What is Gaslighting? Definition, Warning Signs & How to Deal with it

Merriam-Webster dictionary has declared gaslighting the word of the year 2022. Read on to know what gaslighting means.
What is Gaslighting? Definition, Warning Signs & How to Deal with it
What is Gaslighting? Definition, Warning Signs & How to Deal with it

American online dictionary Merriam-Webster has declared "gaslighting" as the word of the year in 2022, ahead of "oligarch" and "omicron." The word has been trending throughout 2022 and was searched daily on Webster’s online dictionary.

Whether it’s on Twitter, in Hollywood movies, or in the infamous "trial of the century" involving Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, gaslighting has been popping up everywhere this past year. An American television show, Gaslit, based on the Watergate scandal and starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, also aired in 2022.

But what does gaslighting mean? The word has frequently changed in meaning and often confuses people. However, gaslighting is a critical topic that everyone should know about. On that note, we bring you this explainer article on gaslighting, its definition, warning signs, and steps to deal with it.

How does Merriam-Webster choose the word of the year?

Merriam-Webster is the leading online dictionary in the world and records millions of page views every month. After eliminating commonly used words, the site sifts through the data to determine words whose searches see a significant bump compared to previous years.

The vaccine has been in use for two centuries but was chosen as the word of the year in 2021 because of the boost in searches due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, "pandemic" was the word of the year in 2020. Gaslighting skyrocketed in media and political use in recent times but more so in 2022.

Also Read: Oxford Word of the Year 2021 is Vax

Runner-up Words of 2022

  • Oligarch
  • Omicron
  • Codify
  • Queen Consort
  • Raid
  • Sentient
  • Cancel Culture
  • Loamy

Gaslighting Origin & Definition

Gaslighting is a verb that originates from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight and its cinematic adaptations. 1944’s American psychological noir film, Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Angela Lansbury, gave the word a mainstream appeal.

The film is centred on a woman who experiences strange happenings in her home and is gradually manipulated by her husband into doubting her own sanity. That’s how the word "gaslighting" originated. The traditional definition of gaslighting reads:

"The psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, the uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator."

However, the definition of gaslighting has evolved and encompasses broader meanings in terms of relationships, politics, media, and office use. Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as:

"The act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage."

Gaslighting is similar to manipulation or deception, but a bit more modern.

Gaslighting Warning Signs & Examples

It’s one thing to know what gaslighting is, and quite another to identify it. Gaslighting has become so common nowadays that people don’t even know they are on the receiving end of it or unintentionally engaging in it.

A doctor downplaying your concerns, your partner insisting there is nothing wrong and that you are "imagining" things, and your boss discrediting your opinions as baseless and making you doubt yourself at every step are examples of gaslighting. A politician who is openly lying and presenting a different picture of events than reality is also gaslighting his followers.

Every cynical horror movie hubby who refuses to believe his wife is seeing ghosts is a gaslighter. Most people would do the same in that fictional situation but not in real life unless they're gaslighters.

How to identify Gaslighters?

It can be difficult to distinguish between gaslighters and genuine people because both exhibit similar behaviour, with the exception that one has malicious intentions.

Here are some common phrases used by gaslighters:

  • "I never said that."
  • "I did that because I love you."
  • "What did I do wrong?"
  • "I don't know why you're making such a huge deal of this."
  • "Don’t be so sensitive."
  • "You are being dramatic."
  • "You are the problem, not me."
  • "If you loved me, you would..."
  • "You are crazy."
  • "You’re too emotional"

Most of these phrases have genuine usage as well. But the difference between using them for gaslighting and sincerity is that gaslighters have malicious intentions. When they ask what they did wrong, they already know the answer but say it to make you mad and then later deny it.

Or if a gaslighter says, "I'm sorry you think that I hurt you," it means they are sorry for you and your behaviour. Imagine being so inconsiderate that you apologise, still make everything about yourself, and end up hurting the other person even more. That’s a classic gaslighter, and if you’re with one, try leaving as soon as possible.

Another trait of gaslighters is that they never accept their lies and deceptions, even when they get caught red-handed. Politicians are probably the first people you think of in such a scenario. Some common traits of gaslighters are listed below.

  • Deflecting blame
  • Denying responsibility
  • Downplaying serious issues
  • Chronic lying
  • Creating false narratives
  • Pretending to be the real victim
  • Constant discrediting
  • Always passive aggressive

What are the signs of being gaslighted?

Gaslighting can take a heavy toll on victims’ mental health. Below are some signs that you are suffering the effects of gaslighting.

  • You doubt and question yourself
  • You wonder constantly whether you’re too sensitive or emotional
  • You apologize frequently and for no reason
  • You have trouble with decision making
  • You feel generally unhappy, confused, and different from your usual self
  • You avoid loved ones out of fear of being judged

Steps to deal with Gaslighting

It’s always difficult to escape a gaslighter, as they make it difficult to do so. But it's essential, as gaslighting can cause irreversible damage to your mental health.

Make sure it’s gaslighting

It’s possible your partner, boss, or whoever has genuine concerns for you and you’re simply overreacting. Gaslighting behaviours appear minor at first but gradually evolve into sinister manipulative tactics. Make sure you’re convinced in yourself.

Take some time off

Taking a break from work or home can be beneficial for anyone. It makes one introspect and figure out what’s wrong in their life.

Collect evidence

If you think you’re being gaslighted, collect evidence like recordings, screenshots, photos, dates, research articles, etc. However, take care never to confront the gaslighter alone.

Seek professional help

Try talking to a loved one or a mental health professional. Talking can help you safely navigate the truth of events and realise your true self. Support also makes a person stronger.


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