During her 12-year marriage, “Chandra” says, her husband routinely cheated and then told her she was “crazy,” “jealous” and “paranoid” when she produced evidence of his affairs. He used the term “irrational” often, which was historically used to degrade women. Chandra worked, went back to school, and took care of their children. However, her husband convinced Chandra that she needed him. For example, he would deliberately delay paying his bills and then blame her for it. This was a strategy of financial control that made Chandra feel dependent on him. Chandra described her ex-husband repeatedly as a gaslighter during a Zoom interview that lasted an hour.
After Chandra ended the call (a pseudonym to keep her safe), I took down notes: confusion and unequal caregiving responsibilities. Shame, credibility loss. Gender-based insults. Verbal abuse. These are some of the many stories I have collected over the years about gaslighting. Chandra was criticized by her ex-husband Chandra for calling her “crazy” while accusing her of “overreacting” which made her doubt her ability to be a reliable witness to her own experience.
But this effect was not created in a vacuum. Chandra was socially isolated and distant from her family and friends. She was also experiencing financial stress and lacked support in balancing her work and child care. These vulnerabilities made her less capable of resisting her husband’s manipulations and she became psychologically exhausted. Chandra began to question her perception of reality, memory, and ability to interpret events. She wondered if she was crazy.
Gaslighting can be described as a form of psychological abuse that makes someone feel or appear “crazy”. We know that psychological abuse, and “crazy making” in particular, is a core feature of domestic, or intimate partner, violence. It works in part by convincing victims that the experience they are having is not real or important, and then blaming them for it.
The result is what sociologist Kathleen Ferraro has called the “surreality” of abusive relationships or what scholar and activist Beth E. Richie refers to as a “hostile social environment.” The word itself comes from a 1930s play called Gas Light that was turned into a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman. It is shown that the protagonist’s husband dimming and brightening the gas-powered indoor lights in secret and making her believe she is crazy makes this play.
The term has been astronomically popularized over the past decade. This is partly due to the #MeToo movement’s success, which highlighted how victims of sexual violence or harassment are systemically doubted when they speak out. Commentators also use it to describe the mind-bending denials that reality has been presenting from the White House during Trump’s presidency. The term “gaslighting”, which is used online to describe mental health and has been popularized by TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter users.
But even though everyone seems obsessed with gaslighting, systematic social scientific data is only beginning to study this form of abuse. Gaslighting is often seen as a problem between two people, but it can also occur in an unjust social context. Gaslighting perpetuates stereotypes and social vulnerabilities. It perpetuates existing power imbalances and fosters new ones. It is increasingly used to describe structural racism and sexism as well as homophobia, ableism, and sexism. Scholars and activists have used the term “racelighting,” for instance, to name racial microaggressions that undermine the experiences of people of color and the ideologies that cover up these behaviors; a 2021 policy report described race-based gaslighting as “institutionalized in the social fabric.”
Social scientists and writers from marginalized backgrounds insist that social power works by convincing us that everything is normal, while the conditions around us are oppressive and discriminatory. As psychiatrist Ann Crawford-Roberts and her colleagues argued in 2020, watching George Floyd’s murder by a police officer and then being told his death was the result of preexisting medical conditions is “structural gaslighting.” Our task as sociologists is to follow the elusive, topsy-turvy ways in which social domination operates. Sociologist Avery Gordon describes the “spells” of power and how they are established as patterns of noncredibility. Gaslighting can be a serious way to learn about the relationship between macro-level inequalities, and the “micro” forms silencing or disempowerment people experience in their daily lives.
As a sociologist, I am interested in the social and intimate dynamics that enable gaslighting to take place. In 2021 I set out to use in-depth qualitative research to figure out what makes gaslighting such an immiserating force. I used social media to find interview participants. I put ads on Facebook defining gaslighting loosely to be someone trying to make people feel crazy. This strategy allowed anyone to participate regardless of where or how they experienced it.
After conducting 122 interviews over six months and analyzing the patterns that make up this form of abuse, I became most intrigued by the social contexts where we find gaslighting, and its relation to inequalities around gender, sexuality, class, ability and race. Gaslighting doesn’t involve one of these identities. Instead, people experience gaslighting intersectally. This means that factors such age, gender, and sexuality all play a role in how people’s reality is distorted, questioned, or denied.
Based on my sample, there are four main relationships or contexts where gaslighting is most common: domestic violence, intimate partners who have not been abusive, parents and other family members, and institutional gaslighting that occurs primarily at the workplace. These forms of gaslighting are based on different dynamics. For example, domestic violence often involves verbal abuse while workplace gaslighting is often racial discrimination. All of them involve power imbalances. This is important because it teaches us how to ask different questions. This is not “Why did this happen?” but “Who established power and authority?” These are examples of these four contexts.
The domestic violence type of gaslighting is exemplified by the experiences of Selah. Selah’s ex husband questioned her sanity for many years, telling her that she needed medication and that her family believed she was unstable. He also called a crisis mental team to the house, saying Selah was suicidal. Selah left her husband and moved into her own apartment. Her husband then broke in while Selah was at work and made himself at home. Selah arrived home and pretended that nothing was wrong and asked what they were having for dinner. He tried to distort Selah’s reality by insisting that he was still with her. He made subtle threats and wouldn’t let Selah leave the house to go grocery shopping.
This was part a long-running pattern: Selah’s husband harassed and stalked her every time she tried to leave. Eventually, she fled to a shelter for domestic violence halfway across the country. Selah was unable to describe the abuse because it had a sinister quality. What’s wrong with your husband asking you what’s for dinner? Selah explained that “They live in an alternate reality. They want you to live there .”
Around 30 percent of the people I interviewed identified their parents as their primary gaslighters. Audrey feels her mother doesn’t take her mental illness seriously. She insists that Audrey is just being lazy, a drama queen, and that Audrey isn’t taking her mental illness seriously. Audrey also receives government assistance as her symptoms render her unable workable. Audrey is worried that no one will believe that her symptoms are real. Audrey told me: “Maybe I am a loser. Perhaps I have a really poor character. Maybe I’m just whiny .”
Audrey tries to delay treatment because of her fears and minimizes her symptoms. Her experiences are a perfect example of a type gaslighting that can begin in childhood and continue for long periods. Gaslighting is often a parent who denies a child’s experience in a way that causes isolation and self-doubt. Audrey’s mother has control over her resources (housing, finances), and she also wields significant emotional power over Audrey. This authority is rooted in the parent-child bond.
When Maya tried to get her boss stop making sexually explicit jokes at work, he said she was “overreacting”. She gave two weeks notice and was asked to leave. After she filed for unemployment and claimed in the request for unemployment compensation that it was a toxic work environment, he–a lawyer–contested her claim with a 500-page document asserting that she had laughed at his jokes, so how could they be offensive? She must be making up the story. He claimed that Maya had “bar hopped” during the pandemic, putting at risk her co-workers’ safety, even though Maya had been pushing to have masking at work. “Everything I was doing to keep myself safe, [he] would twist it around… to make it appear that I was doing some nefarious thing or out of malice.” Maya felt that he used stereotypes about people of color to make her seem dangerous to the office.
“Alex” was not afraid of her partner, even though her fianc had slapped her in college. Their relationship seemed to be equal, unlike the other examples. However, Alex was constantly made to feel guilty for her partner’s actions and a power imbalance quickly developed. Alex’s partner would cheat and then deny that it was happening. Alex would question her and she would tell Alex that Alex was “jealous” & “possessive” and then ask why Alex didn’t value her friends and family as much as she claimed. Alex felt confused and guilty and stopped sleeping and eating. Fearing that her partner might erase her memories, she started a journal where she recorded what her partner said.
Alex described her feelings of “dazedness” and “numbness” during their relationship. She explained that it was difficult to identify the experience as “gaslighting” since there was no clear gender-based power difference between her and her partner. Alex’s experience exemplifies gaslighting in relationships that don’t otherwise abuse. The manipulations were subtle and indirect, but Alex was unable to see the truth. Selah’s experience with verbal abuse, extreme control, threats, and physical intimidation was not the norm. Instead Alex’s partner won the power by using Alex’s own values against Alex, insisting that Alex was being “jealous”, a trait they both thought was toxic. She suggested that Alex should be disappointed in her own abilities.
What ties these stories together While strategies of abuse can vary from one case to the next, they all rely on the creation (or mobilization) of power against the victim. Although gaslighting can have more severe effects (Selah was threatened with her life; Maya was forced to quit a job during a pandemic), one thing remains constant: controlling narratives and resources is key to how power imbalances are created and reproduced.
Patterns of manipulation
Our first task is to change the way we think about abuse. Gaslighting, like other forms intimate violence, is not a single event but a process. My research has shown that gaslighting is often characterized by denial, distortion, isolation and shame as well as attacks on credibility. The basic pattern of gaslighting is to deny or occlude and then flip the script. This applies regardless of whether the gaslighter is a parent or friend, mentor, boss, or partner.
When gaslighting is serious and has a lasting impact on victims’ lives, it occurs in isolation and as part a power imbalance between victim and gaslighter. This imbalance could be caused by social inequalities, such as between male and female partners, or between a White boss and a Black employee. It may also be naturalized in the family such as the difference in authority and age between parents and children. Understanding gaslighting using sociological tools is key to understanding that mental manipulation often relies on existing social patterns and domination.
The classic film example of gaslighting shows that an abuser deliberately distorts the reality of his partner. My research suggests that gaslighting could be accidental. Audrey, for example, doesn’t believe her mother gaslights Audrey on purpose. It can also mean denial of the reality of another person. Selah’s ex-partner showed up at her home and pretended that everything was normal. He was denial of the reality that she had abandoned him. Alex and Chandra’s former partners denied any evidence of affairs. They then disoriented Alex, Chandra, and made jealousy accusations. Maya’s boss denied that she had suffered any harm at work, and distorted her responses to his jokes. Gaslighting is a form of lying that denies someone’s reality or distorts past events.
Denial and disorientation are more effective when they occur in isolation. Alex’s partner didn’t “isolate her” in the way many abusers do. However, the gaslighting took place while Alex was out of the country. Alex felt isolated and out of her element.
“Imani, a victim of domestic violence, said that she was made to feel isolated by her abuser’s turn against her family. “He would make it seem like they weren’t good for me …. I wouldn’t travel down there [to see my family] any more. He would respond, “Why would you want someone to be around that isn’t there for your?” Imani began to believe that her partner was the only one who loved and supported her. She stopped wanting to socialize, and she was unable to go outside. Imani’s stories show how gaslighting can lead to a turning inward. She believed she wanted isolation.
This is important because it prevents victims from hearing a different perspective to what’s going on in the relationship. Maya was accused by her boss of unethical work practices. She had to be monitored by her co-workers, which left her feeling disillusioned and made her suspicious. The most extreme forms of isolation are used in institutional gaslighting and domestic violence. One of my interviewees said that isolation is the “breeding ground for gaslighting.”
Gaslighting works by instilling shame which makes victims feel that they are responsible for the abuse. Summer explained that her partner likes to get her into fights. He irritates her by telling her stories about his relationships with other women. He claims that they are better at cooking, sex, and being a mother than her. He waits for her to start crying and screaming. Summer recalled, “And he stood still, and he went, ‘You are acting really crazy right now. And I don’t understand why.'” “And I was like, Oh, my god, it’s finally happening… I’m ripping things off the wall… I couldn’t take it anymore …. Then he gave me this pitiful look. He said, “I was just trying have a conversation .’
Here Summer’s boyfriend, who had strangled her and threatened her with weapons, turned the situation so that she appeared unstable and violent. He used Summer’s shame at “going psycho” as a threat to tell others about her actions. Gaslighting is based on shame. It keeps victims in an exhausting cycle of defending their integrity against attacks.
Shame can also reduce victim’s credibility with others. This is what feminist philosophers refer to as “testimonial injustice”, where prejudice causes people withhold credibility from another’s narrative. Summer’s abuser claimed that she beat him and lied about it to his family. Even though he is currently on probation for domestic violence, this strategy of “credibility slashing”, is still effective.
Often, victims’ credibility can be damaged by appealing to community values. For example, “Elyse”‘s ex-husband said to friends and family that she was acting “ungodly and out of character” after filing for divorce. It is easy to make a victim appear unstable in trusted social media networks.
Victims are subject to attacks on their credibility due to various forms of gaslighting. However, the form of these credibility attacks is dependent upon the social and institutional context in which the gaslighting takes place. These attacks are relevant for legal proceedings, such as divorce (for Elyse), and unemployment filing (for Maya). Victims’ credibility is also affected. They are less likely to be able to trust themselves and to believe that what they are feeling is real. Victims often feel that no one will believe or believe them, which can lead to doubts about their credibility as witnesses.
Taking Gaslighting Seriously
Despite the serious consequences of such abuse, “gaslighting” has the potential to be a buzzword that is quick and easy to remember. There are many people who question the validity of the term, including commentators and academics who claim that it is unclear and overused. Ghaslighting is a term that is used in a loose manner in popular culture without any social scientific research backing it up. It is often incorporated into self-help culture. This can perpetuate messages that are centered on individual actions and reinforce victim blaming. Sometimes, it is mixed with simple lying or other types of emotional abuse like humiliation.
I agree with many of these criticisms. I am relieved that there is now a language for talking about psychological abuse and its connections to oppressive structures like racism and ableism. Learning the term “gaslighting” gave Chandra, a 50-year-old Black woman, a container for identifying real patterns of abuse and discrimination. Although she is now happier in her marriage, it was not easy. She had to leave her ex-husband, seek higher-paying jobs and work with counselors to identify her ex’s abusive behavior. Chandra, who is using “gaslighting” as a way to make sense out of confusing and dangerous experiences, is a net positive. A made-up word from a movie is not valuable. So why not use it to name injustices and advocate for more equal social relationships?
Undoubtedly, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that exploits people’s social vulnerabilities. High rates of psychological abuse reported more generally suggest that researchers should pay closer attention to gaslighting and its lasting effects on victims’ lives, whether or not physical violence is also present. My research shows that gaslighting is more severe in those who lack structural protections and social networks.
Some of these supports are things policymakers could choose to offer. People are less dependent on abusive partners and bad jobs if they have access to safe housing, a living wage, and child care. Would Chandra have stayed with her gaslighting husband for 12 years if she had access to money and child care? Audrey’s mother gaslighting would have been so effective if Audrey had access to enough disability benefits to enable her to live on her own. People who are gaslighted about their material vulnerabilities are more likely to stay in bad relationships for longer.
Strong social networks of family, friends and neighbors are also important. People who were able quickly to leave abusive relationships were more likely to have strong social networks of family, friends, and neighbors. This helped them to be honest with themselves and to give them positive self-talk. Gaslighting is dangerous because it creates and exacerbates social inequalities. It also causes one to question their self-worth in isolation. It is a serious offense to self-regard as a reliable interpreter and observer of the world. Context matters. If social networks and community support are protective, we can rely on one another to prevent or re