What is gaslighting? Meaning of gaslighting someone, definition explained - and examples

The term “gaslighting” is becoming more and more frequently used - this is what it means and the origins of the term

What does the phrase "gaslighting" mean? You may have heard it more frequently during the past few years.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and manipulation that typically takes place in relationships but can also occur in families, businesses, friendships, and other settings. Here is everything you need to know.

What is the definition of gaslighting?

The Dictionary defines gaslighting as: “A form of emotional abuse or psychological manipulation involving distorting the truth in order to confuse or instill doubt in another person to the point they question their sanity or reality.”

Cut-out silhouettes representing women are set up outside the Metropolitan Police headquarters New Scotland Yard in London on October 7, 2021 in an action by Refuge, the domestic abuse charity, to highlight the issue of women who have been killed by male police officers or former police officer (Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

In an article for The Conversation, Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol, explains: “Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships.

“It is a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives - for example, that they are irrational or crazy.

“If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them.

“Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society.”

Where does the term come from?

The phrase comes from a 1938 play called Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, which was later adapted for the screen and starred Ingrid Bergman.

When it was made into a film in 1944, the title was compounded into one word as “Gaslight”.

The story features a murderous husband who tried to keep his true identity hidden from his wife, and in the film he drives her mad.

The lights in their home are powered by gas, and the husband toys with the wife by making these gas powered lights flicker. He convinces her that she is imagining this, even though it really is happening.

The term can be traced back to the play turned film Gaslight (Photo: IMDb)

As a result of the success of the film, the term “gaslighting” became a common way to describe emotional abuse or manipulation that causes the victim to question their own memories or perception of reality.

Evidence of using the phrase in this context can be found in the 1950s and 1960s, and it could be seen occasionally during the 1990s.

In recent years the term has grown in popularity due to events like the 2016 US election with the Donald Trump administration being accused of “gaslighting America”, the ITV dating series Love Island consistently attracting complaints over contestants being gaslit, and last year when Home Secretary Priti Patel was accused by Labour MPs of gaslighting to silence the debate around the Black Lives Matter protests.

What are the signs of gaslighting?

Robin Stern, PhD and author of the book “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life” says that signs you are a victim of gaslighting include:

  • Being more anxious and less confident than you used to be 
  • Worrying that you’re too sensitive 
  • Feeling like everything you do is wrong 
  • Always thinking it’s your fault when things go wrong 
  • Apologising all the time 
  • Questioning whether your response to your partner was appropriate, such as wondering if you’re being too unreasonable 
  • Making excuses for your partners behaviour 
  • Finding it increasingly difficult to make decisions 

Other signs include questioning your own thoughts or memories, wondering if you’re “good enough” and feeling hopeless.

What are examples of gaslighting?

There are a number of ways an abuser can gaslight another person.

For example, if a person says that they will do something such as doing the dishes, but then later denies ever saying such a thing (even though they did) that is gaslighting. If a person hides another person’s keys for example but later claims to not know anything about where they are and that the other person lost them, that’s gaslighting.

There are a number of ways a person can be gaslit (Photo: Shutterstock)

Or if a person tells another person that their friends and family are saying mean things about them behind their back (even though they aren’t) that is also gaslighting.

More specific examples from The Hotline includes:

  • Withholding. The abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen: “I don’t want to hear this again” or “You’re trying to confuse me.”
  • Countering. The abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even though the victim remembers things accurately: “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly.”
  • Blocking/diverting. The abusive partner changes the subject, or questions the victim’s thoughts: “Is that another crazy idea you got from [friends/family]?” or “You’re imagining things.”
  • Trivialising. The abusive partner makes the victims’ needs or feelings seem unimportant: “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” or “You’re too sensitive.”
  • Forgetting/denial. The abusive partner pretends to have forgotten something that has actually happened, or denies making things like promises to the victim: “I don’t know what you’re talking about” or “You’re just making stuff up.” 

Recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of gaslighting the public over his apology during the PMQs on Wednesday 11 January for the party and events that unfolded on 20 May 2020.

Loose Women panelist Katie Piper said branded Johnson’s speech as a “non-apology”.

She said: “It kind of reminds me of being young and your boyfriend cheats on you and gaslights you with explaining in this real mumble-jumble way.

“Basically not saying sorry. He might as well have not done that.”

Demonstrators hold placards as they protest near the House of Commons, where Boris Johnson on Wednesday said sorry after admitting he attended a lockdown-breaching party in Downing Street (Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Johnson has faced calls to resign after it was reported that a party took place on 20 May 2020 in Downing Street whilst the rest of the country was in lockdown, with relatives unable to see their dying family members.

In his speech, Johnson claimed that the party was a “work event”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer also accused Johnson of trying to “gaslight” the British public, following the release of Sue Gray’s initial inquiry findings.

Where to get help for emotional abuse?

Domestic abuse, emotional abuse and gaslighting can happen to anyone, regardless of age or gender.

There are a number of organisations across the UK that can help you or someone you care about, no matter what the situation is.

Abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender (Photo: Shutterstock)

Some places that can help include:

  • Calling the Freephone National Domestic Abuse Hotline, run by Refuge on 0808 2000 247. Phoning is free and the line is open any time, day or night. Staff will offer confidential and non-judgmental support and information.
  • Calling the Men’s Advice Line on 0808 8010 327, which is open from 9am to 8pm on Mondays and Wednesdays, and 9am to 5pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays
  • Members of the LGBTQ+ community can call Galop on 0800 999 5428 for emotional and practical support 
  • The Samaritans are open 24/7 for anyone who needs to talk, on 116 123
  • Children and young people in the UK can contact Childline on 0800 1111 for support and one to one online chats with counsellors 
  • Older people, or those concerned about an older person like family or friends, can reach out to Hourglass for information and advice on 0808 808 8141, or 07860052906 for the free text line