Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that aims to make the victim doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. It can take many forms, from making outright false statements to twisting the truth, denying reality, and projecting blame and shame.
Gaslighting is often used by individuals struggling to acknowledge and address their own emotional challenges and tend to “cope” by bullying or manipulating others, and displaying narcissistic tendencies to deceive and feel in control of the people they target.
Examples of Gaslighting:
Denying something happened or insisting that something happened differently than the accused remembers.
Trivializing your feelings—being told you’re "too sensitive" or "too emotional" when expressing your emotions.
Scenario 1: A wife asks her husband if he has been cheating on her after smelling a hint of perfume on her husband’s shirt following a reported business trip. The husband denies it, claiming to have likely picked up the scent from the woman he was sitting next to on the plane. He hints that she's overreacting, imagining things, and creating drama. He dismisses her concerns and tells her that she has trust issues that need to be addressed. The wife starts to feel guilty and ashamed for doubting her husband's fidelity, even though deep down, she feels something is off.
IF she is right in her assumptions of him being unfaithful, this would be considered gaslighting by the husband.
Scenario 2: An employee was given a task by their manager, but when the task caused serious problems and cost the company money, the manager denied ever telling them to do it. The manager said they were lying and that they “must have dreamed it.” Now, the employee is confused and frustrated as they know their manager asked them to complete this task. They feel they are being blamed for something that wasn't their fault.
Why Do People Gaslight?
There are many reasons why people resort to gaslighting, but most of them boil down to a desire for power and control. People who gaslight may be insecure, jealous, or envious of their target's strengths, talents, or achievements. They may also feel threatened, guilty, or ashamed of their own behavior and try to deflect the blame onto their target. This behavior may also be due to distorted worldviews, where lies and deception are part of their reality, and everyone else is gullible or naïve.
How to Respond to Gaslighting Effectively?
Step 1: Pause and Reflect.
While we may not like to admit it, we ALL make mistakes. I have both accused others and have been accused by others inaccurately of gaslighting. The truth is, our memories are faulty. We tend to hear what we want to hear, see what we want to see, and can unknowingly or unintentionally misinterpret the context in which something is being communicated—all of which can lead to unnecessary arguments if we fail to ask for clarification before we react.
This does not dismiss the fact that gaslighting is real, and some people use it to intentionally undermine your confidence and self-trust. And if we lack self-awareness and self-acceptance, gaslighting can slowly erode our sense of reality and make us doubt our own judgment.
Step 2: Build a Strong Sense of Self.
While others can be effective in their manipulation strategies, they still need our permission to upset us and cause us to doubt ourselves. Get clear on any internal traumas, narratives, self-beliefs, etc., that may create a low barrier to entry for their attack. When we are TRULY confident in ourselves, nothing anyone says to us or about us can affect our self-perception.
By developing our emotional intelligence, we begin to understand that people who hurt others are hurting within themselves. While this doesn’t justify their actions, it allows us to justly detach ourselves from the situation and refrain from fighting fire with fire—AKA fighting hate or projected pain with more hate or projected pain.
Step 3: Set Healthy Boundaries and Communicate Them Cleary.
When setting boundaries or having difficult conversations, our intention is critical. Intention, in this context, is not about the desired perceived outcome but the emotions and energy behind the message we want to convey. While every bone in our body may want to fight back or even appear to be the “bigger person” by calmly and politely “putting them in their place” with a smile, both are ineffective if beneath that hyper-confident appearance or smile and polite tone lies disagreeable feelings like resentment, agitation, superiority, or inferiority. While it is not easy, and many will refuse what I am about to suggest because they believe that a perpetrator is undeserving of one’s kindness, this is critical: Be kind and approach them with an open heart. If we truly want to create positive change, we must approach every situation with compassion and understanding, or at the very least, be neutral. Not easy if we fail to show that same compassion and understanding to ourselves, which takes us back to Step 1.
Step 4: If Necessary, Call in Reinforcements.
If the person who is gaslighting continues this behavior after having been addressed, it may be necessary to reach out for support, especially if this individual is viewed as a “superior.” For instance, a manager/boss, professor/teacher, etc. The unfortunate truth is we live in a society that tends to associate seniority with superior authority and forgets that, as humans, we are equally fallible and that we all should be held accountable for our actions. If no action is taken once you’ve reached out to address your concerns, this is the moment you must decide whether to deal with it or exit the toxic environment.
Remember, you don't have to accept or internalize the accusations, lies, and projections of another. We ALL deserve to be treated with kindness, honesty, and respect. So, check in with yourself, stand up for yourself, and trust your own voice, even if others try to silence it.
If you enjoyed this article, you may find value in reading The EQ Deficiency: How Emotional Intelligence Can Cure an Emotional Pandemic, Solve Our People Problems, and Be a Catalyst for Positive Change.