Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Gaslighting and emotion

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Gaslighting and emotion:
What is gaslighting, what are the emotional consequences, and how can it be dealt with?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A depiction of stress, a common response to gaslighting

Gaslighting is a colloquialism that refers to the act of psychologically manipulating another person's (or group of people) perceptions into doubting their memories, experiences, or thoughts. It is a form of psychological or emotional abuse that can be difficult to recognise by both parties involved.

Gaslighting, similar to other types of psychological abuse, is known to lead to high levels of distress (see Figure 1) and anxiety, and can contribute to existing and the development of various psychological conditions. It may occur with malicious intent, however is not always present. The term gaslighter or abuser is given to the person who desires to maintain control and power, and the term gaslightee can be given to the victim or survivor experiencing the effects of gaslighting (Hightower, 2017).

This chapter aims to highlight the key characteristics of gaslighting and share what is currently known about the topic. Research about gaslighting is limited and most evidence is anecdotal. As gaslighting is viewed as a form of emotional abuse, this chapter applies theories about psychological abuse to the principles and implications of gaslighting.

Focus questions

Focus questions:

  • What is gaslighting?
  • What are the emotional consequences of gaslighting?
  • How can we deal with gaslighting?

What is gaslighting?[edit | edit source]

Gaslighting can present in various forms, often subtly and inconspicuously. Theories surrounding characteristics of gaslighters have been developed based on emotional abuse principles, however further research is needed in this area. Gaslighting may occur in any type of relationship [for example?] and often arises due to a power imbalance.

Etymology[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. A screenshot from the film Gaslight, where the husband is gaslighting his wife with a domineering presence. The woman looks afraid.

The term gaslight originates from the 1944 movie Gaslight (see Figure 2), involving a husband using trickery to convince his wife that she is delusional to steal from her. It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary and American Psychological Association as manipulation by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity. Gaslighting has gained popularity on social media and concerns of diluting the term’s potency through overuse have arisen. Overuse may lead to downplaying the serious consequences of the abuse. Currently, there is limited empirical research regarding gaslighting, however is an up-and-coming topic, especially due to its recent popularity across social media (Moody, 2019).

Methods[edit | edit source]

Gaslighting methods can involve hiding information from the victim, changing information, or creating information, in order to gain control and maintain power (Petric, 2018). Gaslighters may or may not realise they are engaging in gaslighting and can occur verbally or electronically (Small, Porterfield & Gordon, 2015). As a form of psychological abuse, gaslighting can include intimidation, verbal mistreatment, and covert manipulation. (Hightower, 2017). However, as psychological abuse can be difficult to define, it is important to acknowledge the uncertainty behind defining methods of gaslighting (Follingstad, 2007).

Blocking/diverting[edit | edit source]

Blocking or diverting is apparent when the gaslighter changes the topic of conversation and/or questions the victims[grammar?] thoughts (Noh & Talaat, 2012).

Case Study

Maverick tells his wife Jane about his desire to travel to another country alone. Jane tells him “Are you sure you can do that? Did you get this insane idea from one of your friends? Your friends are horrible influences, you need to get new friends.”

Countering[edit | edit source]

Countering refers to when the gaslighter questions the victim's memory or credibility (Noh & Talaat, 2012).

Case Study

Trevor tells his partner Jamie about a fond memory from early on in their relationship, however Jamie responds by telling him he is wrong and that he is incapable of remembering things correctly.

Denial[edit | edit source]

Denial is present when the gaslighter acts as though they have forgotten or denies the victim's memories (Noh & Talaat, 2012).

Case Study

Emma reminds her husband Jeff about their plans to go to the cinemas next weekend. Jeff tells her he does not know what she is talking about and that she is making it all up in her mind.

Trivialising[edit | edit source]

Trivialising refers to the gaslighter making the feelings and needs of the gaslightee feel devalued (Small, Porterfield & Gordon, 2015).

Case Study

Steven is upset with his mum Sophie, as she is ignoring his feeling about moving schools. She tells him "it's not a big deal, I don't know what's wrong with you, get over it."

Withholding[edit | edit source]

Withholding refers to when the gaslighter pretends to not understand the victim (Small, Porterfield & Gordon, 2015).

Case Study

Mary is telling her husband James a story about her friend’s relationship issues, and James refuses to listen, informing her "I don't know what you're talking about I don't want to hear it."

Common phrases in gaslighting can include:
  • "It's not a big deal."
  • "That never happened."
  • "You're overreacting."
  • "You've got a horrible memory."
  • "You're crazy, and we all think so too."
  • "I'm sorry you think I've hurt you."

(National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2021).

Why and who[edit | edit source]

The psychological theories that may be related to why gaslighting occurs can be hypothesised. Similar to other types of emotional abuse, gaslighting can be prevalent in many kinds of relationships, both intimate and non-intimate.

Characteristics of abusers[edit | edit source]

Due to limited research in the area, the causes of gaslighting tendencies are inconclusive. It is speculated that gaslighters are not born with the inclination to gaslight and can be linked to theories similar to those regarding emotional abusers in a general sense.

Social learning theory[edit | edit source]

Social learning theory developed by Albert Bandura (1977), can be applied to possibly being a contributor to the development of a gaslighter (Portnow, 1996). It is suggested that individuals are more likely to engage in a behaviour after observing or experiencing such behaviour, assisting in emotional self-regulation and co-regulation. Role models, parents, and partners are key sources for learning (Zavala & Guadalupe-Diaz, 2018).

Personality psychology[edit | edit source]

Personality psychology explores the idea that gaslighting tendencies may be more likely to occur in individuals with certain personality traits, such as neuroticism. A study focusing on gaslighting tendencies in young adults suggests personality traits including detachment, disinhibition and psychoticism were positively associated with gaslighting behaviours (Miano, Bellomare, & Genova, 2021)[Provide more detail].

Attachment theory[edit | edit source]

Developed by John Bowlby, the attachment theory provides a framework suggesting that children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver to allow for normal social and emotional development. For example, emotional abuse by attachment figures in early years of childhood development contribute to the development of an insecure attachment style (Riggs, 2010). This affects emotional regulation, supports the development of negative coping mechanisms, and contributes to poor social functioning in later childhood and adolescence (Taussig & Culhane, 2010). In adulthood, individuals may then develop insecurity in their romantic relationships, leading to intimacy issues, sexual functioning issues, and struggles in conflict resolution (Dodge, 2010). As a result, those who experience poor attachment style, or lack a healthy relationship with a caregiver throughout childhood, are more likely to develop unhealthy relationship management traits as an adult. This theory can be applied to explain why one may become a gaslighter through emotional abuse.

Prevalence[edit | edit source]

Originally, gaslighting was only applied to marital or intimate relationships, however in more recent years can be seen across various relationship types. Gaslighting often occurs where power imbalances can be identified and, in some scenarios, the authority bias may contribute to the presence of gaslighting.

Intimate relationships[edit | edit source]

Gaslighting can occur between intimate relationships, including dating and marriage, where survivors are positively associated with antagonism, disinhibition and psychoticism (Miano, Bellomare, & Genova, 2021). Lifetime rates of emotional abuse in intimate relationships are approximately 48%, where gaslighting may be a prevalent component (Black, et al., 2010). Social learning theory can be applied when analysing gaslighting in intimate relationships as research suggests children who witness their parents engaging in intimate partner violence are more likely to view the behaviour as acceptable, therefore increasing chances of the child modelling the behaviour in their adult life (Jankowski, Leitenberg, Henning & Coffey, 1999). Additionally, children exposed to intimate partner violence are also more likely to learn the role of being the victim (Scott, Weiss, Franzese, & Covey, 2014).

Parent-child relationships[edit | edit source]

Gaslighting can occur with the victim being the parent, child, or in some cases both. It is especially prevalent when there is a strong power imbalance. Research shows it is common for parental figures to psychologically abuse their children unknowingly, suggesting gaslighting may be more common in parent-child relationships than other examples (Riggs & Kaminski, 2009).

Workplace relationships[edit | edit source]

Gaslighting can occur as part of emotional abuse in the workplace, between coworkers, as well as between superiors and inferiors where a power dynamic is evident (Sweet, 2019).

Medical gaslighting[edit | edit source]

Medical gaslighting can include medical practitioners denying ones[grammar?] illness or incorrectly blaming the victim’s illness on psychological factors. This includes the Martha Mitchell effect. Patients with chronic illnesses, such as endometriosis, chronic pain, and medically unexplained symptoms are often victims of medical gaslighting (Sebring, 2021). Recently, patients with long-term effects of COVID-19 have reported being victims of medical gaslighting[factual?].

Review Quiz

1 Which of these is NOT a gaslighting method?


2 Which of these psychological theories can be linked to gaslighting?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Social learning theory
Psychoanalytic theory

3 Which of the following biases can be linked to gaslighting?

Confirmation bias
Authority bias
Self-serving bias
The Dunning-Kruger effect

What are the emotional consequences of gaslighting?[edit | edit source]

Gaslighting has both short-term and long-term effects, often going unnoticed by the victim. Once identified, both self-help strategies and clinical treatment can assist in alleviating the damaging effects of gaslighting.

Common signs[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Man with hands on face, expressing distress, a common emotional response to gaslighting

A victim of gaslighting may experience feelings of confusion, isolation, distress, anxiousness and difficulty in decision making (Temple et al., 2016). Increased levels of self-doubt and feelings of "am I good enough?" may start to arise, as well as a diminished self-esteem. Victims may apologise often, including making excuses for their abuser's behaviour. Often, victims are unaware of the appropriate ways to respond to psychologically abusive behaviours, further extending the abusive period, especially in romantic relationships (Francis & Pearson, 2019).

Long-term effects[edit | edit source]

Similar to other forms of psychological abuse, gaslighting can lead to the development of a number of psychological disorders. These may include anxiety, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and in some cases psychosis. Experiencing a high degree of exposure to trauma can lead to long-term psychiatric morbidity, overall impacting normal cognitive function (Steel, Silove, Phan & Bauman, 2002). Victims of emotional abuse display higher than average rates of alexithymia (difficulty in identifying and processing their own emotions) possibly as a coping or defence mechanism when trying to manage the abuse (Goldsmith & Freyd, 2005).  This can further contribute to why gaslighting can often continue unidentified for lengthy periods of time. Additionally, victims of gaslighting may experience low self-esteem and confidence, as well as relationship and intimacy issues (Drinkwater, et al., 2019).

How can gaslighting be dealt with?[edit | edit source]

Once identified, there are several approaches to dealing with gaslighting, with self-management techniques and clinical treatment where necessary.

Self-management techniques[edit | edit source]

Self-management techniques are recommended when recovering from abuse to allow victims to regain a sense of control in their lives (Litz, Engel, Bryant & Papa, 2007). Increasing communication or expressing desire to increase communication with the abuser can help if there is a desire to maintain the relationship. Focusing on self-care and collecting proof, such as photographs, diary entries, voice recordings and videos, to share with friends and family can also assist in reducing self-doubt and anxiety. When in unsafe situations, victims should develop a safety plan and attempt removing oneself from the situation or relationship. Victims should seek clinical treatment where necessary.

Clinical Treatment[edit | edit source]

Clinical treatment approaches for victims of gaslighting can assist in reinforcing the victim's sense of reality and address mental health concerns.

Through cognitive behavioural therapy, clients are taught to regulate their feelings by changing their thoughts and behaviours by acknowledging dysfunctional thoughts, behaviour, and emotional responses (Najjar, Weller, Weisbrot, & Weller, 2008). Additionally, trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy focuses on using relation[say what?], cognitive reprocessing, and creation of trauma narratives to assist in improving symptoms of PTSD, depression, and abuse-related consequences. Gaslighting can occur alongside physical abuse, therefore backgrounds should be investigated by health professionals when treating those coming forward.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that can be difficult to identify. The topic requires further research to understand the true mechanisms involved. Currently, social learning theory and the attachment theory are hypothesised to impact the likeliness to gaslight, as is personality theory. Gaslighting can occur in a range of relationships and can have long-term psychological effects on victims due to trauma. Self-help and psychological treatment may be beneficial in assisting victims of gaslighting. Overall, further research is required in gaslighting and the unique ways it can manifest.

See also[edit | edit source]

[Use alphabetical order]

References[edit | edit source]

Black, M., Basile, K., Breiding, M., Smith, S., Walters, M., Merrick, M., Chen, J., & Stevens, M. (2011). The national intimate partner and sexual violence survey (NISVS): 2010 summary report. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dodge Reyome, N. (2010). Childhood emotional maltreatment and later intimate relationships: Themes from the empirical literature. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 19(2), 224-242.

Drinkwater, K., Laythe, B., Houran, J., Dagnall, N., O’Keeffe, C., & Hill, S. A. (2019). Exploring gaslighting effects via the VAPUS model for ghost narratives. Australian Journal of Parapsychology, 19(2), 143–179.

Follingstad, D. R (2007). Rethinking current approaches to psychological abuse: Conceptual and methodological issues. Aggressing and Violent Behaviour, 12, 439-458.

Francis, L., & Pearson, D. (2019). The recognition of emotional abuse: Adolescents' responses to warning signs in romantic relationships. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 36(17-28), 8289-8313.

Goldsmith, R., & Freyd, J. (2005). Awareness for emotional abuse. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5(1), 95–123.

Hightower, E. (2017). An exploratory study of personality factors related to psychological abuse and gaslighting[Doctoral dissertation, William James College].ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Jankowski, K. Leitenberg, H., Henning, K., & Coffey, K. (1999). Intergenerational transmission of dating aggression as a function of witnessing only same sex parents vs. opposite sex parents vs. both parents as perpetrators of domestic violence. Journal of Family Violence, 14(3), 267–279.

Litz, B., Engel, C., Bryant, R., & Papa, A. (2007). A randomised controlled proof-of-concept trial of an internet-based, therapist-assisted self-management treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(11), 1676-1683.

Menard, S., Weiss, A., Franzese, R., &, Covey, H. (2014). Types of adolescent exposure to violence as predictors of adult intimate partner violence. Child Abuse and Neglect, 38(4), 627–639.

Miano, P., Bellomare, M., & Genova, V. (2021). Personality correlates of gaslighting behaviours in young adults. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 2, 1-14.

Moody, K. (2019). #Gaslighting.Counseling and Family Therapy Scholarship Review, 2(2).

Najjar, F., Weller, R. A., Weisbrot, J., & Weller, E. B. (2008). Posttraumatic stress disorder and its treatment in children and adolescents. Current Psychiatry Reports, 10(2), 104–108.

National Domestic Violence Hotline. (2021). What is gaslighting? U.S. Department of Health services.

Noh, C., & Talaat, W. (2012). Verbal abuse on children. Asian Social Science, 8(6), 224-228.

Petric, D (2018). Gaslighting and the knot theory of mind. ResearchGate.

Portnow, K. (1996). Dialogues of doubt: The psychology of self-doubt and emotional gaslighting in adult women and men,[thesis, Harvard Graduate School of Education]. Hollis.,contains,36674740

Riggs, S. (2010). Childhood emotional abuse and the attachment system across the life cycle: What theory and research tell us. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 19(1), 5-51.

Riggs, S. (2009). Childhood emotional abuse, adult attachment, and depression as predictors of relational adjustment and psychological aggression. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 19(1), 75-104.

Sebring, J. (2021). Towards a sociological understanding of medical gaslighting in western health care. Sociology of Health & Illness.

Small, C., Porterfield, S., & Gordon, G. (2015). Disruptive behavior within the workplace. Applied Nursing Research, 28(2), 61-71.

Steel, Z., Silove, D., Phan, T., & Bauman, A. (2002). Long-term effect of psychological trauma on the mental health of Vietnamese refugees resettled in Australia: a population-based study. The Lancet, 360(9339), 1056-1062.

Sweet, P. The Sociology of Gaslighting. (2019). American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851-875.

Taussig, H. N. and Culhane, S. E. (2010). Emotional maltreatment and psychosocial functioning in preadolescent youth placed in out-of-home care. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 19(1), 52–74.

Temple, J., Choi, H., Elmquist, J., Hecht, M., Miller-Day, M., Stuart, G., Brem, M., & Wolford-Clevenger, C. (2016). Psychological abuse, mental health, and acceptance of dating violence among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 59(2), 197-202.

Zavala, E., & Guadalupe-Diaz, X. (2018). Assessing emotional abuse victimisation and perpetration: A multi-theoretical examination. Deviant Behaviour, 39(11), 1-18.

External links[edit | edit source]