What gaslighting is, and 5 signs someone may be gaslighting you, according to a psychotherapist

  • Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, mental strength coach, and international bestselling author.
  • Despite its casual references in pop culture, Morin explains that gaslighting is a serious term in therapy, and a problem that many victims struggle to recognize due to the nature of the abuse.
  • Morin says that someone who is gaslighting you will deny things that you know to be true, make you question your own memories, and weaponize your displays of emotions against you.
  • If you're struggling, call the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In psychology, the term "gaslighting" occurs when someone tries to convince an individual into thinking they're losing touch with reality. Over time, the victim often grows convinced that they can't trust their own judgment.

The term gaslight stems from a play in the 1930s where the husband manipulated small aspects of the environment — such as dimming the gaslights — to convince his wife that she was delusional.  

Now, gaslighting is frequently referenced in pop culture — perhaps you've heard the song "Gaslighter" by The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks).

While it's often referenced in a fun manner in the media, in the therapy office, it's a serious problem. Quite often, by the time a victim seeks professional help, they've often endured a painful existence for quite some time. Most of them have spent years thinking they were "going crazy." And for some of them, seeking treatment only reinforces the idea that there is something seriously wrong with them.

If someone can identify that they're being gaslighted early on, it could prevent years — maybe even decades — of manipulation. Psychoanalyst Robin Stern has written a book called "The Gaslight Effect," which outlines signs that you're being gaslighted.

Her research is in line with what I've seen firsthand as a therapist. Here are the top signs that someone is gaslighting you:

1. They deny things you know to be true

You might think someone who is gaslighting you would only lie about big things that they could cover up or hide. But that's not the case.

They often lie about all things big and small just to throw you off. They might deny something that just happened — and then insist your memory is "off." They may lie about what you did yesterday and then insist you are "crazy" if you don't remember doing it.

2. They pretend to be concerned for your psychological well-being

A gaslighter will often say things like, "That's disturbing you can't remember where you put your purse."

In reality, they probably hid it from you. They'll constantly act like you're fragile or that you're not in your "right mind" so that you'll question yourself.

3. They isolate you from other people

They will tell you that your loved ones are talking about you behind your back. And they will do all they can to separate you from your friends and family.

They may even reach out to people without your knowledge to tell them that you're having some problems lately. This may lead to people asking if you're OK — which could reinforce your fear that there's something wrong with you.

4. They minimize your feelings and use them against you

Whether you express sadness, anger, or fear, they'll use it against you. They'll tell you that crying is "proof that you're crazy" or getting upset is evidence that you are "an emotional wreck."

They will insist that all of your emotions are unreasonable and irrational. You might find yourself constantly apologizing for your feelings.

5. They insist getting help is proof you aren't stable

If you talk to your therapist or get hospitalized due to the emotional distress of the situation, they'll insist they were right when they said you were mentally unstable.

They'll likely say you're beyond help anyway or that mental health professionals can't "fix you." They may even reach out to professionals to tell them that you seem confused lately, in an effort to make sure you don't get effective treatment for what's really going on — you're being manipulated.

How to get help

It's impossible to feel psychologically well when someone is constantly trying to convince you that you are mentally ill, or that you can't trust your own judgment or memory.

So the key to feeling better usually involves getting away from the perpetrator. Being away from the person, even for a short period of time, often helps victims see that they are OK.

If you suspect you might be the victim of gaslighting, reach out for help. Talk to a therapist, either online or in-person, about your distress. 

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