The term gaslighting is taken from a 1944 movie called Gas Light, starring Ingrid Bergman. In the film, Bergman plays the part of Paula, a woman who is married to Gregory, a man who, unbeknownst to her, is a thief and the murderer of her rich aunt several decades earlier. She doesn't know that Gregory only married her so that he could have access to her aunt's house and can find her aunt's jewels, which he had been unable to find in his earlier robbery attempt. Whenever Gregory is hunting in the attic for the jewels, he has the gas lights on. Since the lights are on in the attic, it causes the rest of the house's lights to flicker. When Paula asks Gregory why the lights are flickering, he tells her that they aren't and that she is seeing things. Another sign that points to her being "crazy." As Paula begins to uncover things about Gregory that don't line up, he tries to prevent being found out by her or others. He slowly begins to erode Paula's perception of reality, and sanity, by moving objects around and telling her that she is not well whenever she questions what is happening.
Today, gaslighting is a slang term that refers to a form of psychological abuse in which information is twisted, spun, or selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making the target doubt their memory, perception, and sanity. It is commonly used with narcissists and other types of emotional manipulators trying to avoid being accountable for their behavior or who are intentionally trying to erode their target's sanity.
Gaslighting is incredibly damaging and crazy-making behavior, which often has long-lasting results and leaves a person questioning their sanity and perception of reality not only when they are around the abusive person but in general.
Examples of Gaslighting
On their second date, Tina asks Paul if he has any children. He says that he has one, a daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Several months into dating, Tina comes across a picture online of Paul with three children. When she asks him about it, he says that those are his children. Tina is confused and tells him that she thought he'd said that he only had one child. Paul gives her a confused look and tells her that she must have misheard him or is misremembering. He tells her that he has three children and has never told her anything different. Tina says that she distinctly remembers him telling her that he only had one child. Paul begins to get upset and asks Tina, "Why would I have told you that I have one child when I have three? That doesn't make any sense. I'm starting to think you might be nuts and need a therapist." Tina becomes embarrassed and self-conscious and agrees that it doesn't make any sense for Paul to lie about something like that. She accepts his explanation that she misheard him or misremembered what he'd said.
Janet and Roger have been married for five years, and while Janet was doing the laundry, she found a receipt for condoms in the pocket of Roger's jeans. She shows him the receipt and asks if he's cheating. Roger grabs the receipt from her hand and tells her that it isn't for condoms but candy and that Janet can't read. She must be looking for a fight. Then, he tears the receipt into pieces and throws it in the trash. Enraged, he spins the focus of the argument onto Janet by accusing her of having trust issues and being paranoid. Janet begins to wonder if perhaps she did read the receipt wrong. While she is lost in confusion, Roger makes himself the victim by telling Janet how he does so much for her and complains that all he gets are accusations in return. Janet is caught off balance by his response and finds herself apologizing for questioning him. She begins to wonder if she read the receipt wrong and is somehow subconsciously looking to pick a fight because she can't appreciate a good man. Roger tells her that if she doesn't get some therapy, he will leave and find someone else.
Gaslighting doesn't have to be done over a long period to cause devastating, long-lasting effects on a person's sense of reality. It can erode a person's sense of faith in their judgment and their perception of people and reality, often to the point where they struggle with trusting anyone or anything, even friends, family, day-to-day decision-making, or their overall perception of reality. When a person is told something they know to be true isn't true, they soon begin to doubt themselves and look to others, often the abusive person, to confirm what is happening.
A spouse claiming that the person they are sending flirty messages to is only a friend and that their partner is jealous and crazy for thinking otherwise.
A boyfriend or girlfriend hiding their partner's car keys to make them late to a job interview and then pretending not to know what happened to the keys.
A spouse abusing their partner and then denying that it ever happened.