Setting the Record Straight: What is Gaslighting?
In a recent Medium article, I discuss that inescapable term—what many love to use but rarely understand: gaslighting. It’s become so popular that Merriam-Webster named it the 2022 word of the year. And it’s still going strong.
The phrase “to gaslight” refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are as people.
In my own clinical practice over 30 years, I have seen mostly women wanting help with their gaslighting husbands. However, the notion that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that occurs solely in a romantic relationship, solely inflicted by the man on the woman is false, and much too narrow a definition. I have worked with many men who are or have been gaslighted and many women who recognize that they may be gaslighting their men.
More often, it is power, not sex, that is the common denominator that determines which party is the gaslighter.
The unfortunate truth is that today people in positions of power are wielding their authority to manipulate others into questioning their reality. This is not new, actually; we simply have become more aware of it infiltrating many walks of our lives recently. In fact, this notion of power is what explains why gaslighting has been taking root in the broader cultural and systemic levels of our society.
Gaslighting Invades Our Cultural, Medical, and Professional Worlds
Professional gaslighting, medical gaslighting, and cultural gaslighting are three nontraditional forms that many people are beginning to identify in their own lived experiences. Let's take a closer look at each of them.
Professional gaslighting, or "gaslighting in the workplace"
“I can’t believe my boss just threw me under the bus like that! He’s the one who made the decision to push the project deadline; it had nothing to do with my missing the due date. But now I look like the weak link on the team.” -Anonymous.
As outlined above, many people know gaslighting as it happens in romantic relationships, but it’s not isolated to just the home. Many people also experience it at work. For example, a boss retells details about a group effort to make himself look like the hero, or a colleague denies her part in a less-than-favorable team project to ensure you take the blame.
In these situations, it is often tempting to stay quiet for fear of being perceived as overly sensitive, or even losing a job. In certain scenarios, gaslighting at work is illegal. There are also supervisors and bosses that cultivate toxicity but are not actually gaslighting. Below are a few measures employees can take to determine the existence of gaslighting and protect themselves from it. First, ask yourself:
- Are they often distorting or denying the truth?
- Do they become defensive when questioned and use shame or humiliation as a weapon?
- Do your interactions with this person leave you feeling belittled, confused or even crazy, unsure if you should believe them?
If these indicators sound familiar, you may be a victim of gaslighting.
Remember: you have the right to work in an environment that makes you feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe, free from harassment of any kind.
- Document all interactions with this person including dates and details. This record-keeping not only serves as evidence if you do decide to take action, but can also help you spot gaslighting behaviors and identify their patterns over time.
- Proceed carefully and seek help from a colleague with high standing in your organization or directly with Human Resources.
- Confiding in a trusted source can help the mental health constraints that come with gaslighting as well as bring a neutral perspective to your experiences.
Medical gaslighting is more common than you think
“My doctor said the symptoms I was experiencing couldn’t be real because it’s not normal for these things to be happening so long after an operation. He told me that I am overly sensitive to bodily sensations, have an unusually low tolerance for discomfort. and I should try to relax more. At first I was outraged at his insensitivity and dismissiveness, but after months of listening to his certainty, I began to think that maybe he was right.” -Anonymous
Sadly, too many people have heard these words from their trusted medical professionals. Medical gaslighting occurs when doctors deny patients are sick, blame symptoms on psychological factors, minimize an illness, or misdiagnose. This New York Times article suggests the following are indicators that medical gaslighting is occurring.
- Your provider refuses to discuss your symptoms.
- Your provider will not order key imaging or lab work to rule out or confirm a diagnosis.
- You feel that your provider is being rude, condescending or belittling.
- Your provider continually interrupts you, doesn’t allow you to elaborate and doesn’t appear to be an engaged listener.
- Your provider minimizes or downplays your symptoms, for example questioning whether you have pain.
How do you avoid being gaslighted by your doctor?
- Bring a family member or friend to your appointments.
- Write down – even record – your time with doctors.
- Ask for a copy of your medical records and be sure they reflect what you know.
- Put your complaint or concern in writing to your doctor and keep a copy for yourself.
- Send an email after your appointment to confirm and summarize what you talked about and ask the doctor to confirm receiving your email.
- Before, during and after meeting with your doctor, check in with your emotions. Ask yourself, do I feel confident that I will be listened to by my doctor? Am I comfortable saying what I think and feel with this person? Do I feel safe, heard, and listened to?
- Listen to your body. If your doctor says you are fine and you don’t feel fine, ask for another appointment, additional tests or a referral to a specialist.
- If you don’t feel heard and respected and/or you are still experiencing symptoms, seek another opinion.
Cultural gaslighting: A Subtle Manipulation in Dominant Cultures
“Look, I’m not trying to be the bad guy here but this ‘equal rights’ thing with women has gotten out of control. There are just certain things men can do that women can’t… What’s wrong with that? So what if a guy gets paid 30 cents more an hour? He probably deserves it! Suddenly we have a woman as Vice President of the United States and you all still think the whole world is out to get you? C’mon, I’m not buying it. Overreacting is what it’s called – just listen to yourself – definitely not ‘inequality’.” -Anonymous
This is an outrageous, yet not uncommon, reflection of cultural gaslighting. As Dr. Paige Sweet, a colleague at the University of Michigan wrote, "Although we tend to think of gaslighting as a problem between two people in a relationship, it also unfolds as part of an unequal social context. Gaslighting feeds off social vulnerabilities and stereotypes. It entrenches existing power imbalances while fostering new ones. The term is also increasingly used to describe structural racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism."
“Gaslighting feeds off social vulnerabilities and stereotypes.” - Dr. Paige Sweet
I know I am not alone in believing that the #MeToo outcry was a way for women whose emotions and reality were squashed, belittled, silenced and dismissed for years, to stand together and reclaim their reality – to declare that they in fact were mistreated, abused, and undermined by powerful men in their lives telling them “you wanted it ” to “that did not happen,” “it was no big deal,” or “you are a drama queen.” I have worked with many brave women in my practice, now ready to speak out about the pain of being gaslighted for years – many having identified gaslighting in conversations with other women.
Name it to Tame it: How To Identify Gaslighting In Your Own Life
It’s one thing to understand gaslighting conceptually. It’s much more difficult to identify when gaslighting is happening in your own life, especially if it’s taking place at work, in the doctor’s office, or on any social media platform.
Having a gaslighting experience does not make you a gaslighting victim. But most people who are being gaslighted don’t know it’s happening to them until they’re immersed in it. Look at the following list of gaslighting indicators. If any of these resonate with you, it might signal that you are experiencing gaslighting:
- You have trouble making simple decisions.
- You feel isolated and alone much of the time.
- You are not the same strong or confident self you used to be.
- You wonder if you are good enough.
- You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times per day.
- You often feel confused and even crazy.
- You’re always apologizing.
- You can’t understand why you aren’t happier.
- You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what.
- You start lying to avoid put-downs and reality twists.
With greater understanding of how it might show up in your life beyond a romantic relationship, you can harness and maintain your power to stop gaslighting before it becomes a pattern. You can make the choice to speak up at work, report your doctor’s gaslighting behavior, or become an ally. Transform this new knowledge into newfound power. Learn more about gaslighting in its many forms from The Gaslight Effect Podcast.
You can also identify if you are a part of a pattern of emotional or relationship abuse involving gaslighting and pull yourself out of that dynamic with the help of The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide, an interactive workbook that will help you reclaim your reality.