Gaslighting and its Impact on Mental Health

‘Gaslighting’ has become a popular term in recent years, but what exactly does it mean? Paige Sweet, PhD, assistant professor in the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, joins Michigan Minds to talk about ‘gaslighting,’ how it relates to and impacts mental health, and resources that are available to community members seeking support for their well-being.

Sweet’s research focuses on domestic violence and how systems that are set up to assist victims achieve autonomy can often end up reinforcing some of the problems. She also studies gaslighting and has projects focused on experiences of psychological abuse in intimate relationships and in the workplace. 

Sweet says there are pros and cons to gaslighting becoming a commonly used term — it provides more people a way to describe what they are experiencing but it also can mean it gets used in situations where it isn’t what is actually happening. 

“I think of gaslighting as when someone makes you seem or feel ‘crazy.’ I often talk about it as a form of psychological abuse. Usually, if we’re talking casually with people, domestic violence victims, for example, they might refer to an experience they have with an abuser as ‘crazy-making.’ So I often just describe it to people as the sort of crazy-making form of abuse — that experience of someone messing with your reality,” she explains.

The term comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight” which follows a woman whose husband leads her to believe she is crazy. He brightens and dims the gaslights, and when she mentions it he tells her that she was imagining it. 

“It’s that experience of someone messing with your reality when you know something is happening that’s wrong or bad, but someone convincing you that that’s not the case,” Sweet says. “We know that gaslighting is really common in domestic violence relationships and abusive relationships. In my research, I come across a lot of victims who’ve experienced their abusers making them look unstable in front of police or in court.”

People who experience gaslighting are also often experiencing isolation, which can have detrimental effects on their well-being, sense of self, and their ability to connect with others. 

“As one of my interviewees put it: gaslighting breathes on isolation.”

Paige Sweet, PhD

When gaslighting continues for an extended period of time, it can be traumatizing. Psychological abuse is damaging and can have devastating effects, Sweet explains, so it is imperative to take it seriously.

“One of the most important findings of research on psychological abuse in general, or gaslighting specifically, is that the effects of these types of manipulations are worse for people who lack strong social networks or who lack material resources like money, transportation, things like that, which serve as protections. That’s what I want to focus on in something like Mental Health Awareness Month,” Sweet says, emphasizing that before society can talk about mental health and well-being, the structures need to be in place to support it. 

“That’s what I want to cast some light on: when we’re talking about crises of mental health, crises of psychological abuse, we’re often talking about crises of inequality. I think that that’s a really important piece that I as a sociologist want to emphasize.

“We all deserve self-determination. We all deserve autonomy. We all deserve to be able to realize our own wishes for our well-being. We all deserve to live lives free from manipulation, free from violence, but those things require certain social conditions to be able to achieve that. We’re not all set up equally to be able to live lives free from violence and manipulation.”

Paige Sweet, PhD

Advocating for others and helping to build support structures for others is a necessary approach to move toward equity and helping people feel safe. 

“Gaslighting and psychological abuse don’t take place in a vacuum. They’re part of a broader social context. It’s important that we really pay attention to power differentials in those larger social contexts in order to really address something like gaslighting.”

Paige Sweet, PhD, on Michigan Minds

Resources mentioned in the podcast for anyone experiencing domestic violence: