Not All Manipulation Is Gaslighting - Here's How To Spot The Difference

By now, you've probably heard the term gaslighting and maybe you've even used it in a tweet or text to describe the bad behavior of a romantic partner, or even a political figure. In 2016, Teen Vogue published an essay headlined, "Donald Trump is Gaslighting America," and the piece went viral, with NPR reporting the article had been viewed more than 1.2 million times. So it would seem that the term gaslighting is here to stay, and unfortunately for many of us, we have experienced the phenomenon on a personal level.

Before gaslighting started making headlines, it had long been featured in the world of cinema. "The Truman Show," the classic 1998 sci-fi drama featuring Jim Carrey, practically serves as a case study for this particular flavor of manipulation. The titular Truman finds himself as the unwitting star of a reality show in which his entire life has been engineered by a studio to serve as entertainment for the masses. As he starts to notice the strangeness of his existence, those closest to him, including his best friend and wife, do everything they can to convince him that he's delusional.

The events of "The Truman Show" capture the essence of gaslighting's unique place in the broader category of manipulation, as well as why it's so dangerous. It's all about making someone doubt their own perceptions and judgments.

It's only gaslighting if you begin to question your reality

It can be easy to confuse manipulation with gaslighting, as gaslighting is a form of manipulation, according to Dr. Stephanie Sarkis. "There is a fine line. Influence or manipulation is used in various fields, particularly marketing and advertising, to get us to buy things," she explained to Psychology Today. "It's just how we learn to work the system."

However, gaslighting goes beyond using deceit or guile to get someone to give us what we want. It's an insidious form of abuse that can destroy a person's sense of self. "I think of gaslighting as trying to associate someone with the label 'crazy,'" Paige Sweet, Ph.D., told Forbes. The gaslighter may draw on an arsenal of manipulation tactics to achieve this outcome, such as denying that multiple events ever took place, purposefully engaging in contradictory behaviors, or downplaying the legitimacy of their target's feelings (via Simply Psychology).

"It's making someone seem or feel unstable, irrational, and not credible, making them feel like what they're seeing or experiencing isn't real, that they're making it up, that no one else will believe them," Sweet continued. This goal serves the abuser's ultimate aim: complete power and control over not just a person's actions, but their mind.

Gaslighting typically involves a power imbalance

Gaslighting can occur in any social situation, on both small and large scales. However, unlike broader manipulation, which can be used by anyone to get what they want, gaslighting is typically employed by someone who holds power over another person. This might come in the form of a boss who exploits their influence over an employee's job security or a doctor who refuses to take a patient's concerns seriously because they are a woman. As Robin Stern, Ph.D., explained to NBC News, these power imbalances leave "the target of the gaslighting ... terrified to change up [the relationship] or step out of the gaslighting dynamic because the threat of losing that relationship — or the threat of being seen as less than who you want to be seen as to them — is quite a threat."

To maintain the upper hand and preserve the power dynamic, the gaslighter will often isolate their target from their support system. This forces the victim to rely on them more and more, making it easier to infiltrate their psyche and normalize the abusive behavior. "The most distinctive feature of gaslighting is that it's not enough for the gaslighter simply to control his victim or have things go his way: It's essential to him that the victim herself actually come to agree with him," associate professor of philosophy Andrew D. Spear wrote in a 2019 paper published by Inquiry (via Forbes). This can be especially difficult to contend with if the manipulator is a loved one, such as a partner or parent.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.