment. She offers guidelines for how to tell the difference.
SJG: Are there gaslighting behaviors that can show up even on a first date? Are there some "tells" that people might look for?
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SS: If the person speaks very unfavorably about their exes or their parents, that's a tipoff. If they're calling them any derogatory names, that's a tipoff, or if they allude to having any history of cheating. And if they're really overdoing it — if they're telling you how wonderful you are and how you're the best thing that's ever happened to them, and you're not even through your appetizer at the restaurant — that's a red flag.
There may be such a thing as "love at first sight," but that's a small, small percentage of first dates. So if you're already getting "love bombed" by the person, that's a definite red flag. And it's tricky because it feels good when someone tells you how wonderful you are. But if it's above and beyond what you would consider to be normal compliments, that's a red flag for a gaslighter trying to suck you in.
Stephanie recommends having someone you trust read your profile if you're using a dating app or website to screen for language that might make you a target for a gaslighter. Examples she gives include:
- "I'm finally ready to be treated well."
- "I've had some bad run-ins in the past, and I'm trying to start fresh."
- Anything else that shows a vulnerability.
SS: You want to show that you're an independent person and that you're not prone to manipulation. You'd be happy to find someone, but you're just as happy without. And that makes you kind of repellant to a gaslighter. They want someone who has a need to find someone.
Gaslighting Versus Occasional Bad Behavior
SJG: There are a lot of horror stories about gaslighting in your book — a lot of cautionary tales. Might there be a risk of priming people to see gaslighters everywhere and having a lot of false positives? What are some behaviors that could look like gaslighting, but actually aren't?
SS: Well, first I'll say that if you've been in a relationship with a gaslighter, it's very common to be hyperaware of those behaviors. And that's because you've been traumatized. You have your feelers out looking for that right away. But sometimes people are just jerks like we talked about before. Or someone could just be having a bad day. Again, this is a pattern of behavior. When you have a number of these behaviors that come together, that's when you have a gaslighter. It's not just someone lying once in a while, or saying, "I don't like what you're wearing" once in a while. It's an amalgam of behaviors that together are very indicative of abusive behavior.
This distinction clarifies that gaslighting is not the same as occasional instances of difficult behavior, or having someone disagree with us, or even see the world very differently from how we see it.
Gaslighting in Politics
Gaslighting often comes up in the context of our political leaders now, with accusations of "fake news" on both ends of the political spectrum and very different lenses through which we see political events.
SJG: Another domain that you talk about in your book is politicians as gaslighters. How common is that among politicians? This has become more talked about since the 2016 election, but I think a cynic might say that gaslighting almost seems like part of the job description for politicians.
SS: Right, whenever you're influencing people, manipulation comes into play, and I don't think anyone can argue that politicians aren't in the business of influencing. But when a world leader like President Trump is saying, "What you're seeing and what you're hearing isn't what you're seeing and hearing," that's classic gaslighting behavior. I think it's become much more overt now. It was more behind the scenes before, but now it's more blatant. Like with the pictures of the inauguration, and he's saying, "There were so many people there!" and you're like, "... Nah, not really." So it's come to the point where it's so obvious, and there are outright lies about things. I think it's a scale we haven't seen before. And I think it's really brought to the forefront that people are starting to not trust what they're seeing because they're told the exact opposite.
The full interview is available on the Think Act Be podcast.
Am I gaslighting or are they overreacting? ›
You are guilty of downplaying others' emotions.
When a person is hurt by something you've said or done, your usual response is that they're overreacting and to stop making things up. This may make a person believe their emotions are not valid or excessive. If this sounds like you, you are definitely gaslighting.
- Having trouble making even simple decisions.
- Making excuses for your partner's behavior to family or friends.
- Constantly second-guessing yourself.
- Blaming yourself for the way the other person treats you.
“Gaslighters have two signature moves,” she wrote. “They lie with the intent of creating a false reality, and they cut off their victims socially.” They spread gossip, they take credit for other people's work, and they undercut others in furtherance of their own position.How does a gaslighter react when confronted? ›
When you confront gaslighters about their behavior, they often change the subject or counter-attack by telling you that it's all your fault or you are the one with the problem. They may say that you made them act the way they did because you irritated them.How do you outsmart a gaslighter? ›
- First, make sure it's gaslighting. ...
- Take some space from the situation. ...
- Collect evidence. ...
- Speak up about the behavior. ...
- Remain confident in your version of events. ...
- Focus on self-care. ...
- Involve others. ...
- Seek professional support.
Most people will say things that might be insensitive, exasperated, or callous on occasion. It would not count as gaslighting unless there was a repeated pattern over time — a pattern based on a desire to deny recognition of the other's experience.Do gaslighters realize they are gaslighting? ›
Convincing someone to question their reality gives a gaslighter a sense of power and superiority. Despite all this, gaslighting often isn't so obvious. Many gaslighters may not realize they're gaslighting, and many people who are being gaslighted also fail to recognize it at first.Can someone gaslight unintentionally? ›
Sometimes gaslighting happens unintentionally – perhaps because of someone's desire to deflect responsibility for a mistake. But some people engage in it intentionally and regularly, and that's when it can have an especially toxic effect.What are the 11 warning signs of gaslighting? ›
- Blatant Lies. You know the person is lying, often and with ease, yet they say they do not recognise this in their behaviour. ...
- Deny, Deny, Deny. You know what they said. ...
- Using What You Love Against You. ...
- Losing Your Sense of Self. ...
- Words Versus Actions. ...
- Love and Flattery. ...
- Confusion. ...
If you're not familiar with the term, gaslighting is when someone makes you question your sanity by manipulating your thoughts and emotions. A gaslighter might say/do things to make you feel worthless. Or they might lie to you outright and then deny that they ever said anything, making you doubt your memory.
What is a gaslighter personality? ›
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. People who experience gaslighting may feel confused, anxious, or as though they cannot trust themselves.How do gaslighters apologize? ›
“A gaslighter will often make you beg for their forgiveness and apologize profusely for any 'wrong' you committed, even if it's something they did,” Stern says. Sometimes you may not even know what you're apologizing for, other than they're upset and it's your responsibility to calm them down.What words do gaslighters use? ›
- "I never said that."
- "I did that because I love you."
- "I don't know why you're making such a huge deal of this."
- "You're being overly sensitive."
- "You are being dramatic."
- "You are the issue, not me."
- "If you loved me, you would..."
- "You are crazy."
- "I did that because I was trying to help you." ...
- "That's not what happened." ...
- "This is why you don't have friends." ...
- "That is hardly important." ...
- "It's not that big of a deal." ...
- "You're too sensitive."
- "You're overthinking it." ...
- "You're being paranoid."
Break up in One Quick Conversation
One key to a successful split with a gaslighter is to make it fast, ideally in a single conversation. Tell them it's not working and the relationship is over, and say it in a straightforward, calm, and direct voice.
Things to say when you're being gaslighted:
“Name-calling is hurtful to me, I'm finding it hard to hear you when you talk like that” “I hear that your intention was to make a joke, and the impact was hurtful” “My feelings are my feelings; this is how I feel” “This is my experience and these are my emotions”
Signs of Gaslighting. You doubt your feelings and reality: You try to convince yourself that the treatment you receive is not that bad or that you are too sensitive. You question your judgment and perceptions: You are afraid of speaking up or expressing your emotions.What are examples of gaslighting in a relationship? ›
- "That never happened." ...
- "You're crazy — and other people think so, too." ...
- "I'm sorry you think that I hurt you." ...
- "Do you really think I'd make that up?" ...
- "You're just trying to confuse me. ...
- "You know I'd never intentionally hurt you." ...
- "I did that because I love you."
If you think you are being gaslit (rather than having poor communication or a healthy disagreement), try to talk things out with the other person. Communicate your needs and set clear boundaries. Take notes so that you have a written record if the gaslighter tries to twist the narrative.What is reverse gaslighting? ›
The idea seems to be that validation is the opposite of gaslighting: Gaslighting makes you doubt what you think, while validation affirms what you think. But this approach assumes that what you think about yourself is correct.
What's the difference between gaslighting and disagreeing? ›
“With gaslighting, the goal is to make you question your sanity, while in disagreements, the goal is to come to an agreement or have their perspective seen,” says Tran.What are subtle forms of gaslighting? ›
- Claiming You Said/Did Something that You Didn't Say/Do. ...
- Exaggerating About your Behaviour. ...
- Making Unreasonable Assumptions. ...
- Dismissing your Legitimate Concerns. ...
- Criticising the Things You Love. ...
- Showing you they don't trust you, but still claiming that they do.
Certain mental health conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder lend themselves to gaslighting as those illnesses give people a distorted view of themselves and others and a propensity toward manipulating others for their own ends by any means necessary, as well as never ...Do gaslighters know they are lying? ›
Gaslighting lies on a spectrum. Some gaslighters don't know they're gaslighting and are largely unaware of how their behavior is affecting the other person. But some gaslighters are very well aware of what they are doing, and it is done with intention and without remorse.What do narcissists say during gaslighting? ›
They may try to make you feel like you're overreacting or being too sensitive by saying things like, “You're being paranoid,” or “You're imagining things.” They might also try to control what you do and who you see by trying to isolate you from your friends and family.What is shadow gaslighting? ›
“Shadow gaslighting” is when these disowned parts of ourselves manipulate people in our lives in order to serve their own purpose. An unconscious part of self expresses itself and pursues its own agenda but goes unacknowledged in our awareness.
Gaslighting is the action of repetitively (and often brazenly) lying to someone to manipulate, and ultimately control them and the relationship. It could be divided into four different types: outright lying, manipulation of reality, scapegoating and coercion.Is being defensive gaslighting? ›
Gaslighting Example 2: Getting Defensive
Gaslighters don't like being challenged or being proved wrong. To maintain control over their victims, a gaslighter will get defensive and find a way to manipulate you into believing you're at fault.
Whereas manipulation targets the conscience, gaslighting targets consciousness. The term comes from the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Gaslight” (1944) about a husband with a secret who slowly drives his wife insane. Gaslighters claim to know a person better than they know themselves.What are signs of gaslighting in a relationship? ›
- You find yourself doubting your reality. ...
- Your partner is dismissive of your feelings. ...
- They never let you talk during a conflict. ...
- Your partner doesn't apologize when you express hurt. ...
- Your partner blames you or outside circumstances.
What is the most common form of gaslighting? ›
Shifting blame is a common gaslighting tactic. Accusing the victim of being the gaslighter causes confusion, makes them question the situation, and draws attention away from the true gaslighter's harmful behavior, Sarkis says.What is a good example of gaslighting? ›
Here are a few examples of what gaslighting can sound like: “You're too sensitive.” The gaslighter minimizes your feelings and shuts you down with statements like this. They make it seem like you're in the wrong for feeling hurt by them.Who do gaslighters target? ›
Tactic #4: Gaslighters are often fueled by sexism
Of course, gaslighting can be used by anyone against anyone—it's not always gendered. But it's often used as a form of emotional abuse against women. It works, in part, because it feeds off sexist stereotypes of women as crazy, jealous, emotional, weak, or incapable.
The silent treatment or angry rages (or alternating between the two) are the main ways gaslighters use to punish their victims and regain control over them, Sarkis says.Do gaslighters lack empathy? ›
They lack empathy for others, and their gaslighting can cause danger to their victims both mentally and emotionally. Commonly, a gaslighter has a condition known as a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). They have admiration for themselves over others and will do whatever it takes to put themselves in control.Do gaslighters have remorse? ›
Gaslighting lies on a spectrum. Some gaslighters don't know they're gaslighting and are largely unaware of how their behavior is affecting the other person. But some gaslighters are very well aware of what they are doing, and it is done with intention and without remorse.What are gaslighters intentions? ›
Primarily observed in narcissists and sociopaths, gaslighting is an intentional behavior where gaslighters often successfully convince their victims to believe in what they say.Do gaslighters act like victims? ›
One of the ways that gaslighters/narcissists exert their power through playing the victim. In relationships, gaslighters play the victim in order to manipulate and guilt their partners into doing their will.How do you help someone realize they are gaslighting you? ›
- Know how to recognize when gaslighting is happening.
- Stand firm in your truth.
- Write things down.
- Keep the conversation simple.
- Be willing to leave the conversation.
- Don't worry about trying to "outsmart" the gaslighter.
"You're crazy." This is a common phrase that gaslighters use to avoid taking responsibility or being accountable for their actions, Dr. Hairston says. It leads the victim to self-doubt and question the reality of the situation, and worry about their own judgment and sanity.
Does the person doing the gaslighting know they are doing it? ›
Some gaslighters are aware of their behavior, and they may even work to improve their gaslighting skills. They might enjoy the sense of superiority they feel from making others doubt their sanity and correctness. Others who gaslight might not be aware that they're doing it.Do you tell a gaslighter they are gaslighting? ›
When you tell a gaslighter they're gaslighting, you're seeking a validation they will never give. They will not admit to the mental abuse. When you tell yourself someone is gaslighting, you give yourself permission to validate your own experience. The person doing it to you does not have to agree for it to be true.How do you identify 5 tactics of gaslighting? ›
- Reality distortion. ...
- Telling you different things at different times. ...
- Name-calling. ...
- Pitting two people against each other. ...
- Love-bombing. ...
- Intentional changes in behavior. ...
- Deflection. ...
Gaslighters love to wield your love and affection for them as a weapon against you and will use this phrase to excuse a wide variety of bad behaviors, Stern says.Can you give me an example of gaslighting? ›
A gaslighter may use verbal abuse to wear their victim down in an attempt to keep them stuck in the relationship. They may use constant insults or comments like, "You know you'll never get anyone better than me," or, "You're terrible with money.What is the end goal of a gaslighter? ›
The goal of a gaslighter is to make a person doubt themself by feeding them lies and using their own position to cause mental health harm. The term gaslighting, or gaslighter, comes from a play from the late 1930s, according to Britannica.What is a gaslight apology? ›
Jamie Schenk DeWitt, a psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles told Newsweek: "A gaslighting apology is a conditional apology that makes the person apologizing appear as if they are sincerely saying 'I am sorry,' but they aren't taking any responsibility for hurting you.