This is a common pattern of psychological abuse that starts to happen as a relationship with a disordered person starts to leave the “honeymoon” phase and move into the more toxic devalue/discard stages. There might be a growing feeling in your interactions that something isn’t right, a “wrongness” that you start to feel more and more in your body, and this pattern of communication is one very common example of this. It can happen with girlfriends/boyfriends/family/husbands/wives/friends/colleagues/bosses – anyone in fact.
You might claim something happened (or was done or was said), and you KNOW this to be true. Or vice versa, you might know something didn’t happen or wasn’t said or done. Yet they seem to claim, with complete certainly themselves, and with a totally straight face, the opposite of what you know to be the truth. You know something happened or WAS done/said, yet they undermine what you know to be reality and claim that it didn’t happen.
Even if this happens once, it can be very unsettling, since your confidence in your own perception of reality is being contradicted or undermined. And if it starts happening repeatedly, your distress will start to grow more and more. You start to wonder what’s going on with this person. Why are they doing this? Why are they denying clear reality? Is it me that’s going mad? You start to ruminate and search online for answers.
So what is going on when someone in your life denies and refutes a clear reality you know to be true? That’s why I wrote this article – to provide answers, and also a clear term to give people to arrive at some clarity as to what’s going on.
When someone denies clear reality and claims something didn’t happen when it did, they are engaging in the abuse tactic known as gas-lighting. This is broadly defined as the intentional and repeated undermining of a person’s perception of reality, and is a method of manipulation and control common with pathological personalities.
Therefore, when someone is trying to mess with your head in this way, you now have a term of for it – they’re gas-lighting you!
The term actually comes from an American film of the same name from the 1940s, where a male character in it tries to convince his wife she is going insane by denying he is turning down the gas lights in the home when in fact he is. Therefore the general template is when someone tries to undermine the psychological stability and sanity of someone else by deliberately questioning and manipulating their perception of reality.
It is a very pernicious and damaging form of abuse, and if continued unopposed, causes long lasting damage to the victim’s self confidence, stability and ability to make decisions in the world. Therefore it’s a very important issue to address, which we will do in detail in the rest of this article.
Some More Common Examples Of Gas-lighting
We’ve already covered one major generic form of gas-lighting – when someone in your life claims something didn’t happen (or wasn’t said/done) when it did, or vice versa.
But gas-lighting is really pernicious and can take a lot of different forms. Here are some more examples, both of this general template scenario, and other forms of it:
- An abusive person claiming they didn’t say certain things to you, when you know they did, or vice versa.
- If you play them a recording of the conversation as proof, they may then pivot to the “that’s not what I meant” excuse instead.
- Alternatively, a person may accept that they did or said something, but then deny that there was anything wrong about this, when there clearly was. Gas-lighting you on your moral or ethical judgements on things they’ve done/said, rather than the act itself.
- Sometimes, they’ll flat out deny a conversation even took place, when you know it did, or vice versa.
- Relentlessly opposing your perception of things, and always challenging them with “alternative facts” in a way that’s pervasive and persistent, and over time chips away at your confidence in your own values and views.
- Gaslighting can also involve an invalidation of your emotions, including anger, distress, hurt, making them out to be invalid and “silly”. Can be a general mocking and denigration of perfectly understandable emotional reactions to toxic behavior.
- A person never accepting ownership for clear wrongdoing, and instead always trying to shift the blame onto you in some way.
- Trying to further pathologize you for your justified angry reaction to the gas-lighting, claiming you’re “losing it” and “getting angry now” – often said in a patronizing and condescending tone to further belittle and undermine you.
- A pathological personality may also outrageously invert reality regarding mental health and therapy, claiming that you’re the one who is sick and needs therapy, when in fact they are the ones who are mentally sick and need professional help, with their relentless gas-lighting just one of many indications of this.
- As part of their “hoovering” act, some narcissists/psychopaths will pretend to be sorry, issuing seemingly heartfelt apologies, apologizing for their abuse in long conversations, perhaps even agreeing that they have a disorder and/or saying they’ll go to therapy. If you accept this and take them back, sometimes a few days/weeks later they’ll delete any evidence and outrageously deny any of that apology/conversation ever took place and go back to blaming you and taking zero ownership themselves (yes, they can be that blatant with it – see the 1 hour timestamp of this podcast for an example of this).
- A questioning of your values and qualities in a group scenario (work ethic, integrity, loyalty, cohesiveness etc) that is manipulative and plays on guilt.
- Constant re-framing (twisting) and projection of blame onto you for things which aren’t your fault (for example, it’s not that they cheated on you, but that you “made them cheat” because of blah-blah-blah). Constantly twisting things so they reflect negatively on you).
- Deliberately provoking reactions and then trying to invalidate that perfectly justifiable reaction (“oh wow, look at you now, losing control” kind of reaction).
- Similarly, any kind of push-back on bullying or mistreatment or gas-lighting will be met by the person “doubling down” on their position, further trying to gas-light you.
- In toxic workplaces especially, gas-lighting can be multi-layered, in that your direct line manager may gas-light you, and when you turn to a higher level manager for support, they are reinforce this gas-lighting and also deny your reality or unfairly blame you.
Again, this can be friends, family, partners, work colleagues, managers or friends that engage in this behavior. But whenever your correct perception of reality is being consistently, systematically undermined, gas-lighting is taking place.
“(Narcissists/psychopaths) practice what’s known as gaslighting, where they have you wondering whether you’re really in touch with reality. You can have a conversation with them an hour ago, and they’ll deny ever having it. Or deny saying what they said. You almost want to record them, and play it back and say ‘yes you did, you said exactly that!’….It’s a horrible tactic that narcissists seem to be very good at. Don’t fall for it. Stand firm. It doesn’t get better”.
Jonathan C Noble, divorce attorney – see here
Gas-lighting Is Common With Cluster B Disorders
Let’s also add another piece to the puzzle with this issue that can move people along quicker if they’re really distressed by this behavior they’re seeing from someone in their life.
This kind of behavior can technically be engaged in by anyone, but it’s much more common with pathological personalities, more specifically those in the Cluster B spectrum of personality disorders (psychopathy/sociopathy/narcissism/borderline).
In general, these personality disorders are characterized by an arrogance and grandiosity, a strong wall of denial, a constant tendency to manipulate and exploit others for personal gain, and a refusal to accept any ownership for wrongdoing and instead project blame onto others.
All of which means that gas-lighting is a very common tool in their “bag of tricks” they’ll happily resort to to manipulate and control others for their own benefit, especially by steadily eroding their confidence in their own perception and making them more and more reliable on their own (warped) perception for their own reference point of reality.
Therefore, if you’re seeing this behavior not just occasionally, but relentlessly and pervasively from someone in your life, where your confidence in your perception is constantly being eroded and chipped away at, it’s very likely you’re dealing with someone with a personality disorder. You can research this in your own time, but anti-social personality disorder (psychopathy/sociopathy) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are two good diagnostic criteria for begin with for understanding what you’re likely dealing with.
Why Do People Gas-light Others?
Hopefully having a word for what’s going on when someone is denying your clear reality is cathartic and re-empowers you a little bit. But the next obvious question is why do people engage in this behavior?
Here’s a couple of common motives for gas-lighting a person by denying clear reality:
Control – The Cluster B disorders like narcissism and psychopathy in general are marked by an extreme power and control-fixation. These people have a strong need to dominate and control others, and subjugate them to their will, their perception, their (inverted) reality, at the expense of yours. These people cannot ever do “equal”, where they respect your perception as different to theirs. They need to be dominating, on top of, and controlling others, psychologically as well as physically, and gas-lighting is one way of doing that.
Destructiveness – With some psychopaths/sociopaths, you’ll also find a vicious destructiveness there, where there’s a desire to literally destroy a person from the inside out, stripping them of all independence, dignity and identity and reducing them to “nothing” psychologically. Gaslighting is a major tactic they use over the long term to accomplish this, relentlessly eroding a person’s self respect and sanity until they literally don’t know who they are anymore.
Denial – An alternative way of looking at the narcissistic personality especially is that it’s built on a denial of reality, not it’s acceptance. Therefore, gas-lighting can for sure sometimes be intentional and wilful (especially when done systematically over time – I would argue that the psychopathic/sociopathic personality approaches this more with an strategic intent to erode a person’s stability and sanity over time). But it can also simply be a by-product of dealing with a pathological personality who’s been training themselves to deny reality from a very early age to avoid facing unbearable trauma they went through. Therefore what we might call “gas-lighting” might just be bumping into this very strongly rooted defense mechanism of denial in narcissists especially, where they cannot accept any reality or perception that would undermine their grandiose false self image. They deny your reality, because in their mind, they MUST do this to survive with their own view of themselves intact.
Projection – This is a defense mechanism that’s a counterpart to denial, whereby a person “offloads” or “dumps” things/attributes/impulses/facts about themselves they don’t like onto others. People who don’t want to accept uncomfortable realities about themselves project them onto others, which can sometimes manifest as the behavior we’d colloquially call “gas-lighting”. “I’m not doing X, you’re doing X”, “I’m not (insert trait), you’re (insert trait)”, might be two common interactions from someone who’s projecting an uncomfortable reality about themselves onto someone else, which strongly crosses over with gas-lighting. This defense is more common with toxic, or otherwise immature people, who aren’t accustomed to taking a great deal of ownership for wrongdoing on their part.
Common Consequences Of Gas-lighting
Now we’ve given some kind of overview on the what and the why of someone gas-lighting you by invalidating your correct perception, let’s cover some common consequences, some common states people suffering from this form of abuse go through in the midst of it.
- Pathological personalities will often ramp up gas-lighting over time as they gain more and more control over your perception through repeatedly undermining it and replacing it with their own. It will get more common and more extreme/outrageous as a toxic relationship goes on.
- The victim may start to “give in” and accept the gas-lighter’s version of reality, thinking they must be the one “going mad”, and handing over their power to the abuser (very bad move – get out of toxic relationships before it can ever get to this stage, as this kind of damage takes a long time to undo).
- During and after the relationship, the victim may find they’ve lost their ability to make even simple decisions for themselves. Their confidence in their own perception and decision making ability has been smashed to pieces by the prolonged gas-lighting.
- Long term gas-lighting can also smash to pieces a person’s ability to assert themselves healthily in the world. They may become more submissive, meek and codependent in personality style, handing their power over to others more easily and not making decisions for themselves any more.
- In workplaces especially, gas-lighting can completely undermine and erode a person confidence to perform simple tasks they used to perform with ease. The constant gas-lighting and undermining has made them question everything inside themselves, and it’s made conscious what should be automatic and unconscious. This can lead to a “freezing up” response, where one’s sense of competency and efficiency has been lost and they can’t perform the job like they used to.
- Related to this, compulsive OCD patterns of behavior (eg. over-checking things) may form which weren’t there before, again because of the deeply entrained self-doubt that long term gas-lighting can cause.
- As the gas-lighting ramps up, the victim may become more and more distressed in their somatic and bodily feelings, with more anger, anxiety and a general “wrongness” that often manifests in the gut as they know something’s wrong, but don’t know quite what and don’t know how to respond.
- There will also be an increase in rumination, where the victim is constantly going over interactions in their head, trying to “build a case” against the abuser, or replaying what they wish they’d said, etc etc. The distress of the gas-lighting pulls the victim out of their body and the present, and more into their head and going over the past.
- In general, a person that may have been more or less composed, calm and collected before, will after prolonged gas-lighting be distressed and unsettled. Their quality of life will definitely have changed for the worse if they “check in” with themselves honestly.
- More generally, an increase in mistrust and paranoia about all people in general, not just the gas-lighter. You become more suspicious and guarded and less open in interactions. The quality of all your relationships will start to suffer if you’re gas-lit long term.
“If you’ve ever felt the need to record a conversation to play it back to that person as proof or so you can be sure you heard it right, you’re being gas-lighted”
Dr Ramani Durvasula
How To Respond To Gas-lighting
OK, so we’ve covered the defining and understanding of this deliberate erosion of your perception of reality. Now for the really important actionable part of what to do about it once you’ve identified it in your life; how to respond to gas-lighting.
In the broadest terms, when the gas-lighting has become pervasive and relentless in a relationship, the best approach is dis-engage entirely from it, since even trying to engage with a habitual gas-lighter is a waste of your energy, and means on some level, you’ve already lost.
Firstly, it’s important to note that not all differences of opinion/perception are gas-lighting. But if you respond with “Sorry, I don’t see it that way” or something similar, the other person will respect that difference of opinion. A pathological gas-lighter will demand that you submit to their false view of what happened/didn’t happen. The more clever ones may pretend to respect your space initially, but sooner or later will start chipping away at you psychologically.
Firstly, here are some tips for dealing with gas-lighting in personal relationships:
- Foundational point – do your best to remain calm when a disordered person is trying to provoke/gaslight you. They want you to lose control as fuel for smear campaigns they run against you, so keeping calm gives you the upper hand.
- Do NOT waste time trying to reason with a toxic gas-lighter, showing evidence, drawing up timelines, lists, facts, trying to argue sincerely. This is actually playing into the disordered person’s hands, since they want you wasting energy trying to defend and “prove” your point of view, and couldn’t care less about actual facts (context/content split)
- Do NOT waste time diligently appealing to facts/logic/reason with gas-lighters, since again they are either unable to process reality, or have no interest in doing so.
- Do NOT get drawn into the dynamic overly gullible and naive people often get drawn into, where they allow themselves to get more and more exasperated trying to counter the gas-lighter’s behavior, as the gas-lighter also continues to double down on their gaslighting.
- Instead, understand that pathological personalities feed off the emotional reactions of others, and are therefore wanting you to keep you engaged, trying to defend your perception (you’ll often catch these people smirking in arguments, because they can see they’re exasperating you).
- Instead, seek to dis-engage with interactions from habitual gas-lighters as soon as possible, and avoid all future interactions as well. Here are some scripts:
- “I will not engage with someone that denies my reality/perception”
- “I’m done with this conversation”
- “I refuse to waste any more time and energy on this conversation”
- Do NOT engage with any follow up provocation/comments. Remove yourself from the situation ASAP.
- See Dr Ramani’s DEEP Technique for a good framework for disengaging – don’t Defend, Engage, Explain or Personalize.
- If you’re in an intimate relationship with this person and realize this pattern of gaslighting has been going on a long time and is habitual on their part, end the relationship as soon as possible. It’s really that simple. Move out, or pack their stuff and move them out. Do not get drawn into argument/explanation, or any other back and forth blah-blah. Get away as soon as possible, block them on all platforms and never speak to them again (no contact rule)
- If no contact is not possible because of commitments, or you can’t leave right away, aim to shrink contact with a toxic gaslighter down to a minimum until you can get away (see this guide for managing unavoidable contact with a toxic person).
And then some additional advice points for dealing with workplace gaslighting:
- Always document all instances of gaslighting, including conversations/interactions, meetings, screenshots, emails, texts etc. Keep a clear, detailed record of all interactions where someone attempted to deny clear reality and gaslight you.
- Again, simply look to disengage from interactions where gaslighting is taking place, and minimize contact with them longer term as well. If it’s your manager, seek a transfer if the company culture is otherwise pretty good.
- When deciding on whether to escalate grievances/complaints, very carefully assess the culture of the company. Is the gas-lighter an isolated “bad egg”, or is the company full of these people? Are middle/upper management just as bad or even worse? Do you have confidence complaints will be fairly dealt with? Know when it’s simply time to move on from toxic workplaces.
- See our article on identifying workplace gaslighting for more on dealing with it in this context.
Recovering From Gaslighting
How much damage gaslighting has done to a person, and therefore how much work is needed to fix it, depends on how long it’s been going on. If you spot it, and end relationships, early on when it first starts, the damage is likely to be far less severe.
However, if this has been going on for months or years, you’ve likely to a large extent lost touch with your own feelings, opinions, perception and values. And it’s going to be long process to recover your assertiveness and interact with the world with confidence again.
However, the best resources I’ve found on this is Amy Macoy Marlow’s Recovery From Gaslighting Workbook, which has got detailed journaling exercises to identify, deconstruct and rewire the major components of gaslighting, reclaim your rightful emotions back (including anger), and rebuild confidence in your own perception again. See our books section for a link.