Gaslighting, What It Actually Means, And How You Can Spot It

Gaslighting, What It Actually Means, And How You Can Spot It

The term gaslighting is a buzzword that we’re beginning to hear a lot in the mainstream, quite a lot in American politics, and it's an important one to know about and be able to identify. In recent reality TV culture, the conversation opened up after an episode of Love Island, where a male contestant was seen to be gaslighting a female counterpart on the show. But even with all of the talk around it, there are still a surprising number of people who have no idea what it means.

The Apple dictionary definition states that gaslighting, or to gaslight someone, is to ‘manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity’. The term actually comes from the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton; the plot follows a man who manipulates his wife to the point that she believes she’s losing her mind, and he convinces her that the dimming gas light in the house is merely her imagination. A common ploy by abusive partners — not to mention people in other positions of power, for example, bosses — gaslighting involves manipulation that leaves the victim questioning or doubting themselves, their judgement, even their memories. In essence, gaslighting erases a victims reality at the benefit of the abuser.

The fight against gaslighting has become increasingly more vocal since the criminalization of controlling and coercive behaviour back in 2015, and society has started to shift some focus onto the psychological abuse that can occur in relationships. Gaslighting is a way for an abusive partner to assert power and control over their other half, and, in some cases, instills just as much fear into the victim as those at the hands of a physically abusive partner. It’s also something that happens very slowly, with its impact even being compared to the boiling frog experiment. The boiling frog fable tells of someone attempting to boil a frog alive: by dropping the frog straight into boiling water, the frog reacts and jumps out; yet, if the frog is merely placed into unheated water before the temperature slowly rises, the frog doesn’t even realise what’s happening to it until it’s too late. Gaslighting works in really similar ways, with many victims entirely unaware that it’s happening.

Victims often second-guess themselves all the time, and are frequently in a state of confusion, or find that they’re struggling to make simple decisions without questioning themselves. Additionally, they can find themselves apologizing to their partners, even if for no apparent reason (although the abuser will have manipulated the victim into thinking that they do deserve an apology). Those who are gaslighted by their partners often withhold information from their family or friends, just so that they don’t have to make excuses for or explain the behaviours of their partner. 

After 2015’s criminalization began the crackdown on such behaviours, domestic abuse charities have been working hard to help people identify things such as gaslighting and other forms of coercion. Chief executive of Women’s Aid, Katie Ghose, describes gaslighting as “insidious” and told Sky News that in some cases of gaslighting, victims have been forced to visit therapists or doctors by their abusers to address their “emotional or mental issues, when in fact it reasserted the abuse and further undermined their psychological wellbeing.”

So how can you spot gaslighting? It’s definitely not easiest thing in the world to identify. Whether it be between yourself and a partner, or you’re on the sidelines looking in at others, the kinds of things that ring alarm bells are techniques like accusing a victim of lying, questioning a victim’s memory of an incident or previous memories, even things as simple as merely denying a promise that the abuser had previously made. The subtlety of gaslighting can make it near impossible for someone to recognise — or even on a one-off occasion rendered unimportant — but the patterns of behaviour resurface time and time again, until the victim can’t find the strength to walk away. Mocking someone for their misunderstandings and trivializing their emotions also play a big part in the gradual chipping away of a victim’s confidence, and also fits the criteria for a form of gaslighting.

If you need further advice or support about gaslighting or any other psychological abuse, head to our Resources page and select your location to find the appropriate help you need.