What Gaslighting Actually Is…And What It Isn’t image

What Gaslighting Actually Is…And What It Isn’t

Gaslighting describes something that by its very nature can fly under the radar.

Gaslighting describes something that by its very nature can fly under the radar. Yet recently, it’s made its way into mainstream conversation to the point that Merriam Webster named it the word of the year.

It’s a paradox that leaves you to wonder just how prevalent gaslighting has become in human relationships…and how good we are at identifying it.

As with so many terms that, at their core, tie into topics of mental health, gaslighting runs the risk of being both mislabeled or overused and simultaneously overlooked and under-identified.

In the same way that not all arrogant acts equate to “narcissism,” not all disagreements are samples of gaslighting. And yet, many people who experience gaslighting are steamrolled to the extent that they don’t even realize that it’s happening. And, in cases of abuse, they may not get the help they need.

All of this made us want to really break down (in useful, non-squishy terms) what gaslighting actually is and, perhaps more murkily, what it isn’t.

To do this, we called on Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist, author, and mental health expert to explain to us the actions that define gaslighting and how these actions impacts interpersonal relationships.

So, what is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is considered a form of psychological abuse.

It “refers to a set of intentionally manipulative behaviors that a perpetrator enacts upon their victim with the primary purpose of upsetting the victim and making them feel as though they cannot trust their own lived experience,” said Dr. Alfiee. “The purpose of gaslighting is psychological manipulation and control.” 

In considering this behavior, many people find themselves asking two questions: 

  • Have I felt this way?
  • Have I made someone else feel this way?

However, a gaslighter actively engages in specific tactics to conceal their intentions, making it a lot harder for a person to fully know what’s going down.

Image from Instagram @dr.z_psychologist

Some examples of gaslighting include:

  • A partner who flies off the handle in an argument. Later, instead of apologizing, they downplay their behavior: “I was never that mad. You know how much I care about you. It wasn’t a big deal. Why are you still even thinking about this?”
  • A spouse who’s having an affair lying repeatedly about their whereabouts. When confronted, they accuse their partner of being paranoid, jealous, and intrusive: “You’re honestly starting to scare me. When did you get so neurotic? How can you not trust me? You’re being insane. I can’t even listen to this right now.”
  • A person who puts their partner down with “jokes” and complaints. When the other person acts hurt or insulted, they shift the blame: “Why are you so sensitive? You have to have a thicker skin than this. Can you not be so victimized? You can’t handle the slightest comment about yourself. Everyone knows this about you.”

Making a person feel unsure, insecure, and ultimately apologetic hands over a certain power to the gaslighter to control both the dynamic and the outcome of an interaction.

Image from Instagram @crazyheadcomics

So what are the behavior patterns associated with gaslighting?

Gaslighting can include:

  • Deceiving the other person.Example: “I didn’t say that.” “I never even saw your texts.” “This is all in your head.”
  • Denying another person’s reality or memory of events.Example: “You’re imagining things.” “I never said anything like that.” “It didn’t happen that way.” “When did I ever get upset? You’re the one who freaked out.” “What are you even talking about?”
  • Causing one to question their reality by casting doubt.Example: “Does this even have anything to do with me?” “I never so much as look at other women/men.” “I’m literally worrying about you all the time. Can’t you see that?” “When do I ever tell you what to do?”
  • Trivializing another’s point of view or feelings.Example: “You’re reading so much into this.” “Why are you being so dramatic?” “What is the big deal?” “You’re crazy?” “I didn’t realize you’d make such a drama out of this.”
  • Countering the other person and insisting they’re right.Example: “That’s not how it works.” “You have it totally backwards.” “I honestly can’t believe how off you are about this.” “That is completely not true.”
  • Refusing to listen or understand another’s point of view.Example: “I can’t talk about this right now. I have my own shit going on.” Don’t you see how much pressure I’m under?” “I can’t handle all this nagging.”
  • Diverting attention by undermining the other person.Example: “Who cares if I forgot one little thing? Why are you going nuts about everything?”  “The real issue is why you’re so insecure.” “Are you even being serious right now?“ “You need to get help.”
Image from Instagram @themindgeek

Here’s the best on-screen example of “innocuous” gaslighting in recent memory. It feels like nothing. But it’s crazy-making.


Granted, couples fight in this formation all the time, which can make it tricky to tell when we’re being gaslit as opposed to when we’re just in conflict. There’s certainly a chance that we ourselves might be overreacting…or nagging…or being defensive…or acting in any one of the myriad ways we can act off in a relationship when we feel triggered. And of course, the person doing the gaslighting would love us to believe that we’re the ones making a mess of things. It’s only when looking closely at each tactical level of undermining another person’s basic reality that we see where gaslighting comes into play. So, how do we tell when it’s gaslighting?

Signs we’re being gaslit:

According to Dr. Alfiee warning signs include:

  • Constantly feeling uneasy around a person who tells you they care about you
  • Questioning if your version of events is accurate
  • Dealing with someone who weaponizes things you love
  • Noticing that though they’re excessively showering you with praise, you still feel uncomfortable around them
Image from Instagram @themindgeek

Gaslighting requires an intended desire to control and manipulate. It’s a pattern of behavior designed to fragment the other person. With that in mind, here are some examples of what gaslighting is not.

What isn’t gaslighting?

  • It isn’t just a disagreement here and there. It’s not a matter of two people experiencing or perceiving things differently, which will always be the case, even for couples who get along.
  • It isn’t an accidental or occasional slight for which someone apologizes and takes responsibility.
  • It isn’t a person saying they didn’t see something in the same way you did. Any couple trying to communicate collaboratively needs to hear each other out and accept that each of our perspectives and emotions are unique and autonomous.
  •  It isn’t a person asking for space in a heated moment. If someone feels overwhelmed or triggered, pressing pause can be the right course of action. They will then ideally come back to the conversation in a calm state where they can better hear their partner out and claim more responsibility.
Image from Instagram @sitwithwhit

Because a gaslighter may build you up or reaffirm their lovey feelings for you after a mistreatment occurs, their behavior can lead to a lot of confusion. It’s part of a tactical way to convince you that their treatment was “not that bad” and persuade you to sweep it under the rug.

This is why it’s important to notice a repeated pattern in which they refuse to recognize (or they continually contradict) your point of view. You may become increasingly aware of the intentional way they try to control both your perspective and the narrative around the relationship.

Finally, you can take note of the warning signs in yourself such as feeling repeatedly confused, foggy, unsure of yourself, questioning, self-critical, or insecure. This awareness can help you to know when it’s gaslighting and not just a disagreement.


What to do when someone is gaslighting you:

When you’re being gaslit, you’ll likely experience a lot of self-doubt and confusion. Gaining awareness of a gaslighter’s pattern of behavior and the intention behind it is crucial, but due to the multi-levels of manipulation, it’s often the trickiest part.

Yet, once the pattern of abuse is acknowledged, what’s the best course of action?

According to Dr. Alfiee, you should do the following:

  • Remind yourself that you are not to blame. “A gaslighter’s behavior is the only behavior they know for how to interact with people,” said Dr. Alfiee.
  • Trust your instincts. Keep grounding yourself in your reality by reconfirming solid details around your experience. Remind yourself “I know what I saw, heard, felt, etc. and I believe myself.” Validating our internal experience can become a necessity when our confidence is being chipped away at from the outside.
  • Limit time with the gaslighter.
  • Use active coping skills and grounding exercises, so you can always engage with the gaslighter with a clear head.
  •  Extend yourself grace and be patient with yourself.
Image from Instagram @themindgeek

Being gaslit can affect our very equilibrium, shaking up our sense of whether or not we ourselves are making sense. Naturally, this can stir up a lot of emotion. The last thing to remember is to allow yourself to feel your feelings without judgement or assessment. We’re not a mess, because our mind is being messed with. Seeking help from a therapist can be a way of recommitting to yourself and refusing to be overtaken by another.

Continuing to place trust in our own lived experience is the most powerful counterpart to anyone aiming to play with our reality. It lands us in a place where we’re better able to make sense of our dynamics and ultimately, to make decisions about our own actions.

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