What Does Gaslighting *Actually* Mean? Psychologists Explain

Gaslighting examples

Gaslighting. It's hard to go even one nightly scroll without someone on TikTok raging about the unfairness of it all. Indeed, gaslighting has become a buzzy term on social media and in popular culture at large. 

It's been rising in fame for a while, being tapped as the American Dialect Society's "most useful" new word in 2016 and Oxford University Press' second-most popular new word of 2018. The term isn't new, though—we'll get to that. Yet, its rise continued, culminating in its 2022 honor as Merriam-Webster's "word of the year."

The buzz around gaslighting has led to confusion about the term's meaning. Make no mistake, though, gaslighting is harmful and, yes, legitimately toxic. Understanding the definition of gaslighting, signs, harms and how to heal can help you protect yourself. Let's sort fact from fiction. What is gaslighting, really? Psychologists explain gaslighting's meaning in simple terms and provide concrete examples and tips for coping with it in relationships.

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

What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting, in a simple definition, is a form of abuse. "Gaslighting is essentially when one person tries to use mental manipulation to cause another person to doubt their perceptions and point of view," explains Dr. Jephtha Tausig, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. 

Dr. Holly Schiff, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with South County Psychiatry, reports she's seen gaslighting that's so toxic that it makes people "question their sanity."


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

Why Is It Called Gaslighting?

All these recent "honors" hailing gaslighting as one of the best new words are a bit misleading. Gaslighting has been around for almost a century, first entering the public lexicon in a 1938 play by English playwright Patrick Hamilton. The title? You guessed it: Gas Light. The plot? "A husband mentally and emotionally manipulates his wife into thinking she is crazy by changing the intensity of the gas lamps in their home," Dr. Schiff explains. "This is an attempt to make her believe that she cannot trust herself or her own memory."

In 1940, a British film, Gaslight, debuted with a similar plot, and an American remake of it hit this side of the pond in 1944. We first heard gaslighting used as a gerund in the 1950s during an episode of The Burns and Allen Show.

Flash forward to 1995, and noted New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd used it in a column. It began rising in popularity in the 2010s, leading to its big Merriam-Webster accolade in 2022 and continued TikTok fame today. 

Related: 35 Common Gaslighting Phrases in Relationships and How To Respond, According to Therapists

How Do You Know if Someone's Gaslighting You?

Dr. Tausig says there are several major red flags of gaslighting, including:

  • A person who keeps lying, even when you show proof (like text messages of previous conversations)

  • A person keeps denying things happened, even though you personally witnessed it

  • Spreading false information or rumors about you

  • Chronic accusations that you are "over-reacting," "too sensitive," "can't take a joke" or "need to relax" when you call them out for harmful behavior

  • Blaming you for their poor or inappropriate behaviors

  • Repeated attempts to twist or downplay behaviors

  • Attempts to resolve things with loving words or gifts that don't match their behaviors

  • Active and repeated attempts to separate you from family and friends

Related: Here's What 'Medical Gaslighting' Means—and How to Know If You're a Victim Of It

How Does Gaslighting Affect Mental Health?

How much time do you have? Dr. Tausig doesn't pull any punches, calling gaslighting "emotional abuse." Dr. Schiff says gaslighting can harm mental health in numerous ways, notably:

  • Second-guessing beliefs and perception of reality

  • Low self-worth

  • Self-blame

  • A negative inner dialogue/negative self-talk

  • Hesitation to engage in self-advocacy because you've been told you're wrong or need to relax so many times

  • Feeling like you have to walk on eggshells around the corner

  • Constant stress and anxiety as you wait for the next mind game

  • Confusion—and not only because the person warps your sense of reality. The gifts and seemingly generous attempts to make up with you after a conflict leave you feeling like you're in a real-life version of Jekyll & Hyde

Related: Could You Be a Victim of 'Self-Gaslighting'? 5 Signs of the Subtle Form of Self-Sabotage and How To Stop, According to Experts

5 Examples of Gaslighting

1. "Just relax"

"You Need to Calm Down" may be a great Taylor Swift song, but it's also a gaslighting red flag.

"An example of gaslighting is when your partner tells you that you are so dramatic or asks why you are so emotional," Dr. Schiff says. This will make you question your own behavior, reactions and ideas."

Dr. Schiff says this tactic is psychologically damaging because you start viewing yourself, thoughts, feelings and behaviors differently.

2. Suggestions that *you* seek help

A gaslighter may insist that you're the problem—it's you. Their attempts to "encourage" you to get help may seem like their attempts at trying to help. You may very well benefit from therapy, but not because you're the anti-hero here. Dr. Schiff says this tactic is an attempt to make you think you're the problem so they can skirt responsibility for a conflict.

Related: 8 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother and How To Heal—According to Psychologists

3. Claims conversations or events never happened

A classic sign of gaslighting. 

"If that person continues to lie to you even after you have shown them proof of their lies, they are gaslighting you," Dr. Tausig says.

4. Heightened emotions (from them)

Dr. Schiff says gaslighters often lash out if you challenge them. The twisted part? You're apparently not permitted to have emotions—at least not negative ones about their behaviors. Instead, Dr. Schiff says they dismiss your emotions and don't bother holding themselves accountable for theirs. The goal? To stop you from calling them out again.

5. Some praise

Here's the rub: Gaslighters aren't mean all the time. It's all part of their game. Dr. Schiff says they'll pepper in just enough compliments or gifts to confuse you and keep you around.

Related: 150 Narcissist Quotes to Help You Understand, Cope With and Defeat Narcissism In Your Own Life

Why Do People Gaslight?

Gaslighting is a power trip. "People gaslight to gain control and power over another person," Dr. Schiff explains. 

Gaslighting can be a vicious cycle. Today's gaslighters may have been yesterday's gaslit.

"Gaslighters were usually raised by parents who were gaslighters, so it essentially becomes a learned behavior that is adaptive and helps them survive," Dr. Schiff says. "They also do it to avoid accountability and taking responsibility for their actions."

Dr. Schiff notes that gaslighting is a common tactic used by people with narcissistic personality disorder.

Related: 7 Tiny Ways Being Gaslit Changes You, According to a Psychologist

How To Deal With or Stop Gaslighting in a Relationship

1. Document everything

Writing things down will confirm that something did happen despite a gaslighter's skillful attempts to convince you otherwise.

"This helps you process and validate your emotions," Dr. Schiff says. "It will also give you a tangible record and evidence next time you are made to question your memory."

2. Educate yourself

Understanding gaslighting and common tactics can help you keep things in perspective. Dr. Tausig says it can also help you focus on what's important: Actions do, in fact, speak louder than words here.

"Pay attention to the person’s actions, not their words, as these will tell you what is really happening," Dr. Tausig says.

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

3. Get outside perspectives

Gaslighters often try to separate people from family and friends. Yet, these are the people you need most. Lean into someone whose opinion you respect. Dr. Schiff says loved ones can give you an objective take on the relationship and remind you of all of your positive traits.

4. Avoid trying to cure the gaslighter

It would be nice to play hero and heal this person, but that's not your baggage to carry.

"This is not about logic or reason," Dr. Tausig says. "Very often, these individuals have themselves experienced trauma or abuse growing up. This is not your responsibility to fix or somehow cure them."

5. Seek help

You cannot control or fix another person. However, you can take steps to heal yourself after being gaslit.

"You are your responsibility, and this may mean you cut contact with the person who has been trying to gaslight you," Dr. Tausig says. "Seek support for your mental health, either via individual or group counseling."

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