Thinking back to early 2018, ‘gaslighting’ meant little to me. It was the term de jour in online arguments; a word I saw thrown around on social media when people got into disagreements. I figured ‘gaslighting’ meant when people disagreed with what you’re saying, or when they tried to minimise your experience. The true extent of gaslighting, its impact on my own lived experience, became clear to me one day in late June, when I discovered my former partner’s extensive lies and deception; the foundation of my recent years was coming undone. It felt as if my world was crumbling, each deteriorating stratum exposing further layers of lies. Months later, I am still rebuilding.
Part of that healing process is to understand what took place. Once I confronted my former partner about his lies, this man—who I knew to be warm and caring—became aggressive and cold in correspondence. Caught out, he refused to respond to questions, even the most basic ones, such as: why did you lie? The onus of processing this new information fell to my new trauma counsellor and me. I sat frustrated in sessions, feeling uncertain of my voice and reality. Such is the impact of gaslighting; it is difficult to trust in oneself again wholly. I also felt that my grip on ‘truth’ was tenuous—so much of what a person I loved and trusted told me had been a lie, so how can I now know what’s true?
I struggled to cope, a struggle that manifested in daily anxiety attacks. Consequently, I began seeing a trauma counsellor and, on her advice, turned to processing trauma in the one way readily available to me—through writing. In October 2018 I wrote an article for SBS Life on my experience with gaslighting. The article itself is brief—635 words—yet it generated significant response. To date it has 4,500 shares. Clearly readers found resonance in my experience. From across the globe, people messaged me their own personal stories of gaslighting. ‘I now understand what happened to me,’ one wrote. A hidden evil was exposed.
Despite the difficulty of writing (and consequently re-experiencing) trauma, I do it with a sense of urgency. Gaslighting is sinister, invisible, psychological; the victim is isolated, often with no-one to back up her or his story (gaslighting impacts all genders). Violence is so often conceptualised as a physical form, that we—as a society—overlook this pervasive and sinister form of emotional and psychological violence.
I’m hoping that talking about gaslighting might reach affected people and stop the cycle of self-doubt.
The term ‘gaslighting’ originates in Patrick Hamilton’s play ‘Gas Light’ (1938), which was adapted into a film, ‘Gaslight’ (1944). Ingrid Bergman stars as Paula, a young opera singer who returns to London with her new husband Gregory (Charles Boyer). Soon, bizarre events unfold—objects misplaced, gaslights go dim suddenly, and Paula begins to doubt her sanity. This is fuelled by Gregory’s menacing behaviour as he deliberately tries to make Paula believe she is going insane. By manipulating her surroundings, her friends, and her environment, Gregory causes Paula to slowly and systematically lose her mind.
In her book Domestic Violence in Hollywood Film: Gaslighting, Diane Shoos explains that gaslighting entered the psychological vernacular in the 1960s, as a way to describe a form of psychological abuse that manipulates and controls the victim’s mind. Gaslighting made its way to common parlance to describe a method or pattern of behaviour in which a person makes another person question their reality. Explicitly, gaslighting refers to form of manipulation (usually expressed through lies, discrediting, and delegitimisation) whereby the gaslighter sets out to make another person question their own reality, memory or perceptions. It is a systematic attack on one’s perception.
Psychologist Robin Stern explains that gaslighting ‘occurs in all different types of relationships: at the office, in our friendships, between parents and children, and, between siblings. It is a form of psychological abuse’. As such, the trauma and impact of gaslighting can be severe if it happens over a long period. According to the USA based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, ‘Victims of psychological abuse often experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting others […] subtle psychological abuse is more harmful than either overt psychological abuse or direct aggression’. As a form of psychological abuse, the consequences of gaslighting can be dire. Survivors can experience PTSD and depression. Laura Thomas writes in The Lancet Psychology that in 2015, ‘the British Government amended the Serious Crime Act to recognise gaslighting, which is now defined as coercive control.’ Such control works by isolating the victim from people in general and those who can expose the gaslighter’s lies in particular. The amendment to the British Serious Crimes Act is significant since it recognises that abuse within relationships isn’t only physical and sexual, but also psychological, coercive, isolating.
The pernicious nature of gaslighting is that it chips away at the confidence of the only person who can testify to it, the victim. Unlike physical forms of violence and abuse, gaslighting works in the realm of the mind. In my view, gaslighting is so effective as a form of abuse simply because it is invisible. This hides the abuse not only from friends and family who might be able to intervene, but also from the victim themselves. In other words, gaslighting is effective not only because of its strategy of deception, but because its effect is to cause the victim to doubt their own mind, perception, and reality. As such, realising one has been gaslit can be a trying endeavour.
I don’t know if people gaslight deliberately, but I know that living in the aftermath of gaslighting—deliberate or not—can be difficult. For one, psychological damage can manifest in physical symptoms of anxiety and depression. Moreover, this is a life where you cannot be sure of yourself, cannot trust yourself, and after being told over and over again that you aren’t good enough, that everything is your fault—a life where not only your truth is compromised, but also your sense of self-esteem and worth.
Not only does gaslighting happen in all forms of relationships (intimate, familial, workplace, even in politics), but the prevalence of gaslighting indicates something of our social and political climate. Laura Thomas writes:
[gaslighting] has gained a renewed, if rather debased, currency in recent months. Type it into any wellknown search engine and you’ll get results telling you how to spot relationship warning signs. Search it on social media, and you’ll see that the concept seems to have been weaponised by and for our politically confused times, so that accusations of gaslighting are made for a wide range of reasons, ranging from the genuine to the wholly spurious.
One consequence of the weaponisation of gaslighting for spurious reasons is that our understanding of the gaslighting experience can be diluted. To address this, we can think of gaslighting as happening in a scale, rather than one blanket experience. Psychologist Dr George Simon explains: ‘there is a scale to gaslighting, from lying and exaggerating to controlling and domination’. Furthermore, Dr Simon claims that there are two types of gaslighters:
Some individuals have learned these behaviours from early childhood experiences. Their manipulation rose out of some kind of personal pain and this is how they operate in the world. They developed a strategy to cope in life that was borne out of some trauma. There is hope for those individuals. Then there are the narcissists. The ones that have no belief in anything bigger than themselves. There’s less hope for them and any change usually involves a huge, life-changing, catastrophic reckoning that shakes them to their core. And that may never come.
While gaslighting is commonly associated with narcissistic personalities, it isn’t only narcissists who gaslight. Regardless of why the gaslighter gaslights, the fact that they cause victims to question their very own instincts and sanity empowers the abuser to a great extent. Due to its invisible nature, gaslighting is difficult to prove. A form of abuse associated with narcissistic personalities, the perpetrator is charismatic. This is how they gain their victims’ trust and succeed in delegitimising their victim to others. When the gaslighter is caught in their lies they’ll lie about lying and deflect blame onto their victim. This is how the gaslighter maintains their control not only over their victim, but also over the people (such as friends and family) who can actually confront the perpetrator.
This extensive power imbalance and consistent chipping away at one’s sense of trust, emotions, and instincts, is part of the reason gaslighting is considered psychological abuse. Due to the deep and complex nature of psychological and emotional trauma, victims tend to internalise the blame. Indeed, this might be what perpetrators of gaslighting count on—to twist their victims’ sense of reality so that they lose trust in their own sense of judgment.
Gaslighters isolate their victims from the people who can expose them. They do so through delegitimising. I was oblivious to my ex partner’s the lies and deception until, one day, everything blew up. Still to this day, I don’t know what part of his story was true, as so much of it turned out to be lies. It wasn’t just me that he lied to. As a friend reminded me, he lied to his family, to all his friends. He maintained a false image of himself in public and among family and friends, while the reality was way more sinister. My ex constructed narratives where the only other people who could reveal his behaviour to me couldn’t be trusted; and so, I remained isolated, unaware, exposed to harm.
Gaslighting works through causing the victim to question their memory of events in order to undermine their sanity. Only in retrospect did I understand this manoeuvre as part of a larger pattern of gaslighting. As Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria explain:
In our work with survivors of family violence, we often hear stories from women who describe such behaviour, but all too often the effects are minimised in the context of wider abuse, and its function in making it more difficult for the victim to leave (by questioning her sanity, whether anyone else would ever ‘have her’) often goes unrecognised.
Here is the lived legacy of gaslighting: I wake up in the night, crying. My mind going over the recent memories that triggered it awake. Already there’s a routine: I experience anxiety or panic, I consider the memory from all angles, I question and doubt whether the severity of my experience correlates with the betrayal the memory brings. I run through conversations in my head, text messages. Mentally I piece together evidence; day and night. The evidence shows I was gaslighted. I tell myself to trust my memories, to trust myself. ‘This is real, this is now’, I repeat to myself.
This is the legacy of any abuse and trauma: you recover, you move on, you walk in the world feeling fine, when even the smallest thing happens and, unexpected, memories surface. A memory of a moment that has lived inside you, dormant, waiting to explode. Betrayal and sadness expand in your gut and swell up your chest into your throat. You hold your mouth closed tight for fear that pain will pour out like rolling dark clouds during a summer storm, the thunder a sign of what’s to come. You need to remind yourself to breathe; to find someplace safe. You hold on to a world that falls apart around you. You can’t walk off the bus, your feet won’t move, your heart races, and you need to find your way back from all this, on your own.
When I spoke out about my ex—a man I trusted and who could easily be considered a progressive, feminist man—people reached out and shared their stories. Although I felt isolated and alone, I wasn’t, and neither were they. During conversations with other victims of gaslighting it became clear that perpetrators use similar methods of manipulation. It’s as if perpetrators all use the same manual, the same ‘easy guide’ on how to manipulate and lie to your partner. One common sentiment is ‘they [the gaslighter] always made me feel like I’m not good enough. Nothing I ever did was good enough’. Constantly making you self-doubt, question decisions. I deeply relate.
There is violence in deception. Violence is so often conceptualised as a physical form, that we can overlook the sinister form of emotional and psychological violence. How to rebuild a fractured sense of self? How to return trust to your decisions? What do we do with the invisible pain of the mind? Life in the aftermath of gaslighting presents a unique challenge: how to recover from the liberties another person has taken with your mind? You need to recover from trauma, yes, but also recover a sense of self and establish a safe reality.
I write because gaslighting is often as damaging as physical abuse, and its time our legal systems recognised it as such. In the UK, MPs publicly endorsed a strong Domestic Abuse Bill that recognises gaslighting as abuse. In Australia, it’s time we did the same.
Na’ama Carlin holds a PhD in Sociology from UNSW. She’s an educator, writer, and public commentator. on Twitter she is @derridalicious
 While there are some common traits, there’s no definitive corollary between narcissism and gaslighting