• Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and abuse used to gain control over one’s victim.
  • It’s often difficult to spot gaslighting, as these manipulators make their victims question their own sanity.
  • Gaslighters are domineering but work to present themselves as kind, generous, intelligent, and trustworthy.
  • These manipulators use subtlety to their advantage: they undermine their victims but in a way that isn’t so obvious or threatening.
  • Gaslighters also deflect the victim’s arguments and objections: they’ll assert that the victim is just tired or overreacting.
  • Finally, these manipulators ultimately lead their victims to question everything they know to be true on small to large scales.

A Comprehensive Look at Gaslighting

For a complete and extensive understanding of gaslighting—a dangerous and frightening form of manipulation—pull up a seat and get ready for a lesson from Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sheri Heller. She explains exactly what gaslighting is and how these manipulators pull it off:

Gaslighting is a form of stealth ambient abuse strategically employed to exploit and utilize love and dependence to ensure dominance and control. Gaslighting is mystifying and amorphous and hence difficult to identify and diagnose, which makes it all the more sinister and damaging. False information is manufactured and deliberately presented to the victim, so as to make her doubt her memory and/or perceptions.

The gaslighter generally evidences cluster-b pathology or cluster-b traits such as narcissism, paranoia and irrationality. S/he is adept at fostering a dependency that creates a power differential, by presenting themselves as benevolent, insightful and generous. This establishes leverage so that the target can be managed. It also creates disorientation as conflict emerges and all infractions are attributed to the shortcomings of the target while the gaslighter feigns innocence. The seemingly well intentioned gaslighter may ‘selflessly’ point out how the flaws of the target are responsible for instigating disputes. The target, naturally inclined to believe that the ambient abuser is fundamentally ethical and that cooperation and compassion are collective moral imperatives, yields to what s/he assumes will be a collaborative effort to work through difficulties. The ambient abuser capitalizes on this predisposition.

Should the target dare to question the stealth abuser’s intermittent barbs and disparagement, further distortion ensues. A disorienting narrative unfolds in which the target is held liable for questioning motives and doubting the sincerity of the abuser. This scenario involves the target being convinced that in fact it is s/he who is abusive and irrational. Alternatively the ambient abuser may initially pretend to concede and acknowledge ‘their part’ so as to strategically reassure the target. In due time the ambient abuser will reaffirm the target’s unreasonable ‘misconduct’ denying he ever conceded responsibility at all. Over time this distorted narrative ignites PTSD symptoms and Stockholm Syndrome.”

Breaking It Down: 3 Keys to Gaslighting Success

Have you wrapped your mind around the concept of gaslighting yet? Because this form of manipulation is so sneaky, it can be a little complicated. And a little hard to understand fully. Let’s break it down into a few keys to the success of gaslighting:

1) They undermine you, often subtly. Gaslighters operate on subtlety. They mess with your mind in a way that is confusing and maddening—in a way that isn’t always recognized as manipulation. (At least, not at first). They often achieve this by throwing out subtle comments like, “You must be imagining that. Did you not sleep well last night?” A comment of the like makes the victim feel cared for rather than manipulated.

2) They deflect arguments and objections. Another strategy gaslighters use is deflection. If their victim has the courage to argue or object to what they are saying, the gaslighter will write them off in a casual manner: “Oh, you’re just overreacting.” “You’re still insecure from your past relationship.” “You’re just tired from work.” This deflection makes the victim feel crazy. And any rebuttals they have will only work against them, as the gaslighter continues to build their case.

3) They lead you to question everything you know to be true. The very definition of gaslighting is manipulating someone to the point where they question their own reality. Gaslighters do so on small, medium, and large scales. For example, a gaslighting boyfriend might say to his girlfriend, “There’s no way you’re tired, you got plenty of sleep.” This is considered a small-scale example. A large-scale example, however, may involve contradicting obvious facts; a gaslighting mother might tell her son he’s grounded for not cleaning the kitchen. And even though he clearly remembers cleaning the kitchen, she’ll convince him that he never did such a thing.