Dear Therapist: What’s Gaslighting?

Danielle B. Grossman, Columnist

Dear Therapist: My partner says I gaslight them but I don’t understand what they mean. 

Dear Confused About Gaslighting: That’s a great question. It can be confusing, in part because the meaning has shifted over time. Originally it meant a deliberate campaign to gain control over someone by messing with them and then denying it in order to make them feel insane. It’s now come to also describe a range of behaviors that minimize or invalidate someone’s feelings or experiences. 

Gaslighting can be anything from saying ‘you’re being too sensitive’ when someone tells you that they were upset by something you did, to telling them ‘I think this is really about your anxiety’ when they say that they are worried about your drinking, to making critical comments about your partner’s appearance and then saying ‘why are you so insecure about how you look?’  

Gaslighting can be purposeful and malicious or it can be a habit that works to avoid or deflect from having to deal with someone else’s feelings or needs.  

Gaslighting can happen in any relationship, like between parent and child, in an intimate relationship or in a work relationship. It can happen on a wider cultural or political level when people are made to feel wrong or crazy for their normal reactions to oppression or marginalization. It can happen in medical settings when people are told their symptoms are just ‘in their heads’ or not worth investigating. We can even gaslight ourselves when we doubt, judge or minimize the reality of our own feelings and experiences.  

It is important to understand gaslighting and take it very seriously. It is a basic human right to have authority over our own feelings and experiences. I get to learn for myself and say for myself what feels good or doesn’t feel good, what I feel or need emotionally and what my body likes or doesn’t like. Rejecting or trampling on this authority is suffocating and annihilating. It erases personhood.  

It’s also important to understand what gaslighting isn’t. I have heard gaslighting used inaccurately to describe behaviors that have nothing to do with denying a person’s authority over their own experiences. Having a different opinion, not agreeing with someone’s version of events, clarifying your intentions or explaining what you meant with your words is not gaslighting. That said, if there is a lack of good communication, these behaviors can spiral into terrible loops of both people feeling stonewalled and unheard, which can feel like gaslighting. 

If, for example, your partner says ‘you are ignoring me’ and you say ‘no I’m not’, that’s not gaslighting. If they say ‘you said my idea was worthless’ and you say, ‘you misunderstood me’, that’s not gaslighting. In these cases, unless you are lying in order to deny the other person’s reality, you are actually exercising your own right to say what’s true for you. But, it can feel to your partner like you’re denying their feelings.  

If, on the other hand, communication happens  in a non-blaming way like ‘when you come home and don’t say hello, I feel ignored’, then we have the opportunity for both people to be heard. You can say ‘I’m so sorry I made you feel ignored’ and then explain why you didn’t say hello. Frequently in couples, there are good intentions or good reasons for how we act but harmful impacts. In that case, both intention and impact need to be heard and believed.  

So, Confused About Gaslighting, with this understanding, do you think you might be gaslighting your partner? Do you think it’s more of a communication issue? Do you gaslight yourself? Do you think you’re being gaslit by anyone? 

If you have work to do in this area, you’re not alone. I think we can probably all do better around identifying the role of gaslighting in our lives and affirming our own human right of self authority and the rights of others.  

Danielle B. Grossman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, has worked with clients in the Truckee/Tahoe community for 20 years. She helps individuals and couples with their relationships, anxiety, grief, struggles with food and addiction. Reach out at or learn more at

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