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What Does Gaslighting Mean And How Do We Deal With It?

What Does Gaslight Mean?

The term GASLIGHTING, whilst a colloquialism, is often used by psychologists to refer to a particular type of manipulative behaviour, and form of psychological abuse, which may be employed by narcissists (in relation to this, you may wish to read my article on the effects of narcissistic mothers on their children), sociopaths, or, indeed, narcissistic sociopaths.

Gaslighting involves the perpetrator of the psychological abuse systematically and deliberately undermining the victim’s memory, perceptions, judgments, self-esteem, self-confidence, sense of identity and their very sense of reality.

In extreme cases, it can leave the victim questioning their own sanity and becoming actively suicidal.

Gaslighting may involve both denying that certain events ever happened and claiming that other events did happen when, in reality, they did not. It can, then, almost be characterised as a kind of ‘brainwashing’ which is carried out in an insidious and subtle manner over a prolonged period.


As well as the effects referred to above, the victim may also become depressed, highly anxious, find it increasingly difficult to make own decisions, confused and, paradoxically, increasingly dependent upon their psychological tormentor.

The strategy is used to gain control and power over the victim and may occur within a variety of relationship types, including :

– parent and child

– romantic relationships

– siblings

– ‘friends’

– work colleagues

I have already stated that gaslighting is a long-term strategy, and one of the reasons it can go on for so long is that, in many cases, the victim remains in a state of DENIAL, unable to accept that the other person could be so cruel, darkly calculating and coldly manipulative.


Typically, relationships involving gaslighting entails 3 stages :




Let’s look at each of these in turn:

IDEALIZATION – in this first stage, the abuser presents the most positive image of themselves possible to entice the victim into a relationship. They may lavish the victim with love, affection and attention, be charming and charismatic, flirtatious, full of fun, energy, enthusiasm and a general joie de vie.

As a result, the victim becomes enamoured of them and imagines that these feelings are reciprocated. Whilst this is not the case, the abuser does obtain a psychological gain: the victim provides the abuser with what has been termed ‘narcissistic supply’ – this refers to the boost of ego derived from the victim’s ‘worshipful’ behaviour towards him/her.

Often, the victim becomes psychologically ‘hooked’, or ‘addicted’ to the abuser during this initial stage.

DEVALUATION – Once the IDEALIZATION stage has run its course, however, it is replaced by the devaluation stage.

In this stage, the abuser abruptly loses interest in the victim, becomes emotionally cold towards him/her and may treat him/her him with contempt and derision.

The victim may well try to win back the abuser (providing the abuser with further narcissistic supply) but to no avail. The abuser continues to treat the victim as worthless, inferior, pathetic and weak.

DISCARDING – finally, once the abuser has derived all the narcissistic supply s/he can from stage 2, s/he loses interest in the victim altogether and discards him/her as s/he might a disposable plastic razor.

Research suggests that ‘gaslighting’ behaviour is particularly likely to be carried out by narcissists and sociopaths

.Hightower (2017) describes gaslighting as being a covert and subtle type if emotional abuse and that the gaslighter is motivated by the wish to maintain power, control and feelings of self righteousness

Hightower also states that the effects of being gaslighted on the victim include;

  • an altered sense of reality
  • confusion
  • increasing self doubt
  • reduced self-esteem
  • anxiety
  • withdrawal
  • depression
  • psychosis

high emotional reactivity

In a study conducted by Hightower, it was found that gaslighting is correlated with: 

  • other forms of abuse
  • intolerance of uncertainty
  • sensory processing sensitivity (increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and increased emotional reactivity).
  • neurotcism


Techniques employed by the ‘gaslighter include the following :

  1. DISCREDITING: this involves making the victim believe s/he is confused and irrational
  2. MINIMIZATION: this involves belittling and undermining the victim’s feelings so as to make them seem insignificant
  3. REFRAMING: this can colloquially be expressed as ‘twisting the facts.’
  4. AVOIDANCE: this involves ignoring the victim’s feelings and beliefs completely
  5. FALSE COMPASSION: e.g. by saying things such as: ‘You poor thing, you’re having these thoughts because you’ve been under a lot of strain recently; don’t worry though, I’m going to take great care of you…’
  6. POWERFUL DISPLAYS OF ASSERTIVENESS AND CONFIDENCE: such displays are used to intimidate the victim



According to the psychologist, Robin Stern, the victim of ‘gaslighting’ frequently goes through a 3 stage emotional response to his / her ill-treatment by the ‘gaslighter’ as shown below :




Now let’s look at each of these stages in a little more detail :

  • DISBELIEF: At first, the victim is unable to believe what is happening, although they sense that something extremely distressing is going on. Their confidence is undermined in such a way that they are unable to trust their own judgment. Also, desperate for reassurance that they are not going insane, they may become increasingly reliant upon the ‘gaslighter’ to define their sense of reality.


  • DEFENCE: The victim becomes bewildered, confused and increasingly unable to trust their own recollection of events and intuitions. Feelings of guilt and anxiety also become more prominent. S/he may also rationalize the ‘gaslighter’s’ behaviour in order to reduce conflicting feelings and cognitive dissonance or even bond with the ‘gaslighter’ as a psychological defence mechanism (this is sometimes referred to as ‘Stockholm syndrome’).


  • DEPRESSION: If, and when, the individual becomes aware that they have been systematically ‘gaslighted’, whilst they may well feel relief at having made the discovery, they are also likely to feel shocked, deeply saddened, angry and ashamed.



Many abusive parents will deny they have been abusive even when their adult children confront them about it. Or, they might minimize what happened, blame the (now adult) child for the abuse, tell him / her s/he is oversensitive, is exaggerating or is letting his /her imagination ‘run riot.’ 

This denial, Stalinist-style revision and rewriting of history, invalidation and obliteration of the child’s reality are frequently as bad as, or worse than the original abuse – this is because it compounds and intensifies the original psychological damage. Essentially, the child is being told to believe that black is white and that s/he, as ever, is the one on the wrong.

It is not hyperbolic to say that this can drive the adult child into the realms of madness or suicide.


Once we have identified that ‘gaslighting’ / systematic manipulation has been going on we are in a position to detach ourselves from it. At this stage, Stern emphasizes the vital importance that we tenaciously hold on to our perception of reality, and to what we know to be true, at all costs and to understand our abusive parent’s denial is a defence mechanism to protect him/herself, deeply manipulative or the result of a disorder deprives him / her of empathy and the ability to love.

Furthermore, if such parental behaviour has been a lifelong pattern, then it is very likely to be futile and counterproductive (not least due to the feelings of anger, frustration and desperation it may give rise to) to expect the parent significantly to alter his/her stance, even in response to the most compelling, logical and cogent arguments. Sadly, then, it is frequently best to accept that abusive parents of this type will never accept accountability and not to waste precious emotional energy to change this fact.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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