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3 Levels of Gaslighting and How to Deal with Them

Hadley’s Intro: Discover how to disengage from a gaslighter in

a guest post courtesy of Washington Post

written by Robin Stern and Mark Brackett

Many of us differ on what counts as gaslighting
— the form of emotional abuse and manipulation
in which one person attempts to bend the reality
of another. In gaslighting, the target is left
feeling confused or even insane, as exquisitely
dramatized in the 1944 movie “Gaslight.”

Gaslighting was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the
Year in 2022, with a 1,740 percent increase in the
number of times it was searched. The term’s
increased popularity has raised awareness of its
effect on our relationships and has prompted
confusion over what constitutes gaslighting.

Many disagreements come down to severity: Either
someone’s behavior appears too abusive or not
abusive enough to be gaslighting. As
psychologists, we have heard versions of these
different understandings of gaslighting from our

“She’s looking out for me. It’s not gaslighting.”

“This relationship is beyond gaslighting; it’s
straight-up abuse.”

Working with James Floman, our colleague at the
Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we
identified five factors that contribute to the
severity of a gaslighting experience: frequency,
intensity, extensiveness, intentionality (not all
gaslighting is conscious) and the victim’s
ability to handle adversity.

These factors also inform the severity of the
gaslighting, as well as its effect on the target.
These effects can start as disbelief and progress
to defense and depression. Here’s how to cope
with three levels of gaslighting.

Emerging gaslighting

How to identify it: Gaslighting often starts slow
and is nearly imperceptible. The gaslighter will
make occasional critical statements.

The spouse ofone of our patients told him,
“I figured you would lose the keys again. That’s you
lately — always losing things. You should really get
it together.”

The boss of another patient told her, “Sorry you
can’t take a joke. You have no sense of humor.”

Often, the victim will perceive these
statements as ridiculous or a minor annoyance and
mostly ignore them. But the seed is planted if a
gaslighter persists and triggers self-doubt.

How to deal with it:
Write down a list of thingsyou know to be true.
Get support from trusted friends and family —
sharing how it feels to be around the gaslighter
can provide grounding perspective.
Tell the gaslighter you don’t like the way they speak
to you or the way they are twisting things.

Moderate gaslighting

How to identify it: The gaslighter’s language is
more accusatory, frequent and intense.

The gaslighter will bring in what they say is evidence
to confirm what they are insisting. For instance,
a gaslighter told one of our patients, “You’re
always missing deadlines and blaming it on someone
else. Hard to admit you’re unreliable, isn’t it?”

The target will feel the need to defend themselves
and get the gaslighter’s approval. They will
ruminate about their interactions and wonder,
“What is happening? Are they right? Maybe I am
doing something wrong.”

How to deal with it:
Opt out of the power struggle or the endless
back-and-forth with a gaslighter.
Do not attempt to negotiate; remember that a
gaslighter’s permission to walk away is not
Use phrases such as “We’ll have to disagree,”
“I hear you, and I don’t agree,” or
“I know you feel strongly abou this, but I am
not going to continue this conversation” to help
you disengage. If it continues, consider ways to
limit or get support to end the relationship.

Severe gaslighting

How to identify it:
Now, a gaslighter’s attacks feel inescapable
as the verbal assaults continue.

One of our patients was told by a colleague,
“You never bother to remember anything. You
can’t seem to hold a thought in your head. You
really don’t care about your job or our company,
do you?”

Another was told by her husband, “You don’t
know where I was last night? Come on. You’re a
paranoid wreck — just like your mother.”

Targets of gaslighting feel like they are no
longer the same person as when they entered the
relationship. Any sense of personal agency is
gone, and the gaslighter’s needs are prioritized
over their own. They have lost themselves.

How to deal with it:
Remember life does not have to be like this.
If the gaslighter cannot be avoided (for example,
a colleague or partner),
then limit contact and set clear boundaries.

It can be psychologically excruciating to stay with
a gaslighter yet simultaneously painful to think
about leaving. While not a cure, adopting a
mindfulness practice to cultivate self-compassion
can help you navigate severe gaslighting.

Resist the urge to isolate, and pursue
opportunities to connect and share feelings with a
support system. The perspective of trusted
individuals can offer a necessary wake-up call to
name what is happening.

No one deserves the soul-destroying effects of
extreme gaslighting.

Gaslighting is abuse. Do not wait for a moment
that finally feels good enough (or bad enough) to
leave. Call on friends and family for support and
healthy connection.

Recognizing the red flags of gaslighting

If you think gaslighting may be present in your
relationship, check for the following red flags:

I often feel confused and crazy in this relationship.

I have trouble walking away from a conversation
when this person accuses me of something I
didn’t do or being someone I’m not.

I avoid talking about this person with others.

I feel anxious and “not enough” with this person.

I am not the same person I was when I entered the

We are all deserving of respectful, compassionate
and loving relationships. You are no exception.

Robin Stern is the co-founder and senior adviser
to the director of the Yale Center for Emotional
Intelligence, a psychoanalyst in private practice,
the author of “The Gaslight Effect Recovery
Guide” and the host of “The Gaslight Effect”

Marc Brackett is the founding director of the Yale
Center for Emotional Intelligence, a professor in
the Child Study Center at Yale, lead developer of
RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and
emotional learning, and the author of
“Permission to Feel.”


Will you use these tips to set healthy boundaries in relationships?

Hadley Finch

Claim a gift audiobook with dozens of my favorite radio interviews

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