Insights into Psychology

What Is… Gaslighting

Gaslight film poster

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse.

Perhaps I was living under a rock, but I didn’t know what a gaslight was, or why anyone would care about it, before entering the blogging world. Let’s start off with a definition from Wikipedia:

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief.

Origins of the term

I wondered about the term’s origin, since I couldn’t see the connection was between a gas light and emotional abuse. Gaslight was the name of a 1938 stage play that was later made into a movie. When the lead female commented to her criminal husband about the gas lights dimming, he denied this had happened (although he himself had dimmed them) and insisted that she had imagined it.

It’s a term that has been used colloquially in pop psychology rather than one that stems from the field of psychology. The references cited on the Wikipedia page on gaslighting reflect this.


I found an article by Kate Abramson in the journal Philosophical Perspectives that had a lot to say about gaslighting, and she seemed to take a fairly objective view of the phenomenon. To gaslight is to “the target’s basic rational competence— her ability to get facts right, to deliberate, her basic evaluative competencies and ability to react appropriately: her independent standing as deliberator and moral agent.” The author likened gaslighting to torture, as it aims to destroy the target’s sense of self.

Abramson writes that while there’s nothing inherently sexist about gaslighting, men are most often the perpetrators and women are most often the targets, and successful gaslighting can reinforce sexist norms. From a psychoanalytical perspective, gaslighting is seen to be a form of projective identification. The gaslighter projects things about himself that he is uncomfortable with onto the target, and then needs that target to identify with what has been projected.

Gaslighting typically serves multiple aims for the perpetrator. Those who gaslight are unwilling to tolerate any possibility of challenge to the way they view things. There’s an interpersonal aim to gaslighting in this sense, as the perpetrator requires the target to respond in a certain way. The abuser “aims to destroy the possibility of disagreement by so radically undermining another person that she has nowhere left to stand from which to disagree, no standpoint from which her words might constitute genuine disagreement” (Abramson).

Abramson identifies several strategies used by those who gaslight: love, empathy, self-doubt, authority, leveraging practical consequences of resisting, and sexism. These strategies serve the primary aim of destroying any possibility of resistance.

Popular usage

Much of what’s written online about gaslighting is quite emotionally charged, understandably so, and often linked with narcissists. It’s a devastating type of emotional abuse, but like any pop psychology online trend, I wonder if the genuine destruction of this form of emotional abuse is being diluted by overuse of the term. I have nothing to back that up and it may not be the case at all; it’s just something I’m curious about.

What are your thoughts?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

21 thoughts on “What Is… Gaslighting”

  1. Oh my gosh! I can soooooo identify with this from some family who did this very thing to me! I didn’t know what it was and they had me so confused and unsure of myself and my feelings, I started to think maybe I was in a “dark” place, or imagining things or it was all in my head how they treated me. YES this is real and it took therapy for me to realize it was them not me. Loved this and it just confirmed what I have been learning! Thanks for this! 🙂

  2. I can relate to this because with an ex because he would always question my sanity and I would always think that I was the insane one. Along with the ex, I watched my father to do this very same thing to my mother. It’s heartbreaking and i appreciate you talking about it

  3. I’d heard the term, understood the implications and saw the film, which was more gruesome because I knew what the villain hoped to accomplish – driving his wife ‘mad’ (insane) and thereby gaining sole ownership of her property and money. Given the time frame that the film was set in, that point was rather dubious as men in those times controlled their wives’ property or anything that she had. They dictated how she acted, what she wore and where she went. These days obviously that kind of behavior is viewed with the suspicion and censure it deserves. But they still get away with it. Given what’s going on in the world of American justice and politics (two terms that are oxymoronic if ever there were two) right now, it seems clear that men continue to gaslight women. And while that’s a broad generalization, it’s apt. I know there’s good men out there, honest men, ethical men…just wish a few of them would stand up and banish the gaslighters. It’s about time.

  4. Great post! I’ve encountered the term online, but you did a great job of explaining it in depth, including its origin, which I didn’t know about at all. That play, Gaslight, sounds interesting and oddly relevant to today.

    I immediately think of this guy I knew a little over a year ago. He tried to gaslight the hell out of me. He was a born manipulator. I was able to call him on a lot of it, because I only knew him online, not in person. Therefore, I had transcripts of all our conversations. (HA! The internet will be the death of gaslighting.) And I was able to say, “No, you DID tell me that. It’s right here in our social media chat from last month.” That makes me laugh right now.

    It can be a comfort after a bad breakup to research whether the guy you liked was a narcissistic gaslighter. This guy definitely was, no doubt in my mind. After a year later, I’m still convinced he’s evil. I’ve parted ways with (or been rejected by) other guys since then, and I wouldn’t call them narcissistic gaslighters. To me, that confirms in my mind that this had nothing to do with me being heartbroken. (As if–I hate the guy, but the point is that gaslighting is a real phenomenon, if that makes sense.)

  5. Having witnesses or written evidence doesn’t entirely solve the problem – even when you are quite sure of your facts and can clearly see the other person for the narcissistic sociopathic bastard that he is, if there are enough other people prepared to just ignore or accept convoluted explanations for contradictions in things the gaslighter has said and then back them up it creates a sort of peer pressure to deny your own reality. They’ll acknowledge a “fact” when forced to, but twist the interpretation of it, and if 20 other people accept that as reality then you do eventually begin to doubt yourself. It sounds improbable unless you’ve actually seen or experienced it, but I’ve had it happen to me as part of bullying in a group.

  6. Oh so THAT’S where the term came from… Makes sense. Gaslighting can happen to anyone. Yes while men can do it to women, ANYBODY is capable of gaslighting.

  7. I am and have been trying to raise awareness on gaslighting for so long; I published what I believe is the first memoir on Narcissistic Abuse back in 2015, although it has been revised, and it has not been easy, since my story is far from over. It is draining, and basically had to redo my whole blog again since my “narcissistic psychopath,” is prone to cyber stalking and sabotaging anything that threaten to reveals what lies beneath the mask. But, it’s nice to know I am not the only one, and that there are others brave enough to share their story. There need to be more of us!

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