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Lone Woman Sitting on Steps

Gaslighting is an abuse tactic that was introduced in the 1944 film “Gaslight” featuring Ingrid Bergman in the lead role about a woman whose husband slowly manipulated her into believing that she was going insane. Since then, the form of mental abuse where a victim is made to doubt her own memory, perception, or sanity, is referred to as gaslighting. Such an approach can range from denial meant to excuse or justify acts of abuse to the intentional staging of bizarre events to disorient and isolate the other person.

The whole story doesn’t hold together

By distorting information, an abuser can make something appears as something other than what it really is. Plausible explanations or scenarios are offered, but all the parts often don’t hold together very well or make perfect sense. There always seems to be something unexplained or amiss, but it ‘s hard to get a grip on it. This is partly as the victim of gaslighting often sees what she wants or expects to see. She often thinks it is better for her to believe and trust the other person than to create an incident or conflict.

Gaslighting is a form of imposed psychosis

As an offensive maneuver deliberate attempts are made to alter another person’s sense of reality. However, it is more than lying. It requires creating and maintaining a plausible plot aimed at achieving a particular result, which is often to discredit the victim to herself and others. Thereby, the power is swung toward the perpetrator, minimizing and devaluing the victim, often to the point of breakdown.

It can also be a defensive tactic that is not deliberate. For instance, the abuser instinctively projects his own insecurities and flaws onto his partner. Thereby he ensures that the blame falls on the victim.

How to recognize gaslighting

Several warning signs point to being gaslighted. These include the following, where, despite evidence to the contrary or any good reason:

  1. You often second-guess yourself.
  2. You blame yourself for someone else’s bad behavior.
  3. You make excuses for someone else.
  4. You hope things will return to normal again.
  5. You constantly feel confused.
  6. Your movements and activities, including who you are allowed to see, are controlled.
  7. You have trouble making simple decisions independently.
  8. You feel increasingly hopeless and incompetent.
  9. You withdraw from social and other activities that you used to find pleasurable.
  10. You seem to be increasingly distant from your old life and self.

What to do when you’re gaslighted

The first thing that you have to do when you suspect that you may be gaslighted is to remain calm and try to orient yourself. Accept that you are not to blame for someone else’s behavior. Reflect on your strengths and positive aspects in your life. Recognize the evidence for what it is—signs that things may not improve unless everyone genuinely commits to making an effort. Make contact with your friends and family when possible. Seek professional input from a counselor or support group. Believe in yourself. It is not your fault. Always look after your own and your children’s safety first. Don’t rush into decisions but don’t put them off either. Remember that this is a more common situation than you might think. There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Joan Swart, PsyD

Joan Swart, PsyD

Forensic Psychologist | Business Developer at Open Forest LLC
Joan is a forensic psychologist, lecturer, and author of “Treating Adolescents with Family-Based Mindfulness” published by Springer in 2015 and “Homicide: A Forensic Psychology Casebook” published by CRC Press in 2016. She is a business developer at Open Forest LLC. Open Forest LLC provides online psychoeducation and self-help programs aimed at improving many conditions, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, and mindfulness.
Joan Swart, PsyD


Forensic psychologist, #narcissist, #psychopath, other PDs | Business developer at | #pug lover | masters #powerlifting
Joan Swart, PsyD
Joan Swart, PsyD

8 thoughts on “The Abusive Power of Gaslighting

  1. Joan, is “Gaslighting” something that can be diagnosed or verified by a psychologist or psychiatrist? Is it legal or ethical for professionals to use this technique on an unsuspecting person – if there is an agenda behind it? What if an professional adult intentionally uses the “Gaslighting” technique to stress out a child and the child develops a stress anxiety disorder, or even worse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is that legal?

  2. Amy, gaslighting is a behavior in the form of psychological abuse. As such, it can be observed by a trained (and objective) person, but it is most often raised in the account of the victim when she seeks therapy or other help. It is definitely not legal or ethical for a psychology professional to use the technique as any kind of deception is forbidden by professional standards and the primary duty is to do no harm to the client. As for the legality in domestic situations: It will be very difficult to prove and establish the causality of any such behavior to mental health effects.

  3. Thank you Joan. But what about other professions, such as lawyers. Is it unethical or illegal in a sense for them to use gaslighting by omitting words or facts to change the meaning of a story – to their own benefit or agenda for their own client – thereby affecting the opposing party. Or if a powerful agency refuses to recognize facts or laws, and when presented with actual material, just cease to respond – leaving you hanging? Is that gaslighting? If it leaves you feeling hopeless, powerless, confused, and after many involvements with the party, you start feeling sick everytime you think of them and cannot concentrate on the issue being disputed. You even begin to get a sort of paralysis of action, since all of your efforts have been unsuccessful and were in no way validated.

  4. Deception is legal in the criminal justice system, including cross-examination and police interrogations. In an adversarial system, it is up to opposing counsel to object or refute the allegations. That is why an imbalance of power and resources is often a big problem in criminal justice. I think what you are describing is institutional abuse where people, especially the disadvantaged) are mistreated and exploited for the benefit of a group or organization.

  5. Dear Joan
    I believe I was gas-lighted at work. In general I believe it was part of a long-term proactive strategy by my managers to control me. But matters came to a head after, as per my remit, I raised serious concerns about my employers’ systems’ facilitating fraud. There was a surge of unfair criticism resulting in a sham disciplinary hearing and a final written warning; I resigned and worked my 3 months notice.

    A week before leaving I confronted my director about gas lighting and he gave me a veiled admission that I had been lied to. But he also claimed that I’d never prove it. This prompted me to log into my managers’ emails. I justify my unauthorised access on the basis that it was necessary to uncover their attempts to conceal the criminal deficiencies of their systems. But the impetus behind my action was to discover the truth behind my managers’ lies, so as to defend and repair my sanity: It was my final opportunity for a form of closure.
    I now face criminal prosecution for my unauthorised access. I wish to put forward the defence of self defence.

    I think I’d benefit from having an expert witness of this subject. Is this possibly something you could help me with.

    Many thanks

    John Griffin

    I am being prosecuted for logging into my manager’s email account.
    Purely psychological injury can constitute bodily harm. (Regina v Burstow; Regina v Ireland )
    I maintain that my access to my manager’s emails was an expedient and
    necessary counter measure against the damaging effect of my managers’ lies; I acted in self defence.

    The basic principles of self-defence are set out in (Palmer v R, [1971] AC 814); approved in R v McInnes, 55 Cr App R 551:
    “It is both good law and good sense that a man who is attacked may defend himself. It is both good law and good sense that he may do, but only do, what is reasonably necessary.”

  6. Hi Joan,

    I believe that I was gaslighted by my now-ex wife. This culminated in her having local religious and psychiatric leadership convincing me that I needed serious help, and that I needed to trust her; in her arranging an appointment with psychiatrist, who in a single sitting, with her present, diagnosed me with “severe bipolar disorder” (vs major depression with psychotic features), with scripts for mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics; and her attempting to convince my parents to send me into a facility. I was convinced that I was crazy.

    In the end, my parents hired a PI who proved that she was having an affair. In the year since then, I managed to pass my medical board examination; and I have worked as an attending physician for the last 6-7 months, taking nothing more than an anti-depressant.

    It is extremely difficult for me or those around me to make sense of everything I went through; I believe that part of this is because of the false assumption that my ex’s mind works/operates like my mind (or any normal mind) would. Thank god I am free; BUT MY 4 young children are not. They are ages 4-7 and if my feelings are correct, they are being brought up by someone who is psychologically poisonous (possible narcissist, sociopath?? I hate to throw diagnostic terms). This is for no good reason other than that she is the mother (apparently more important than me as father). My psychologist, who had personally seen her in action agreed that it’s definitely not best for children to be with her, but none cared, he was deemed biased; (I was deemed biased long before then..) What am I supposed to do??? Is there anything I can do??

    Very Curious as to your thoughts,


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