'Gaslighting' is a commonly misused therapy buzzword - here's what it really means and the signs you're being gaslit

By Kristen Rogers of CNN

Alleged text exchanges between actor Jonah Hill and his former girlfriend, surfer Sarah Brady, have sparked conversation about the potential harms of therapy speak when misused and the concept of "gaslighting" - a popular buzzword among those in the mental health community and its enthusiasts.

Gaslighting is so commonly discussed that Merriam-Webster deemed the expression its word of the year in 2022, after experiencing a 1740 percent increase in searches for the term. But experts say there are a lot of misconceptions around what gaslighting is and isn't.

"When we're challenged or confronted or told, 'Hey, I remember this differently,' we might think we're being gaslit, when actually we're being confronted on a behaviour and asked to change it - as opposed to being told that we're bad or that we don't remember things correctly or that we're emotionally unstable," said Vanessa Kennedy, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, a residential rehabilitation centre in Texas.

Some people weaponize psychological terms like gaslighting when others simply do something they don't like, which is wrong, said Monica Vermani, a Canada-based clinical psychologist and author of A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas.

Gaslighting is actually "a highly calculating form of manipulation - which involves the destabilisation - of one individual by another over a protracted period of time," Vermani said.

"Most commonly, gaslighting - also referred to as coercive control - is carried out by someone in a position of trust who is in close contact with the target," she added. "It is a complex and usually deliberate means of intentionally controlling an individual, which is carried out over an extended period of time."

Since "close contact is key here," Vermani added, the person gaslighting is often a romantic partner, an intimate friend or family member, or a close colleague.

Someone who gaslights another person destabilises and controls them by attacking their faculties to make the victim think their emotional stability, credibility or memory is flawed - thereby making the victim distrust themselves and rely more on the person who's gaslighting them, Kennedy said. Gaslighting also helps the perpetrator avoid any blame or responsibility for their actions.

"The person plays more on your insecurities and tries to attack your self-esteem," she added.

The concept of gaslighting originated from the 1944 film "Gaslight" and the 1938 play on which it was based. In it, "a husband is trying to convince his wife that she's going insane and perceiving things inaccurately," Kennedy said. "Throughout the course of the movie and over time, she begins to feel that she is, in fact, dipping into psychological insanity."

The term gaslighting carries a lot of weight, and misusing it can have consequences for our relationships, emotional maturity or accurate understanding of psychological concepts.

But at the same time, awareness of what constitutes emotional abuse can help people avoid unhealthy, threatening relationships. Here's more on what gaslighting is and isn't, and how to confront someone exhibiting this behaviour toward you.

Signs you're being gaslit

There are other common misconceptions about the nature of gaslighting, experts said. If a loved one disagrees with you or tries to change your mind, prefers to be "right" in an argument, or acts surprised when confronted - that's not necessarily gaslighting. Neither is someone trying to minimise their hurtful behaviour or cast doubt on your opinions or perspectives, Vermani said.

What pushes these behaviours into gaslighting territory has to do with what the person you're dealing with says and their intentions behind it.

Gaslighters are "typically emotionally abusive people - often with low self-esteem - who wish to control others rather than engage in mutually respectful relationships that require consideration, empathy, compassion and kindness," Vermani said. "They seek ways to undermine and overpower someone they fear losing, regardless of the damage to their target."

Not all gaslighting is intentional, as some people grow up witnessing these patterns and subconsciously adopt them as a coping mechanism or conflict resolution method, experts said.

But generally, gaslighters often "intentionally lie and deceive to confuse their target," Vermani said, or deny their own lies or their target's truth, "even in the face of evidence to the contrary."

Gaslighters often isolate targets from their social circles by insinuating their friends don't have their best interests in mind to weaken their sense of reality and self, experts said. They might say, "Even if you were to tell other people about what's happening, you wouldn't be believed because people know you to be irrational or make things up," Kennedy said. All these statements serve to make the victim more dependent on the gaslighter.

Other signs or effects of gaslighting can include thinking the other person's feelings always seem to matter more than yours, or being constantly anxious or tense around the person, said Duygu Balan, a psychotherapist specialising in trauma and attachment wounding in the San Francisco Bay Area. You might also refrain from sharing how you feel out of worry that the gaslighter is going to overreact, call you names or make fun of you.

"If there's no safety for you to voice yourself, then that is a situation where there's a toxic relationship," Balan said.

The degree to which a person gaslights someone else can vary, but gaslighting is always emotional abuse, whether intentional or not, experts said.

And gaslighting can have insidious consequences, especially after a long period of time.

"You start wondering if you're the reason why this person is doing this to you," Vermani said. "That self-doubt can be quite damaging on an intrinsic level. You make excuses for the other person's behaviour because that person makes excuses for their behaviours. … You go out of your way to protect them sometimes because you believe that they're smarter or more capable than you are."

Your ability to trust your gut might also suffer.

"Over time, the effect of gaslighting can erode your self-respect and your ability to choose healthy situations for yourself that are going to make you happy and be fulfilling," Kennedy said.

Confronting the problem

If you feel safe enough to confront the person who might be gaslighting you, first focus on setting boundaries with them, experts said. It might be helpful to share your detailed experience of their behaviour rather than simply telling them, "I feel like you're gaslighting me."

Additionally, "you might end the conversation or disengage and say, 'I'm not going to engage in this type of conversation anymore. I know what I saw,'" Kennedy said.

If the gaslighter is someone very close to you, you can also suggest doing counselling or therapy together, she added.

If the behaviour persists, how long you stay in the relationship is a personal decision, Kennedy said. You could give the person a specific time frame within which you'd like to see changes in their behaviour, after which you would re-evaluate.

"But at any rate, you have to decide what the emotional toll is that it's taking on you and your self-esteem," Kennedy said. "Sometimes it's not safe to approach the gaslighter in the relationship, and it's safer to leave altogether."

Getting help can be necessary if you're struggling in a relationship with a gaslighter or with the trauma gaslighting can cause.

"Seek the support of people you trust - often people who know that you are in a difficult situation and who have been standing on the sidelines, waiting to offer you help," Vermani said.

Talking to a therapist can help you get an objective perspective and see more clearly any signs of gaslighting behaviour and psychological abuse, Kennedy said.