You're probably familiar with the term gaslighting—but what is it exactly? Simply put, it's a manipulative tactic used to shift the power dynamic in a healthy relationship such that one person has complete control over the other. To gain insight into the psychology behind this toxic relationship dynamic, we asked psychotherapist Jeremy Bergen, MS, LCPC, to weigh in.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of sustained psychological manipulation that causes the victim to question or doubt their sanity, judgment, and memories.
"At its heart, gaslighting is emotional abuse," explains Bergen. "It's a tactic one partner uses in an effort to exert power over, gain control over, and inflict emotional damage on the other." According to Bergen, "Gaslighting is such a malicious form of emotional abuse because it causes you to question your experiences, so it can be difficult to identify the warning signs."
Meet the Expert
Jeremy Bergen, MS, LCPC is a Chicago-based psychotherapist specializing in individual, family, and couples counseling. He is the founder of Bergen Counseling Center.
Ahead, Bergen breaks down the psychology behind gaslighting in relationships, including identifying the warning signs, understanding the reasoning behind this venomous behavior, and navigating the next steps.
Signs You're Being Gaslighted
They Make You Question Your Perception of Reality
The major warning sign of gaslighting is that "your partner challenges your perception of situations, of yourself, of your thoughts, of your feelings, of their behavior," explains Bergen. "One of the big warning signs is this persistent sense that what you saw, you didn't really see. And what you experienced, you didn't really experience. What you felt, you didn't really feel."
They Persistently and Blatantly Lie to You
According to Bergen, "Their lies are designed to be manipulative for control." If you think your partner may be gaslighting you, Bergen suggests asking yourself questions such as Does my partner consistently make me question my thoughts and experience of things? Do I catch them in lies?
They Make You Feel Insecure by Breaking You Down
In order to gain control and power, a gaslighter will harp on the gaslighted's insecurities. To help determine if your partner is breaking you down, Bergen suggests asking yourself, Is this person saying things that are designed to make me feel bad? Is the level of criticism pervasive in that sense of they're going at the same thing consistently?
They Try to Alienate You From People Who Care About You
"They do this because they want to control the narrative," Bergen explains. "They want to separate these relationships, so they'll cause conflict."
They Lie About Saying Something When You Have Proof
Gaslighting is all about making the victim question their reality and sanity. Often, a gaslighter will deny saying or doing something and treat the victim as if they are crazy. Referred to as "countering," the gaslighter will question the victim's memory of an event, will deny it ever happening, or will pretend to forget what actually happened, even if you have proof. They'll either discount or twist the reality of your evidence.
Examples of Gaslighting in Relationships
Use of "Love" as a Defense
If someone says, "You know I only do it because I love you," or, "Believe me, this is for the best," when doing something you perceive as abusive, controlling, or wrong, they are probably gaslighting you. Gaslighters will use love as a defense for their actions and suggest that you don't love them equally if you don't agree with what they say or do. For example, the gaslighter might sabotage opportunities (jobs, friendships) for you in order to control you, then justify it by saying they were concerned or that they did it because they care about you.
Accusations of Paranoia
One of the most common tactics of gaslighters is accusing their victim of paranoia. This often happens when a romantic partner is cheating. Gaslighters will deflect the problem onto their partner instead of taking responsibility for their own bad behavior. They'll say things like, "You really think I would cheat on you? You're just insecure," or, "Why are you so paranoid? You know I would never do that." The gaslighter will accuse the victim of being overly sensitive and jealous in hopes that they will no longer trust their instincts or observations.
Constant Criticism or Disparagement
A gaslighter will use verbal abuse to wear their victim down in an attempt to keep them stuck in the relationship. They'll use constant insults or comments like, "You know you'll never get anyone better than me," or, "You're terrible with money, that's why I have to control the finances." They want to make you believe you're unlovable or useless without them and therefore must stay in the relationship. Other insults, like calling you "dramatic," "hysterical," "ungrateful," or "crazy," are meant to make you question your sanity.
Why Gaslighting Happens
People seek power and control in relationships for a wide variety of reasons, so the rationalizations for gaslighting vary from case to case. However, there are a few patterns, Bergen shares.
They Believe It's the Only Way to Sustain the Relationship
"In some cases, gaslighting is a way to try to keep somebody who you want to be in a relationship with around in a very abusive way—there's this notion that this is the only way to sustain the relationship," says Bergen.
They Feel Better About Themselves When Controlling Someone Else
"Sometimes, there's a genuine sense of, 'If I'm controlling other people, then I feel better about where I'm at,' and that search for power is something that expresses itself in the relationship," explains Bergen.
They Just Enjoy the Power and Control
According to Bergen, there's "a decent amount of research that shows there are people who genuinely find pleasure in having control over others."
What to Do If They're Gaslighting You
The first step in recovering from gaslighting is to commit to breaking the cycle of abuse. Don't allow your plans to be derailed by your abuser, who will likely ramp up his or her manipulations upon recognizing your intent to escape the relationship. Prepare yourself for this, and likewise aim to stay one step ahead in the pattern so that you're able to remain as disassociated as possible. Here are some additional tips that may help:
Seek Help From Someone Outside the Relationship
Turn to a friend, family member, or trusted coworker to validate your feelings. This won't be easy, as a byproduct of gaslighting is the feeling of isolation; the victim has been manipulated to believe that their abuser is the only one who truly understands them. Realize that this isn't the case, and seek out a confidant who can help you assess the situation, corroborate your memories, and/or confirm that something's not right.
It's not advised to talk to your partner about feeling like you're being gaslit, because they're going to tell you that what you're seeing isn't what you're actually seeing; they want to maintain control in the power dynamic.
Approach Your Recovery Like a Marathon, Not a Sprint
While speaking with a loved one is therapeutic, you might need the counsel of an impartial third party (think psychologist or therapist) to not only guide you out of the smoke and mirrors, but to help ensure you don't slip back into the cycle of abuse, no matter the nature of the relationship in question—romantic, familial, platonic, professional, or otherwise.
Considering couples' therapy with your partner? Go for it, but be sure to book your own, private sessions, too. And remember: Long-term, regular therapy with a qualified professional might be necessary to equip you with the tools needed to break free from (or at least distance yourself from) a toxic relationship. After all, building a sturdy bridge between your past missteps and your future successes is unlikely to happen in a single session.
Focus on Yourself
Do not lose your sense of self. This, coupled with the aftershocks of a breakup (even if the split is from a family member or a friend), can create the perfect conditions for wallowing. Still, it's important to ditch your couch-and-sweatpants habit before it becomes routine. "Create space internally, mentally, emotionally, and then externally by engaging with people outside the relationship," advises Bergen. Direct some much-needed attention to any relationships that may have been on the back burner, and open yourself up to meeting new people, too. A shared interest is always a great ice breaker, so think about signing up for a workshop, class, retreat, or another opportunity to combine a pastime with socialization.
Get out of your rut—and reclaim your identity—by partaking in activities that you love or once loved. Go for a hike, scribble in a journal, cook up some comfort food—whatever it takes to make you feel whole again.
Trust Your Gut
Now and always, resolve to heed your intuition and follow your instincts. "The internal step, in terms of what to do if you feel like you're being gaslit, is to make the commitment to yourself that you do not have to question your thoughts, feelings, perceptions about anything," advises Bergen. "That is a choice that you make as an individual to reassess a situation that nobody is allowed to re-narrate anything for you." In other words, your emotions, thoughts, and memories should never be subject to debate—period.
Sweet PL. The Sociology of Gaslighting. Am Sociol Rev. 2019;84(5):851-875. doi:10.1177/0003122419874843