Mental Health Tips
June 6, 2023

What Is Gaslighting, and Where Did It Come From?

Written by
Emily Nayar, LICSW
Reviewed by
Updated on
July 14, 2023

There’s a high likelihood you’ve heard someone use the term “gaslighting” before, or have used it yourself. Like many phrases in our society, the true meaning gets lost the more often it is used. To properly understand the word, it is important to understand the origin of the phrase.

A movie started it all

The term “gaslighting” originally came from a 1944 movie (aptly named Gaslight) directed by George Cukor. Spoiler alert: The film involves a husband, Charles Boyer, trying to convince his wife, Ingrid Bergman, that she is insane by several different methods. One of the methods included telling her she was imagining that the gaslight in the house was dimming (hence the movie title). 

Unpacking gaslighting

Gaslighting is a behavior that is directly meant to make another person doubt themself. It is an intentional effort on the part of the person engaging in gaslighting, with the intent for the other to question their perceptions and intuition. In extreme cases, it can even affect someone’s grasp of reality.

Here’s one example: Imagine you come home to your house, and your living room lamp is missing. You ask your housemate where the lamp went, and they say, “what lamp?” The living room lamp, of course! 

You can describe it in detail because it was just there. They give you a confused look and say, “we’ve never had a lamp in the living room.” You search the house and can’t find that lamp. You rack your brain to try and figure out what’s going on. Did someone take it? If they did, then why doesn’t your housemate remember it? Did you imagine the lamp? If you imagined the lamp, then what does that say about your memory? Your doubt in your memory and perceptions may begin to grow, so much so that you begin to distrust your mind.

Gaslighting is intentional

Why would someone use gaslighting tactics in a relationship? The reasons differ and are specific to the person and the situation. Overall, someone who is questioning their grasp on reality is easier to manipulate and convince that they’re the problem in the relationship. It’s a way for the person gaslighting to gain power and control over someone else by making them believe their intuition and perspective is wrong

Below are several other examples of gaslighting behavior:

  • Using a mental health diagnosis to discredit your opinion or feelings
  • Denying they said or did things (but you know they did)
  • Minimizing or discrediting your emotions
  • Refusing to accept responsibility for actions

The key thing to remember is that gaslighting is intentional. This means  it’s typically not one isolated incident, but a pattern of behavior that is causing you to question yourself and your perception of reality. It can happen in any type of relationship, not just romantic partnerships, and can be incredibly damaging. It is manipulation and a form of abuse. 

Facts and statistics: How common is gaslighting?

While it is hard to pin down exactly how many people have been victims of gaslighting specifically, if we look at emotional abuse in intimate partner relationships, we see that 48.3% of women and 48.8% of men reported experiencing at least one psychologically aggressive behavior in an intimate partner relationship. Not all of these reported behaviors are gaslighting, and this statistic is only looking at intimate partner relationships — it does not include emotional abuse that happens in families, the workplace, or in friendships. 

Emotional and psychological abuse are often ignored, as those can be harder to see and identify. However, the impact of emotional abuse is strong; 7 out of 10 women reporting emotional/psychological abuse show symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, with emotional/psychological abuse being a stronger predictor for women developing PTSD than in physically abusive relationships.

To put it plainly, psychological aggression is extremely common in our society, and it can have a major impact on mental health. 

Like all emotional abuse, the wounds that gaslighting leaves cannot be seen. This does not make it any less damaging, though it can make it hard to find support. If you are experiencing gaslighting in a relationship, please know that it is not your fault. Finding someone who understands what is happening to you can be one way to start your healing journey. If you are in need of immediate support, you can access a trained advocate via chat or phone 24/7 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

If you or someone you know is ready to start therapy, book a matching appointment.

Let us find the right therapist for you

Book Matching Appointment

Let us find the right therapist for you

Book Matching Appointment

A mental health practice built for you

We’re always interested in meeting talented, mission-driven clinicians. Take a look at our open positions, and get to know life at Two Chairs.
See Open Positions