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Identifying Gaslighting: Spotting the Signs, Why People Gaslight and How it Affects Your Relationships

Man with 'ENOUGH' written on his hand seeking to understand signs of gaslighting and how to spot such behavior in relationships

Are you being gaslit in your relationship or in your career? Can you rapidly spot gaslighting signs? In this blog, I share telltale signs of gaslighting, whether you’re experiencing it from a boss, family member, or partner. 

In the last few years, gaslighting has entered the public consciousness in a big way: It was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2022, seeing a 1,740 percent spike in searches over the previous year. But as buzzy as the term may be, gaslighting is a serious issue that’s important to know about because it is quite pernicious, and most people cannot spot gaslighting in their relationships quickly enough before real mental and emotional damage occurs.

In fact, one research paper published in the journal Popular Communication argues that the popularity of the term could be beneficial for society, saying that our suspicions about abuse on a personal level can help combat disinformation on a societal scale, such as us being more skeptical of claims of “fake news” and deep fakes circulating the internet. More important is why a person gaslights, how to spot gaslighting in relationships, and become astute at spotting the signs of gaslighting overall.

What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, the uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.

Typically we associate gaslighting with toxic romantic partnerships, yet many of the clients I treat are still unable to spot most gaslighting signs. Still, it can occur between parents and children, with our supposed friends, in the office, when we go to the doctor, and even on a societal scale when used to deny the existence of structural biases.

The Link Between Gaslighting and Abuse

From over 20 years of practice, I have witnessed subtle and extreme forms of gaslighting. Hands down, it’s always manipulative but not always intentionally abusive.

A subtle form and signs of gaslighting may be saying to your partner, ‘Seriously, this is still bothering you?’ That statement is more basic dismissal, but gaslighting falls under that category. Frequently hearing statements like this can lead a partner to question their reality.

One example of a more serious form of gaslighting could be something like your significant other deleting texts or emails and then denying that they ever existed in the first place. In the case of a parent and child, gaslighting often happens alongside serious forms of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. A parent might say, “Oh c’mon, that didn’t hurt.” That will cause a child to question their reaction to the pain they’ve experienced.

The result of being gaslit is you begin to feel as if you can’t trust your own thoughts or feelings. That’s one reason it’s difficult for a victim of gaslighting to realize what’s happening.

Dr. Sydney Ceruto, Founder of MindLAB Neuroscience

When It Might Not Be Gaslighting?

So, how do we know when it isn’t gaslighting? Say a couple comes into a session with me after an argument, and both feel they were in the right and their partner was in the wrong. Both actually believe [their point of view], and to an extent, both are right. Both of them have made good points. There’s a lot of truth on both sides, and they’ve made many mistakes. That isn’t gaslighting, per se. Only when a person persists in their point of view and refuses to acknowledge that the other person has a point — or even agrees to a shared reality — does it cross the line. 

In the case of a disagreement between friends, someone may not necessarily be gaslighting if they’re using “I” statements, focusing on their own actions and feelings, and not adding judgment or contempt when giving feedback.

Nevertheless, it’s always valid and even wise to exit a situation if someone behaves poorly toward you, whether or not they’re using gaslighting tactics. The definition of ‘poorly’ is subjective, and that’s the point. Your subjective reality is yours, and it’s valid. No one can define it for you.

Distressed woman experiencing signs of gaslighting in her relationship, contemplating why people gaslight, and seeking guidance on how to spot gaslighting for better relationship communication and understanding.
Confused and seeking answers, a woman grapples with the subtle signs of gaslighting in her relationship. She’s caught in a dilemma, wondering ‘Why do people gaslight?’ and is determined to learn ‘How to Spot Gaslighting to safeguard her emotional well-being.’

How to Spot the Signs of Gaslighting  

Gaslighting involves a complete lack of empathy for the victim and can be extremely tricky to spot. To illustrate what that looks like in practice, here are eight telltale signs of gaslighting that can occur. 

1. A Gaslighter Uses Loaded Words Against You

People use certain words and phrases when they want to invalidate their thoughts and feelings. If someone calls you “crazy,” “irrational,” or “too sensitive,” they’re likely trying to attack your point of view. A gaslighter may accuse you of “imagining things” or “overreacting” to something they’ve said or done.

2. A Gaslighter Is Extremely Defensive

Gaslighters tend to get overly defensive over small confrontations. Gaslighters need to be right, dislike criticism, and refuse to accept any blame, so if they feel like you’re challenging them, it’s not uncommon for them to become highly defensive in response.

3. A Gaslighter Is Constantly Telling You How You Feel

One major gaslighting flag in many relationships is when you feel something, and your partner says, “You shouldn’t feel that.” Only you get to decide how you feel about a situation, but gaslighters will often try to make you question your take on reality to get you on their page and to undermine your judgment.

4. A Person Who Gaslights Always Makes You Out to Be the Bad Guy

A common tactic used among gaslighters is DARVO, which stands for deny, accuse, and reverse victim and offender. A gaslighter might deny their victim’s assertion of hurtful, deceptive, or manipulative behavior. Not only that, but they also might turn around and accuse the wounded party of unfairly attacking them, turning themselves into the victim and you into the bad guy. Reversing blame can also look like the gaslighter saying that you made them behave a certain way and that it was your fault.

5. You Start to Question Your Reality Around a Gaslighter

Being gaslit makes you feel you can’t trust your thoughts or feelings. That’s one reason it’s difficult for a victim of gaslighting to realize what’s happening. A gaslighter might make you feel this way by denying what you know to be true, saying that you’re confusing them, trivializing your feelings, or completely ignoring you and changing the subject. However, they attempt to manipulate you, and their gaslighting behavior can lead you to experience “a chronic sense of self-doubt” and loss of confidence. You may notice you’re having a harder time making decisions because you don’t trust yourself and are overly worried about the consequences of making the wrong decision.

In a healthy relationship, be it romantic, friendly, professional, or familial, you should be made to feel good about yourself because people who care about you and respect you want to build you up and for you to succeed. On the other hand, gaslighters will often tear down your confidence to make you easier to manipulate.

If you’re feeling depressed and anxious, that doesn’t mean your partner is gaslighting you. But if you have these other feelings associated with it, like your partner doesn’t feel safe with you, your partner doesn’t feel like somebody you can really be yourself with, and that they have your back, you might be a victim of gaslighting. 

7. A Gaslighter Outright Denies What You Know to Be True

In extreme cases, gaslighters will delete or destroy evidence of something that happened to maintain their version of reality. They may move or adjust things so you question your memory, like the husband in Hamilton’s play.

They might also deny saying or doing things you know they said or did (but have no evidence of), then try to make you feel like you’re making things up.

8. You Feel Like You Need to Agree on Everything

In a healthy romantic relationship, it’s normal to have disagreements. You can agree to disagree and accept that you have different perspectives, so long as you’re respectful and caring and acknowledge each other’s point of view. But having a different perspective in an abusive relationship is not okay. You’re supposed to be the same.

In the workplace, responsible and ethical managers will recognize the power imbalance between themselves and their employees and be mindful not to exploit or deflect their actions, explains Polk. Whereas “a boss that’s gaslighting would make an employee feel dumb or irrational for things they don’t know. For example, ‘You didn’t know you should’ve called them back?’ However, the underlying issue is the boss providing inadequate training or guidance. A healthy boss in that situation would say, ‘I’m sorry, I forgot to mention that it’s our policy to call back.

Over time, a gaslit employee might begin to lose faith in their own abilities, question their reality, and become a less effective worker, not to mention feel miserable going into the office every day

Narcissist Gaslighting and Why People Gaslight

Gaslighters often engage in this behavior because they need the world to align with their own perspective, and they can feel threatened when it doesn’t. In fact, experts say that gaslighting is common among people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). People with NPD have an inflated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy and often use charm and deceit to manipulate the people around them. Gaslighting is a major part of this.

Moreover, gaslighting is typically used when there’s an imbalance of power as a way for the gaslighter to maintain the higher ground. As mentioned above, it’s common for people to gaslight to perpetuate larger structural inequalities and biases like racism, gendered stereotypes, and homophobia.

What to Do If You’re a Gaslighter

Though it’s painful to look in the mirror and see yourself as someone who uses manipulative, gaslighting tactics, you can change your ways. Simply thinking you may be a gaslighter is a good first step toward addressing the issue and healing. That requires a degree of honesty and humility. Then you need to start practicing and expressing three things in your relationship: empathy, accountability, and vulnerability.

In many cases, gaslighters learned their behavior through interpersonal relationships as children, and it’s possible to unlearn them. If that is, they’re willing to put in the work.

Try to practice seeing the other person as separate from yourself, with different values, opinions, and experiences.

You can ask your partner or the person you’ve been gaslighting to point out when you’re doing it and to practice showing empathy, taking responsibility, and learning from the experience. Seeing a therapist can also be helpful.

Are You Being Gaslit?

Ultimately, if you suspect you’re being gaslit, that’s confirmation enough that something isn’t right in that relationship. Recognize gaslighting for the serious problem, and respond in a way that puts your health and safety first — whether that means confiding in friends and family, going to therapy, or exiting the situation. Most importantly, remember that your thoughts, feelings, and memories are completely valid, and treat yourself with compassion as you go toward a safer, healthier place.

Is it Time To Get Help?

If you are being gaslit or gaslighting, having interpersonal conflicts, being scolded professionally, or unsure how to stop, please visit my website and book a phone consultation. I will explain in detail how I can help.

#WhyPeopleGaslight, #HowToSpotGaslighting, #UnderstandingGaslighting, #GaslightingEffects, #PsychologicalManipulation, #EmotionalAbuse, #GaslightingAwareness, #RelationshipDynamics

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Picture of Dr. Sydney Ceruto

Dr. Sydney Ceruto

A Pioneer in Neuroscience-Based Coaching

As the founder of MindLAB Neuroscience, Dr. Sydney Ceruto has been a leading force in integrating neuroscience into coaching and counseling for over two decades. With three master's degrees in psychology and two PhDs in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, she is widely considered a top expert in her field.

Harnessing the power of neuroscience-based coaching, Dr. Ceruto's innovative approach focuses on neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and neural pathway rewiring to foster lasting positive change in mental health.

Dr. Ceruto holds esteemed memberships in the Forbes Executive Council, Positive Performance Alliance, Wharton Executive Education Program, the International Society of Female Professionals, and executive writing positions for Alternatives Watch, Brainz Magazine, and TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Dr. Ceruto's accomplishments include:

  • The 2022 CREA Award.
  • A lead research position at NYU Steinhardt.
  • Volunteer work with Covenant House and the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI).

Her science-backed method of Neural Rewiring has successfully guided thousands of clients toward happier, more productive, and more resilient lives.