The 10 Earliest Signs of Gaslighting to Look Out For, According to Psychologists

Gaslighting is an often-used—and misused—term. However, make no mistake—it's real and harmful

"Gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation where the abuser makes the victim question their reality, can have severe mental health repercussions if left unchecked," says Dr. Joel Frank, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist with Duality Psychological Services.

The sooner you recognize gaslighting, the better. 

"Early detection allows individuals to take prompt action to protect their psychological well-being," Dr. Frank says. "Recognizing gaslighting can help prevent long-term emotional damage."

Yet, gaslighting can be challenging to spot. It can take the form of short, five-word phrases that seem logical, and gaslighters can be skilled and appear so confident that you start questioning yourself and reality. Psychologists shared common red flags of early gaslighting to help you protect yourself. They also shared do's and don'ts for dealing with a gaslighter

Related: 14 Genius Phrases To Shut Down Gaslighting, According to Psychologists

What Is Gaslighting?

The true definition of gaslighting has gotten lost in the social media sauce. 

"It’s a term used when someone is psychologically abusing someone by intentionally making them question their reality," says Dr. Brittany McGeehan, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and executive coach. "It’s important to note that it’s different from someone having a different opinion or perspective from you."

How can you tell what is happening to you?

"The big distinguisher is that with gaslighting, someone is going to consistently use tactics such as minimizing, denial and shaming to try and get you to question your reality," Dr. McGeehan clarifies. "In a healthy relationship, someone may have a different perspective from you, and that may look like,  'Oh, I remember it differently,' or 'It makes sense to me that you have that perspective. However, mine is different.'"

The big difference is that gaslighters don't respect your reality. Another person in a healthy relationship does. 

Related: 13 Red Flags of Gaslighting at Work and How to Respond, According to Psychologists

10 Early Signs of Gaslighting

1. Denial

If you notice the person frequently uses phrases like, "I never said that," even when you show them proof like a text message, it's a massive gaslighting red flag.

"Gaslighters consistently deny their actions, words or promises, even in the face of clear evidence," Dr. McGeehan says. "This is incredibly harmful because the proof is right in front of your eyes, and yet you are being told it isn’t true. It teaches you that you cannot trust your senses, which makes it easier to manipulate you later down the line."

2. Trivializing feelings

Words like "relax" and "it's not a big deal" are not meant to comfort you.

"Gaslighters often dismiss emotions...which invalidates the victim's genuine feelings and undermines their emotional responses," Dr. Frank says. "This diminishes the victim's sense of self-worth and makes them more dependent on the abuser's judgment."

3. Projection

One psychologist shares that gaslighters will start projecting their flaws onto you, especially if you offer well-meaning constructive criticism. 

"The abuser may accuse you of demonstrating the exact thoughts and behaviors that they themselves are guilty of, leaving you to desperately defend your own sound motivations and grip on reality," says Dr. Daniel Glazer, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of US Therapy Rooms. "It's an insidious way to gaslight you into doubting your own intentions."

4. Contradiction

Take note if you find yourself constantly confused and having a chronic feeling of whiplash when speaking to this person.

"Gaslighters may also use contradiction to sow confusion," Dr. Frank says. 

Sometimes, the gaslighter may deny saying or doing something (see: No. 1). Other times, they may re-tell a story of an event in entirely different ways. 

"This tactic disorients the victim, causing them to doubt their recollection and rely more on the manipulator for clarity, gradually losing trust in their memory," Dr. Frank explains.

5. Isolating the victim

At first, the desire to spend lots of alone time with you can seem like a positive sign. However, it can go too far with gaslighters—and it's not to benefit or protect you.

"The abuser may discourage interactions with friends and family, suggesting these relationships are harmful or untrustworthy," Dr. Frank says. "Isolation strengthens the gaslighter's control, making the victim more dependent and easier to manipulate."

6. Insisting they're correct

Don't mistake this one for confidence or conviction.

"In a healthy relationship of any kind, both parties are able to admit when they are wrong, and they can hold two opposing truths to be true at the same time," Dr. McGeehan says. "There are always two sides to every story and then the truth. If a person insists that there is one version of any truth, it’s a warning sign that they may be setting you up for gaslighting."

7. Minimizing achievements and strengths

They're perfect. You can do no right.

"The gaslighter might undermine accomplishments by saying things like 'Anyone could have done that' or 'It's not a big deal,'" Dr. Frank says.

These words may sting, but a person might find second-guessing themselves and agreeing with the gaslighter. It's a trap.

"This tactic serves to erode the victim's self-esteem and make them feel incompetent or undeserving, fostering dependency on the abuser for validation," Dr. Frank says.

8. Leaving out key details

Some gaslighters change their stories. Others leave out significant details (and many do both, depending on what suits them). However, it can be hard to spot, especially early in a relationship, when you are still learning more about someone (and critical details of their past and personality). Still, you may slowly feel lied to or thrown for a loop.

"The missing information breeds more disorientation and uncertainty," Dr. Glazer says.

9. Blaming and shaming

The gaslighter may frequently utter short phrases that make you feel like everything is your fault.

"They might say things like, 'You made me do this' or 'You're the one causing problems,' leading to feelings of guilt and self-doubt," Dr. McGeehan says. "This shift in blame makes it easy for you to stay in a one-down position and, therefore, default to whatever the other person says is true. It can also lead to feelings of being unworthy. "

10. Questionable sense of humor

"Good sense of humor" may be a strong suit in a friend or romantic partner. Gaslighters have a sense of humor that may elicit laughs from others but leave the victim feeling low (and confused by all the laughs).

"Gaslighters often employ sarcasm and condescending humor," Dr. Frank says. "They might make hurtful jokes about the victim's insecurities and then accuse the victim of lacking a sense of humor when confronted."

The goal is to shame the victim and keep them from expressing their feelings, giving the abuser more control.

Related: 6 Telltale Signs You Experienced Chronic Gaslighting as a Child, According to a Psychotherapist

How to Deal With Early Gaslighting Signs

1. Trust your instincts

Explore any sneaking suspicion that something isn't right.

"Gaslighters often rely on making you doubt yourself, so recognizing and acknowledging your feelings is the first step in protecting yourself," Dr. McGeehan says. "If something feels off, it's important to address it rather than dismiss it."

2. Stay in touch with family and friends

Gaslighters can try to isolate you from loved ones early. Don't let them.

"Sharing your experiences with others who know you well can offer external perspectives and validations," Dr. Frank says. "These individuals can provide emotional support and help you see the situation more clearly, counteracting the isolative tactics often employed by gaslighters."

3. Set and maintain boundaries

Dr. McGeehan advises people to set clear boundaries and communicate them assertively. One example she gave was: “If you continue to disregard my experience, I will remove myself from this conversation.” 

"Setting boundaries protects your emotional well-being and asserts your autonomy," Dr. McGeehan says. "It also builds your self-esteem and self-trust, both of which are attacked when you are being gaslit."

4. Document interactions

This tip will help you maintain your sense of reality even in the face of gaslighting.

"Capture dates, quotes and specifics," Dr. Glazer says. "Having this record reinforces your perspective and truth when the gaslighting distorts reality."

5. Seek professional help

Being gaslit can be a lonely experience. You don't have to heal alone.

"If you find yourself repeatedly experiencing gaslighting behavior and struggling to cope with its effects, consider seeking support from a therapist," Dr. McGeehan says. "A mental health professional can offer guidance, validation and coping strategies to help you navigate the situation and regain a sense of control over your life."

Related: 9 Subtle Signs of Gaslighting That Are Often Easy to Miss, According to Psychologists

The Biggest Mistake People Make When Noticing Early Gaslighting Signs

Engage in an argument.

"The No. 1 thing to avoid when dealing with early gaslighting signs is engaging in prolonged arguments or trying to win a debate with the gaslighter," Dr. Frank says.

Dr. Glazer agrees. 

"By engaging, you inadvertently suggest some mutual desire to consider multiple perspectives, which isn't the case," Dr. Glazer says.

Instead, look out for No. 1 (yourself).

"Focus on maintaining your sense of reality and seek support from trusted individuals who can validate your experiences and provide the necessary perspective and strength to handle the situation constructively," Dr. Frank says.

Next: 5 Telltale Signs of Gaslighting in a Friendship, According to Psychologists