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Why gaslighting hurts

Gaslighting is dangerous.


Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which an individual, often a perpetrator, seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted person or group, making them question their own perception, memory, or sanity. The term originates from the 1938 play "Gas Light," in which a husband systematically manipulates the lighting in their home to convince his wife that she is imagining things. Gaslighting tactics can involve subtle and persistent lies, denial of events or behaviors, and the creation of a false reality that undermines the victim's confidence and self-trust. It is an insidious form of emotional abuse that can lead the victim to doubt their own reality, erode their self-esteem, and foster a sense of powerlessness. Recognizing gaslighting is crucial for maintaining one's mental well-being and navigating relationships with clarity and confidence.


Who uses gaslighting?


Individuals who engage in gaslighting behaviors may themselves exhibit mental health conditions that contribute to their manipulative actions. While it is not universally true for all gaslighters, some may display traits associated with personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. These individuals might struggle with empathy, have an inflated sense of self-importance, and lack remorse for their manipulative actions. In some cases, unresolved trauma, insecurity, or a history of interpersonal difficulties may underlie gaslighting behaviors as maladaptive coping mechanisms. It is essential to recognize that mental health conditions alone do not justify or excuse gaslighting, but understanding the potential factors contributing to these behaviors can be crucial in promoting empathy, facilitating intervention, and encouraging individuals who engage in gaslighting to seek appropriate professional help for their own well-being.


What are gaslighting behaviors?


Gaslighting can manifest in various subtle and insidious ways, aiming to undermine an individual's confidence and sense of reality. Examples include persistent denial of one's own actions or behaviors, even when confronted with evidence; trivializing the other person's feelings or experiences, making them feel their emotions are unwarranted or irrational; shifting blame for negative outcomes onto the victim, making them question their own accountability; and creating a false narrative or alternate reality, leading the victim to doubt their memory or perception of events. Gaslighters may also employ subtle insults or put-downs disguised as jokes, gradually eroding the target's self-esteem. These behaviors are manipulative tactics designed to exert control, fostering confusion and self-doubt in the victim. Recognizing these signs is crucial for individuals to protect their mental well-being and maintain clarity in their relationships.

Certain behaviors can be incorrectly identified as gaslighting.

People may occasionally confuse certain behaviors with gaslighting due to the complex nature of interpersonal dynamics and the subjectivity involved in assessing intentions. In the realm of disagreements, especially within relationships, emotions can run high, making it challenging to objectively discern between genuine differences in perspectives and manipulative tactics. Additionally, individuals who experience certain behaviors may interpret them as a deliberate attempt to undermine their reality, especially if there is a power imbalance or a history of trust issues. The subtle nuances between sincere disagreement, differences in subjective reality, lack of acknowledgement, conflict avoidance, and intentional gaslighting can be challenging to navigate, leading to misconceptions and blurred boundaries, especially when emotions and personal experiences are at play. This underscores the importance of open communication and empathy in deciphering the true nature of interpersonal conflicts.


What gaslighting is not:


  • Gaslighting vs disagreement. The term gaslighting is sometimes misused when individuals employ it to describe any disagreement or differing perspective within a relationship or communication. In certain instances, people may inaccurately label routine disagreements or conflicts as gaslighting, diluting the gravity of the term. This misuse can trivialize the serious nature of psychological manipulation and emotional abuse, leading to confusion about the concept's true meaning. It is essential to use the term judiciously and accurately, ensuring that it is reserved for instances where intentional and systematic attempts to undermine another person's perception and reality occur, rather than applying it haphazardly to any interpersonal disagreement.

  • Gaslighting vs differences in subjective reality. While gaslighting involves a deliberate and manipulative effort to distort someone's perception of reality, the experience of different realities between two individuals often stems from genuine differences in perspectives, beliefs, or interpretations. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation intended to undermine and control another person by sowing seeds of doubt, whereas differing realities can emerge from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and personal biases. In the latter case, individuals may genuinely perceive events or situations in distinct ways, and the divergence may result from factors such as cultural influences, personal history, or cognitive differences. While both scenarios involve conflicting perceptions, the crucial distinction lies in the intent behind the discrepancies – gaslighting involves a deliberate attempt to deceive and control, while differing realities arise from authentic variations in personal experiences and perspectives.


  • Gaslighting vs lack of acknowledgment. The distinction between lack of acknowledgement and gaslighting behaviors lies in the intent and dynamics of the interpersonal interaction. Lack of acknowledgement refers to a simple failure or reluctance to recognize or validate someone's feelings, experiences, or contributions. It may stem from a lack of awareness, empathy, or understanding but does not necessarily involve intentional manipulation. On the other hand, gaslighting behaviors involve a calculated effort to undermine and manipulate someone's perception of reality. This can include denial of facts, distortion of events, and intentional efforts to make the individual doubt their own sanity or memory. While both may result in the affected person feeling dismissed or invalidated, gaslighting is characterized by a more insidious and deliberate attempt to exert control and power over the other person through psychological manipulation.


  • Gaslighting vs conflict avoidance. The distinction between conflict avoidance and gaslighting lies in the underlying motivations and impact on interpersonal dynamics. Conflict avoidance typically involves individuals retreating from disagreements or confrontations to maintain a sense of emotional safety or peace. It may stem from a desire to avoid tension or preserve the relationship, but it is not necessarily manipulative in nature. On the other hand, gaslighting entails intentional manipulation aimed at distorting another person's reality, often through denial, lies, or the creation of confusion. While both conflict avoidance and gaslighting may result in a lack of resolution in relationships, the former reflects a coping mechanism to sidestep conflict, whereas the latter involves a more calculated and potentially harmful effort to control and destabilize the other person's perception of reality. Understanding these differences is crucial for fostering healthy communication and resolving conflicts in relationships.


Navigating differences between gaslighting and conflict avoidance can be tricky.

The impacts of gaslighting and conflict avoidance can appear remarkably similar, despite their distinct behavioral origins. In both cases, individuals may experience heightened stress, a diminished sense of self-worth, and a pervasive feeling of confusion. Gaslighting's psychological manipulation and denial of one's reality can instigate profound self-doubt and emotional turmoil, while conflict avoidance, by evading necessary discussions, may lead to unresolved tensions, fostering an atmosphere of unspoken tension. In both scenarios, individuals may struggle with communication breakdowns, feelings of isolation, and an erosion of trust within relationships. The similarity in emotional outcomes highlights the importance of recognizing and addressing these dynamics, as both gaslighting and conflict avoidance can contribute to detrimental impacts on mental health and the overall well-being of those involved.

Understanding the difference between gaslighting and conflict avoidance

Conflict avoidance typically stems from a variety of motivations rooted in a desire to maintain emotional safety and preserve relationships. Individuals who engage in conflict avoidance may fear confrontation, worry about damaging relationships, or seek to avoid the discomfort associated with disagreements. The underlying motivation is often driven by a genuine intent to maintain harmony and prevent harm. On the other hand, gaslighting is motivated by a more insidious intention to manipulate and control. Gaslighters use tactics such as denial, distortion, and deception to undermine the victim's reality, with the ultimate goal of exerting power and control. While both conflict avoidance and gaslighting may lead to communication breakdowns, their motivations differ significantly – conflict avoidance arises from a protective instinct, while gaslighting is rooted in deliberate harm and manipulation. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for fostering healthy communication and navigating interpersonal dynamics effectively.

Conflict avoidance can sometimes resemble or evoke the feelings associated with gaslighting due to the shared outcome of communication breakdown and emotional distress. When individuals consistently avoid addressing conflicts or disagreements, it can create an environment of unspoken tension and confusion similar to the impact of gaslighting. The lack of open communication and resolution may make the affected person feel dismissed, invalidated, or even manipulated, as their concerns are consistently downplayed or ignored. In both cases, there is a potential erosion of trust and understanding, contributing to feelings of isolation and self-doubt. While the motivations behind conflict avoidance are typically rooted in a desire to maintain peace or protect relationships, the unintended consequences may mimic the emotional turmoil associated with gaslighting, highlighting the importance of addressing conflicts openly and constructively to avoid such negative impacts.

If you find yourself in a situation where your partner is conflict avoidant, and you are experiencing feelings of being gaslit, it's essential to approach the issue with empathy and open communication. Start by expressing your feelings in a calm and non-confrontational manner, emphasizing the impact of their avoidance on your well-being. Share specific instances where you felt unheard or invalidated. Encourage your partner to engage in open dialogue and assure them that your goal is to understand each other better and strengthen the relationship. Seek professional support, such as couples counseling, to facilitate a safe space for communication and to address the underlying dynamics. Establishing clear boundaries and fostering a supportive environment for open conversation can help bridge the gap between conflict avoidance and gaslighting, fostering understanding and collaboration in resolving issues within the relationship.


The key factors that distinguish gaslighting from similar behaviors are malicious intent and a goal of exerting power and control.


Evaluating whether your partner has the malicious intention to gaslight you involves being vigilant about certain behaviors and patterns. Look for consistent patterns of denial, distortion, or dismissal of your feelings and experiences. Gaslighting often involves intentional manipulation, with the gaslighter attempting to undermine your reality or induce self-doubt. Pay attention to whether your partner frequently contradicts facts, denies their actions, or engages in blame-shifting tactics. Trust your instincts and feelings; if you consistently feel confused, invalidated, or undermined, it could be a red flag. Keep communication open and assertively express your concerns, observing how your partner responds. Seeking input from trusted friends or professionals can provide an external perspective. If gaslighting behaviors persist, consider seeking individual counseling or couples therapy to address the underlying issues and determine the health of the relationship.


With Denver couples therapy I can support you and your partner to determine if behaviors in the relationship are gaslighting, or something else, and to develop strategies for changing those behaviors. To schedule a free 20-minute consultation contact me.

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About the Author

Diana Calvo is a Denver couples therapist. She provides professional support to couples in all stages of relationship and has experience working with the many difficult issues couples are faced with. Diana offers premarital counseling, couples therapy, discernment counseling, and divorce counseling services to Boulder, CO and Denver, CO. All gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationship styles are welcome.


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