Gaslighting vs Greenlighting: It’s all about control

Gaslighting is a major buzzword right now. In fact, Merriam-Webster chose it as the word of 2022. But what does it mean?

Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” According to the Merriam-Webster website, there was a 1740% increase in lookups of the word in 2022.

The term “gaslighting” was coined by playwrite Patrick Hamilton in 1938. His play, Gas Light, was later turned into a movie starring Ingrid Bergman. Now, 84 years later, the term serves as an apt descriptor of manipulation, from our most intimate romances to cultural propaganda.

Within the Redefining Love framework, I define gaslighting as a form of manipulation in which the target is made to question their own observations, perceptions, and intuition by being fed constant contradictions to obvious reality.

Gaslighting is a dangerously toxic behavior.

Gaslighting causes us to question our lived reality and our own judgement, with the goal of manipulating circumstances to the benefit of the perpetrator.

We’ve all experienced some measure of gaslighting in our lives. Unfortunately, those who are the most vulnerable to its power are those who have experienced it chronically for an extended period of time. Someone who has experienced gaslighting from a very young age may not even be familiar with what it feels like to trust their own observations.

It can be perpetrated by individuals, families, or institutions.

Any time someone tries to tell you how to feel, or questions your lived experience, they are gaslighting you. Gaslighting can be a direct contradiction of the facts, or it can be more subtle.

A parent who resents a child’s time spent with an ex-spouse may undermine the child’s memories by duplicating activities the child has shared with their ex, then reframing the memory for the child.

For example, they may tell the child, “This is the first time you’ve ever ridden a horse!” The child knows this isn’t true, but is confused because the adult is the authority. A child who has lived with gaslighting their entire lives will grow up with a sense that their own observations cannot be trusted.

A more subtle form of gaslighting occurs when, for example, someone tells you, “You aren’t scared!” or “I did not make you feel that way!” How can someone else possibly know how you feel? Only you know how something made you feel.

Gaslighting can be woven into the fabric of an entire family culture. Families who actively work towards hiding addiction, abuse, or mental illness are often so practiced at gaslighting that it becomes second nature – they don’t even need to think about it. It’s “just the way things are.”

Examples of institutional gaslighting can be found everywhere, from politics to the arts to advertising. Popular media has been committing gaslighting against us since its inception. Every time we are told that something is healthy when it’s actually not, or a stereotype is reinforced by a sitcom, we are being gaslit into believing that is the reality, even when intuitively we have our doubts.

For those who are products of dysfunctional families of origin, the messages received from the culture about what family is supposed to be are in stark contrast with what they observe inside the walls of their own house.

Perhaps the most insidious institutional gaslighting is perpetrated by religion. In it’s most extreme form, cults use gaslighting to alienate people from their families and other healthy support systems by convincing followers that a higher power demands total obedience and subservience to the institution. But it isn’t only cults who use gaslighting to gain control. Fear-based methods of conversion and contrition are used by nearly every faith tradition.

I do believe it is possible to have a healthy relationship with religion. (I am an active churchgoer myself.) But I would be remiss not to mention the vulnerability we face when seeking relationship with a higher power through human institutions.

The main ingredients of gaslighting.

Gaslighting typically relies on one of two trauma trigger points – fear and sanity. If someone can make us scared or question our own judgement and intuition, then they’ve got us right where they want us.

The third component of gaslighting is conformity. The goal of a gaslighter is to get you on their side. Their desire for agreement is greater than their commitment to the truth.

Why do they do it?

It’s effective. Whether someone wants you to join them in a relationship, they want you to vote for them in an election, they want you to buy their product, or they want you to attend their church, the sad fact is that – at least in the short term – gaslighting works.

It’s validating. From a character standpoint, gaslighting is born from insecurity. People who feel confident in themselves don’t need to use manipulation tactics to gain power. They recognize that they don’t need other’s validation and agreement in order to have value has a person.


It’s lazy. Gaslighting allows the perpetrator to continue with whatever behavior is easiest or beneficial to them, without doing the hard work of introspection. Being a person of integrity is often challenging. From a gaslighter’s perspective, why put in the extra work to do the right thing when it’s so much easier to scare people or convince them they are crazy?


They are afraid of being alone. Gaslighters are so insecure in who they really are that they believe no one would have anything to do with them if they knew the truth about who they are. And the longer the gaslighting goes on, the deeper their shame cycle spins.

Fear and self-doubt are at the bottom of all gaslighting.

Those who live with confidence, certainty, and a sense of groundedness don’t feel compelled to manipulate others to take their side. On the contrary, gaslighters doubt that they are enough to be loved without some sort of emotional exploitationGaslighters worry that:


“If they knew the truth about me they’d leave me.” 


“If they knew how great they are they’d leave me.”


“This product would never sell if we told the truth.”


“No one would ever vote for me if they knew the real me.”


“Nobody would follow god if they weren’t afraid of eternal condemnation.” (And, due to their own insecurity, they only feel secure in their own faith if others worship in the same way they do.)

Gaslighting is all about gaining control over someone else.

In a culture that prizes power over love, it’s easy to get lost beneath all the hype. But remember this…


The end goal of gaslighting is always the same. Gaslighters seek control over others at the expense of all else, including their character. They feel powerless in their own lives, and invaluable to others, so they seek validation through agreement and control.

Make room for grace.

The realities of gaslighters brings me to a place of empathy and grace. How terribly tragic that someone feels that the only way to maintain relationships is through manipulation and fear! How sad that they fear abandonment by those they love if they were to be real and authentic!


How heartbreaking that they believe sacrificing their own integrity is their only option, or they would be alone. Loving a gaslighter can be hard, but knowing you can love them from a safe distance, without hate or judgement, makes it easier.

Greenlighting is the opposite of gaslighting.

I use the term greenlighting in Redefining Love to describe the authentic acceptance of what is that comes from the confidence and sense of security you feel when you love and accept yourself and others exactly as they are. A green light means “Go!” As in…


“Go ahead and be yourself, and I’ll go ahead and be myself.


“Go ahead and make that choice. It’s okay if we disagree.”


“Go ahead and be different than me. We don’t have to be the same.”


“Go ahead and do life your way. My way is different, but that doesn’t make either of us bad.”


“Go ahead and make mistakes. I make mistakes, too, and it’s okay.”


“Go ahead and vote your conscious, and I will vote mine.”


“Go ahead and do your thing, and I’ll do mine, and if our journeys are not the same, then I can love you from a distance.”

How do I know the difference between gaslighting and greenlighting?

The answer can be found in two simple words: Stay curious.


Since gaslighting is all about control, and greenlighting is all about letting people be who they are, start asking questions. The more threatened the power structure becomes with your questions, the more likely it is that you are in a gaslighting situation. When you’re starting to feel afraid or to question your sanity in a relationship, ask yourself:


How important is conformity to belonging in the relationships or institution? Does everyone have to be the same?


Is what they are saying true? If I’m not sure, how can I find out?


Do they get angry when I ask questions?


Are your questions deflected or avoided, or are they answered candidly?


Are you treated like a child?


Are you told, “This is just the way it is?”


Do they live from a place of fear? Are they afraid of being hurt, being different, being embarrassed, being condemned?


How do you feel when you’re with this person? (or using this product, or attending this place of worship, etc.)


Is this person someone you admire and enjoy spending time with?


Do you like the person you are when you’re with this person (or group)?

Be intentional!

Your answers to these questions could serve as a red flag that this might not be a healthy situation. Seek out support from outside individuals and institutions. Keep asking questions! If you’re unsure about it, chances are others are, too.

Sometimes, all it takes is one person to say, “Wait a minute. Something’s not right here!” Suddenly, others who are uncomfortable step forward and demand change, too.

And remember, it’s always okay to choose to love people from a safe distance. If you’ve tried to have an authentic, healing conversation with someone, and they continue to use gaslighting tactics such as fear and questioning your lived experience, it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate the relationship.

Learn more…

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