In a recent episode of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, a cast member drops a relationship buzzword in her confessional interview. When talking about her husband, she tells the camera, “People say that Ralph gaslights me, but I don't know if that’s necessarily true.” Then a producer asks her to define gaslighting, and she reads the online definition: “to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”
Psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist Dr. Lee Phillips calls this trending term what it really is: “a form of manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships.” He adds, however, that it can occur in many types of relationships. Here are some signs of gaslighting to look out for, whether you’re at home, at the office, or with your family, plus tips for how to address it.
Examples Of Gaslighting In A Relationship
Before diving into examples of gaslighting in relationships, a little history: The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 play Gaslight, in which an abusive husband tries to make his wife think she’s losing it by turning the lights on and off in the home and creating strange noises in their house, then denying it’s happening. “Since then, it’s made its way into modern vocabulary,” says Phillips.
Nowadays, gaslighting refers to when “A bully or abuser misleads the target, creating a false narrative and making the victim question their judgments and reality,” explains Dr. Phillips.
“Examples of gaslighting [phrases] in a relationship can include: ‘You’re crazy’, ‘Don’t be too sensitive.’; ‘That never happened’; or ‘You’re overreacting,’” says Dr. Phillips. This is meant to confuse the other person into believing that they made up the issue they are having with their partner, which is not a healthy way to deal with emotions when you’re in a relationship.
Of course, hearing these phrases doesn’t automatically mean someone is gaslighting you. If a partner says things like that once or twice, Dr. Phillips explains, they could be joking or being hyperbolic. “However, if it turns into a repeated pattern, where one partner or friend has a sense of superiority, this could be gaslighting,” he says. “Gaslighting is all about control and emotional abuse.”
If you suspect you’re being gaslit in a relationship, Dr. Phillips suggests doing “reality testing.” You can do this by writing down your thoughts in order to assess the issue with objectivity. He adds that you can also talk to others, like a friend or therapist, to gauge their opinion.
Examples Of Gaslighting Parents
It can be hard to identify gaslighting from your parents, as most people would like to assume that their parents have their best interests at heart. But even if they’re gaslighting you, it doesn’t mean they're fully aware of what they’re doing in the moment.
“When a parent’s gaslighting is done unconsciously, it may be related to a personality disorder or another form of mental illness that the parent doesn’t want to acknowledge,” explains Dr. Phillips. “Under these circumstances, when the parent starts to fall apart in the face of stress, his or her thinking, judgment, or behavior may be impaired.” In this case, the gaslighting may have been done to save face or to avoid the havoc they caused.
But sometimes the gaslighting parent is aware of their actions and uses their words to try to convince the child of an alternate reality. “A situation of a parent gaslighting a child happens when they make their child feel worse about themselves,” says Dr. Phillips. “Rather than being supportive, they make their child feel like a failure.”
This could be a good time to set up a boundary. As with any relationship, you can control how much you have to interact with someone and limit the terms of that interaction. “Respectfully set limits around certain words and behavior. If the person is unwilling to change, give yourself permission to leave,” says Dr. Phillips.
Examples Of Gaslighting In Friendship
If you’re experiencing gaslighting in a friendship, you may first notice an icky feeling while being around that friend. In the context of a friendship, gaslighting actions could look many different ways, like not inviting you to an event for no apparent reason, Dr. Phillips explains. “Another type of situation would be a friend dismissing you by talking about their own needs when you have clearly gone to them for emotional support,” he adds.
These actions could be done in service of having you doubt your feelings or your reality. This could then lead to you questioning your perceptions and judgments, says Dr. Phillips. If you try to bring up the issue, they might dismiss you, which could cause you to start to believe you’re too sensitive and blame yourself. A friend should be someone you can open up to and be vulnerable with without receiving judgment, and it’s unlikely you’d feel this way in a gaslighting friendship.
Examples Of Gaslighting At Work
Being gaslit at work can feel especially isolating because it can be hard to prove you’re being gaslit to your superiors. There are several potential signs of being gaslit at work, according to Dr. Phillips. The person may give you persistent negative accounts of your performance at work, even if they’re untrue. They may spread untrue gossip about you to your coworkers. They may even exclude you from relevant meetings required of your jobs, all of which may leave you questioning your perception of reality at work.
It’s important to confirm that what’s happening truly is gaslighting, says Dr. Phillips. You can do this by documenting the gaslighter’s behavior, in addition to monitoring and tracking your own work. “Get support and focus on self-care. Meet with your gaslighter and possibly get Human Resources involved,” says Phillips.
Remember, you don’t have to excuse harmful behavior, even if it was unintentional, says Dr. Phillips. “Don’t let another’s opinion define your reality,” he adds. “Stay true to yourself and stand your ground.”
Dr. Lee Phillips, psychotherapist, LCSW, certified sex therapist