Origin Of The Term Gaslighting

The term ‘gaslighting’ comes from the 1938 play Gas Light (which was turned into a film of the same name in 1944). It follows the story of a husband who manipulates his wife into believing she is going “insane” in order to have her admitted to a mental institution and steal her inheritance. 

One of his tactics is to make the lights in the house dim and flicker by covertly using the gas lights in the attic. When she asks him about it, he convinces her that she is only imagining it and eventually she starts to question her own sanity.

Although the play did not mention the word gaslighting, it demonstrated the types of manipulative behaviors that are now considered gaslighting.

The purpose of gaslighting is to deliberately and systematically destabilize the victim by making them doubt their thoughts, feelings, and sense of reality – to doubt themselves. This state of confusion gives the perpetrator a position of power over the victim, thus making it easier to manipulate them. 

a dim gaslight

Where does the term gaslighting come from? 

Originally the term comes from the play Gas Light (as described above). This play demonstrates how a person can present a false narrative to another person and cause them to feel disorientated and distressed.

By repeatedly denying, lying, and dismissing, the perpetrator convinces the victim they cannot trust their own perception, leading them to question their sanity. It also shows how gaslighting is used to the benefit of the gaslighter and happens at the expense of the victim.

Decades after the movie was released, Barton and Whitehead (1969) wrote in their Lancet paper that involuntary hospitalization of psychiatric patients is a form of abuse. They coined it “the Gas Light phenomenon”, based on the aforementioned play/ movie.

This is when it took on its modern meaning: “a conscious or unconscious behavior, enabled by wider contexts of structural power, that causes the victim to doubt their perceptions of reality”.

It was used several times in the psychotherapeutic literature in the 1970s and 1980s but was only popularised by Robin Stern’s 2007 book The Gaslight Effect.

Gaslighting Today

In her book, Stern describes the Gaslight Effect, a phenomenon that happens between two people in a relationship through “mutual participation.” The perpetrator (gaslighter) wants to preserve their sense of control and power, whereas the victim (gaslightee) seeks approval and allows the gaslighter to dictate their reality.

Stern writes “the gaslightee holds the key to her own prison” and outlines warning signs of gaslighting and how to deal with them.

It is now a common phrase used mainly in relation to power imbalances and abuse in intimate relationships. It can be applied to a variety of contexts, including healthcare and mental healthcare settings and the workplace.

It also features in political and social discourse to describe large-scale gaslighting of certain groups and whole populations.

An example of this is “fake news,” as it causes confusion and doubt in people’s minds. Yet despite its widespread use, it is considered a colloquialism, rather than a clinical term by the American Psychological Association.

Signs of gaslighting in romantic relationships

Gaslighting describes a variety of behaviors that cause a victim to feel confused and question their sense of reality. It is a common feature of emotionally abusive and controlling relationships, where the perpetrator wants control over their partner. 

Here are some of the signs that gaslighting is happening in a romantic relationship:

Grooming You Into Loving Them

Idealization, also called “love bombing,” is often the beginning of gaslighting behavior in a romantic relationship. When a person shows excessive levels of affection, admiration, and attention at the beginning of a relationship, it can be a sign of love bombing. It often includes lavish gifts and exaggerated declarations of love.

Over time, coercive and abusive behaviors progressively enter the relationship, leaving the victim confused. 

This confusion often leads the victim to discount the behaviors as “one-offs,” and they become dependent on the perpetrator to get back to the “high” they initially experienced. Love bombing is often the first stage of the perpetrator’s attempts to isolate the victim. 

Separating You From the People and Things You Love

A gaslighter might instill doubt in the victim’s mind about the loyalty and intentions of their friends and family. The victim might start to distance him/herself from them, which makes them more dependent on the perpetrator. An abusive partner encourages this isolation as it means the victim does not have as much opportunity to question the perpetrator and receive advice from others.

Warm-Cold Behavior

Gaslighting can happen in the form of warm-cold behavior. Changing from one emotional extreme means the victim does not know how their partner will react (“walking on eggshells”) and how they feel starts to depend on their partner’s mood and actions.


Disregard and rejection are often used by an abusive person to punish their victim. It can be used as a way to deflect from their poor behavior and make the victim take responsibility for defusing tension.

Name-Calling and Insulting

Accusing someone of being “crazy” or “overly emotional” implies the victim is unreasonable and out of touch with reality. Calling someone “stupid” or “selfish” or insulting their physical appearance is abusive.

Name-calling and insulting cause the victim to doubt their perception, and they become more vulnerable to internalizing these accusations. 

Turning Tables and Blaming

Gaslighting can also involve inappropriate and excessive blame. A gaslighter might say, “I did this because of you,” or “it’s your fault the television broke.” The victim may start to doubt their own competence and internalize that “everything” is their fault.

Your Feelings

Another way to identify whether gaslighting is happening is to pay attention to the way you feel. Some signs include:

  • Feeling confused often and doubting yourself and your feelings
  • Feeling nervous and anxious about how your partner will react
  • Blaming yourself and constantly apologizing
  • Feeling like something is not right or not recognizing yourself
  • Detaching from your surroundings, work, and yourself

Gaslighting causes the victim to question their perception, memory, and sanity. If you notice behavior that makes you doubt yourself and you feel like you are losing touch with reality, it is a sign that gaslighting is happening in your relationship.

References and Sources

Barton, R., & Whitehead, J. A. (1969). The gas-light phenomenon. The Lancet, 293(7608), 1258-1260.

Klein, W.B., Wood, S. & Li, S (2022). A Qualitative Analysis of Gaslighting in Romantic Relationships. Preprint from PsyArXiv

Shane, T., Willaert, T. & Tuters, W. (2022). The rise of “gaslighting”: debates about disinformation on Twitter and 4chan, and the possibility of a “good echo chamber”. Popular Communication, 20(3), 178-192.

Stern, R. (2007). The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulations Other People Use to Control Your Life. New York: Harmony Books.

Sweet, P. L. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851–875. 

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Professional

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer specializing in mental health and psychology.