October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This is an annual opportunity to highlight information and resources about domestic violence. Unfortunately, domestic violence continues to be a common experience. And it’s more difficult for survivors to get help when abusive dynamics are unknown or taboo to talk about. Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors used by one person to maintain power and control over another person in an intimate or family relationship. Physical violence may be one of these behaviors, but abusive behaviors can also include financial, sexual, or emotional abuse. Survivors of domestic violence often find emotional abuse to be especially painful. One type of emotional abuse is called gaslighting. You may have heard this word before, but what does it mean?

What is gaslighting? 

The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play (and 1944 movie) called “Gas Light” where a husband tries to make his wife think she is going crazy. He dims the lights around the house and denies the lights are flickering, hides objects and accuses her of misplacing them, and tries to convince her she can’t trust her own memories. While gas lamps aren’t a feature of most houses anymore, abusive partners often use tactics like these to make their partners doubt themselves. Gaslighting behaviors might look like: 

  • Claiming to forget or denying that something happened – especially conflicts or promises. 
  • Questioning the survivor’s memory, making them doubt what they know to be true.
  • Minimizing the survivor’s feelings, often to make them feel unimportant. 
  • Pretending to not understand or refusing to listen to what is important to the survivor. 
  • Blaming a conflict on the survivor’s mental health diagnosis or accusing the survivor of not taking their medication to avoid responsibility. 

These behaviors are very manipulative. After hearing someone they love and trust repeatedly say these things, survivors may lose trust in themselves, especially if they have a behavioral health or mental health diagnosis. This can make it more difficult to ask for help, when survivors have been told their perception is the problem.

But help is out there. Often, when survivors learn there’s a word for what they’ve experienced, they feel validated to know that these tactics have a name and the behaviors are wrong.

Healing from gaslighting 

It can be difficult to question your experiences. Emotional wounds take time to heal, even if a relationship has ended. Therapy can be a helpful resource to process difficult emotions and experiences and learn ways to cope. Some may prefer group therapy, where they can connect with others who have similar experiences. Gaslighting can feel very isolating, so connecting with people who are supportive is important. Friends and family can help someone learn to trust themselves again. Survivors may also find journaling, physical activity, or mindful meditation to be helpful in their healing process. 

There is not one way to heal from abuse, but a good place to start is by asking for help.

If you or someone you know needs support, contact the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline at 866-723-3014 (24/7/365). Call 911 in an emergency.

Author: Liz Pride, MPH, is the Senior Project Manager at the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Domestic Violence Strategies. From 2014 to 2020, Liz worked for the Women Against Abuse Legal Center with survivors of domestic violence.