What is gaslighting?

The term ‘gaslighting’ has come into the mainstream - but what does it actually mean?

Gaslamp to represent what gaslighting is

What is gaslighting? It's been the term on everyone's lips through multiple presidential elections and political scandals over the last few years, with Oxford English Dictionary naming it their word of the year in 2018 after Donald Trump's inauguration. 

But the real meaning of the word may have got lost in translation. Apart from being a so-called 'woke' (opens in new tab) term, gaslighting is actually a very genuine form of emotional abuse, explains Emma Davey, relationship and narcissistic abuse expert. "The victim feels like they are not the person they used to be. They feel so confused now about who they really are, because they’ve been wrapped up in this web of confusion where they don’t really know how to make a decision for themselves anymore.”

To try and bring more awareness to the issue, Women's Aid released a statement (opens in new tab) following a recent episode of Love Island and they've been quick to point out unhealthy patterns of behaviour in reality shows since then. So if you've heard the word before and don't know what it means, or want a refresh, this is what the experts want you to know about gaslighting in 2022.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is when a person tries to convince the victim that they are wrong about something when they're not. It might something as simple as refusing a chain of events happened, but the perpetrator knows what they're doing and they get enjoyment from watching the victim essentially lose their mind," counsellor at at MyTraumaTherapy (opens in new tab), Emma, says. "It gives them the gratification and power they need to make themselves feel more powerful," she explains.

But rather than just being a confusing behaviour, it's a dangerous type of coercive control (opens in new tab) - a form of emotional abuse. Evan Stark (opens in new tab), sociologist and leading expert on patterns of abuse, describes gaslighting as a behaviour where the "victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear."

See more

It makes sense when you consider the origins of the word. The phrase 'to gaslight' somebody came about following a 1938 play called Gaslight. During the course of the play, a woman becomes isolated and increasingly disorientated as items disappear and move around the house, and the gas lamps that light the rooms flicker on and off. It's slowly revealed that it is the woman's husband who is creating these disturbances purposefully to try and convince his wife that she's going "insane" and is unable to leave the house.

Much like other forms of emotional abuse, gaslighting is a technique that uses words rather than actions. But Emma warns, it's just as dangerous. "It's done in such a way to make sure the person feels like they are losing a sense of reality and comes to rely on the abuser."

Examples of gaslighting

Accusing someone of being too sensitive

“They will use terms such as ‘you’re too sensitive’. That’s basically saying, ‘you’re not allowed to feel the way you’re feeling, you can’t feel upset about this, you can’t feel angry about this situation’,” Emma explains. “It’s about making you doubt yourself and think, ‘well, maybe I’m not feeling angry, maybe I’m feeling something else instead.’

Someone feels they have to record conversations to prove they happened

“When people start to feel like they have to start recording conversations with somebody, that’s a huge red flag that you’re a victim of gaslighting. You’re starting to notice a pattern that you’re sure you’ve had the conversation and now they’re telling you it never happened. You’re starting to write things down, record conversations because you need the proof that you are not losing your mind. [People who are being gaslighted] need to prove to themselves that they are not ‘crazy’.” 

Businesswoman and businessman talking in modern office

Credit: Getty
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Deflection

“Deflection is another gaslighting technique,” Emma says. “So if a victim starts talking about something that [the perpetrator] has done, they’ll deflect and start talking about something the victim has done. ‘Do you remember when you did XYZ?’, for example. 

“The victim is defending themselves. They are then wrapped up in the attention being turned on themselves that they forget what they’re talking about. This happens a lot. As soon as the gaslighter doesn’t want to talk about something, they completely deflect it onto the other person.” 

Leaving the victim for long or short periods of time

Another common thing people who gaslight do is leave the victim for long or short periods of time with no contact, Emma says. “That’s making the victim feel very confused as to what they have done, so when the perpetrator comes back, the victim forgets what they have done. They are just so desperate for them to come back, they’ll just take anything.”

Someone feels they have to constantly make excuses for their partner/family member’s behaviour

“A lot of people who are experiencing gaslighting go into a state into making excuses for their abuser’s behaviour. There are different stages, the first one being denial. It’s not happening, it’s not happening to me, they’re not nasty all the time, they’re actually really nice sometimes. But that’s how an abuser covers up the abuse. They’re 80% abuse is covered up by a 20% niceness - otherwise it would become very apparent what they were doing.” 

Smiling friends in discussion while sitting at outdoor cafe after work

The first signs of gaslighting are not always obvious, Credit: Getty.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Gaslighting can happen to anyone - from family members to friends and even employees of the perpetrator. But it does tend to occur most often in romantic relationships.  

Gaslighting in relationships

Research published in the American Sociological review (opens in new tab) found that gaslighting in relationships - romantic or otherwise - was actually the most common form.

“The person will constantly second guess themselves. They also struggle making decisions for themselves because they are so fearful that they are making the wrong decision. It doesn’t matter what decision they make, it will always be the wrong one,” Emma says. 

“This is when the perpetrator has taken away the person’s power and control of them being able to have their own voice, have their own feelings, have their own thoughts. They will shift that onto them and make them feel incapable of making a decision because it will always be wrong. That’s when a victim starts to walk around on eggshells and think it’s best they don’t do anything and let [the perpetrator] make the decisions because then they’ll never get in trouble.

To reflect the seriousness of the behaviour and rising occurrences, the Serious Crime Act (opens in new tab) was updated in 2015 to include “behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse.”

Coercive control, which includes cases of gaslighting, carries a prison sentence of up to five years or a financial penalty. But it is difficult to prove. 

According to the law, controlling and coercive behaviour is only illegal if it occurs within an “intimate or family relationship”. The perpetrator’s behaviour also has to have had a “serious effect” on the victim. This means that the perpetrator must have made them feel that the situation could become violent. It can also mean they experienced distress to the point where it had a “substantial adverse effect” on their usual day-to-day activities. The perpetrator’s behaviour must have also been ongoing or in repeated patterns, and deliberate.

While the majority of criminal cases with a coercive control charge have been dropped since the law first came into effect in 2015, a government review into the law means that people who use coercive control to abuse their partners or family members could face up to 10 years in prison - instead of five. 

It follows multiple high profile cases of coercive control, including one involving ITV Weather presenter Ruth Dodsworth. Ruth was subject to a campaign of controlling behaviour, harassment and stalking by her husband over a nine year period. 

Jonathan Wignall went to jail (opens in new tab) for three years for coercive behaviour. This included isolating his wife from her friends and family, accusing her of having extramarital affairs and using her fingerprint to access her phone while she was asleep. 

See more

Cases of coercive control have doubled year on year from 2015, according to a government review (opens in new tab). However, the number of cases making it to prosecution has gone down. 11% of offences that officials recorded in 2017/18 went onto prosecution, comparatively to just 6% of cases the following year.

Since the first lockdown in March last year, reported incidents of coercive and controlling behaviour have risen dramatically. A survey conducted by domestic abuse charity, Women’s Aid, found (opens in new tab) that 72% of respondents said their abuser now had more control over their life and 62% said that their abuser was using the pandemic as a form of control. 10% said that the entire household was living under unnecessarily strict measures. 

Signs someone is gaslighting you

According to Solace Women’s Aid (opens in new tab), a domestic abuse charity working in London, these are the signs someone is gaslighting you:

  • You’re constantly second-guessing yourself. 
  • You’re asking yourself ‘am I too sensitive?’ multiple times a day.
  • They make you feel confused or like you're going crazy
  • You’re always apologising to your partner/family member
  • Even though so many apparently good things are happening in your life, you can’t understand why you aren’t happier 
  • You make excuses for your partner’s behaviour to your friends and family members
  • You’re finding yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses
  • You know something is very wrong, but you can’t quite figure out what it is 
  • You start lying to avoid put-downs and twists of reality by your partner 
  • You’re having difficulty making simple decisions 
  • You feel like you used to be more confident, more fun-loving and more relaxed than you are now 
  • You’re feeling like hopeless and without joy
  • You feel like you can’t do anything right 
  • You’re wondering if you’re “good enough” for your partner 

There are many signs of gaslighting and this list is not definitive. If you worry that you or someone you know is experiencing gaslighting, seek help from specialist domestic abuse agencies.

How to stop it happening to you

“If you identify in a conversation that you’re a victim of gaslighting, the best thing to do is end the conversation. Because you’re just never going to win," Emma says. 

In the longer term she says, “I would recommend someone [who has experienced gaslighting] starts writing a journal to recognise the behaviour pattern. Look at how this behaviour has changed you - how is it making you feel? 

“Reach out for advice about the best way to leave the relationship. And if it’s not a relationship [but rather an employer, acquaintance etc], we use a term called ‘grey rock’, which is basically not giving any emotion to that person. You become very boring to them because you’re not giving anything back.

“I would recommend that someone who has experienced gaslighting over a long period of time needs to get back their identity. Because that’s what a gaslighter does, they break down that identity.”

Importantly, remember that it’s not your fault. “They are doing it so they are the one in power. They feel very insecure and know the person they are with is generally better than them. So, they have to break the person down into believing that they are nothing without the gaslighter."