Gaslighting Meaning, Definition and Examples and How Gaslighting Works

What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships. It is a covert type of emotional abuse where the bully or abuser misleads the target, creating a false narrative and making them question their judgments and reality.1 Ultimately, the victim of gaslighting starts to feel unsure about their perceptions of the world and even wonder if they are losing their sanity.

Gaslighting primarily occurs in romantic relationships, but it’s not uncommon for it to occur in controlling friendships or among family members as well. People who gaslight others may have mental health disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD). They use this type of emotional abuse to exert power over others in order to manipulate friends, family members, or even co-workers.

How Gaslighting Works

Gaslighting is a technique that undermines a person’s perception of reality. When someone is gaslighting you, you may second-guess yourself, your memories, recent events, and your perceptions. After communicating with the person gaslighting you, you may be left feeling dazed and wondering if there is something wrong with you. You may be encouraged to think you are actually to blame for something or that you’re just being too sensitive.

Gaslighting can confuse you and cause you to question your judgment, memory, self-worth, and overall mental health. It may help to know more about the tactics a person who is gaslighting you might use.

Lying to You

People who engage in gaslighting are often habitual and pathological liars and frequently exhibit narcissistic tendencies. It is typical for them to blatantly lie and never back down or change their stories, even when you call them out or provide proof of their deception. They may say something like: “You’re making things up,” “That never happened,” or “You’re crazy.

Lying and distortion are the cornerstones of gaslighting behavior. Even when you know they are not telling the truth, they can be very convincing. In the end, you start to second-guess yourself.

Discrediting You

People who gaslight spread rumors and gossip about you to others. They may pretend to be worried about you while subtly telling others that you seem emotionally unstable or “crazy.” Unfortunately, this tactic can be extremely effective and many people side with the abuser or bully without knowing the full story.
Additionally, someone who engages in gaslighting may lie to you and tell you that other people also think this about you. These people may have never said a bad thing about you, but the person who is gaslighting you will make every attempt to get you to believe they do.

Distracting You

When you ask a someone who gaslights a question or call them out for something they did or said, they may change the subject by asking a question instead of responding to the issue at hand. This not only throws off your train of thought but causes you to question the need to press a matter when they don’t feel the need to respond.

Minimizing Your Thoughts and Feelings

Trivializing your emotions allows the person who is gaslighting you to gain power over you. They might make statements like: “Calm down,” “You’re overreacting,” or “Why are you so sensitive?” All of these statements minimize how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking and communicate that you’re wrong.
Here are six examples of common gaslighting situations to help you recognize and address this very real form of emotional abuse.

1. “That never happened.”

Gaslighting often causes the victim to doubt themselves. Someone will do or say something abusive and then deny that it ever happened, says psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family therapist Tina B. Tessina, PhD, in private practice.
“The victim starts questioning [their] instincts and relies more and more on the ‘reality’ that gets created and manipulated by the abuser. It also heightens a sense of dependency on the abuser,” says Tessina.

2. “You’re too sensitive.”

This is a phrase used by gaslighters to minimize and invalidate the victim’s feelings.
If the victim tries to express hurt or disappointment, the gaslighter may tell them that they are making a big deal out of nothing.
“The intent is to make you feel stupid for even trying to stand up for yourself. Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to put up with the abusive behavior and stay in the relationship,” says Tessina.

3. “You have a terrible memory.”

This is another common phrase gaslighters use to make victims doubt themselves. Of course, everybody experiences trouble with recalling certain details, but Tessina says gaslighters will make their victim doubt their memory as a whole, spanning a multitude of situations.
“They do this because getting a victim to question themselves is at the core of gaslighting. When a victim no longer trusts their assessments, the abuser is in complete control,” says Tessina.

4. “You’re crazy — and other people think so, too.”

On top of making victims experience doubt, gaslighters may even make their victim question their own sanity, Tessina says.
The gaslighter might also try to convince the victim’s family and friends that they’re mentally unstable so that they can further discredit any claims the victim is making.
“This decreases the likelihood that the victim’s stories will be believed and disconnects them from the resources that would make it possible for them to leave [an abusive relationship],” says Tessina.
This is particularly common in male-female romantic relationships where the man is gaslighting the woman. According to a 2019 paper, this may be due to the way society can sometimes depict women as more irrational and less in control of their emotions than men.

5. “I’m sorry you think that I hurt you.”

While this statement might seem like an apology, it isn’t. Instead, Tessina says this is a way for an abuser to deflect responsibility and blame the victim.
This kind of apology leaves the victim questioning their own judgement and wondering if they really did overreact. It can lead to the victim relying on the abuser’s interpretation of events.

6. “You should have known how I would react.”

This is another way an abuser will deflect responsibility onto the victim. This can make the victim feel guilty or hurt about a situation where they really didn’t do anything wrong.
“Gaslighting involves twisting facts so they can avoid personal ownership of their behaviors. By telling the victim they should have known better, the gaslighter places the blame on the victim for not only speaking up but also the abuser’s response,” says Tessina.