Last Updated on July 4, 2022 by Alexander Burgemeester
“I never said that! What are you talking about?”
“You’re imagining things!”
“You keep forgetting things. I’m worried about you.”
These are examples of gaslighting. It’s a manipulation technique in which the gaslighter tries to make the victim question their own senses, perceptions, and memory.
Gaslighting is not unknown to the Narcissists and they use it to keep you under their spell.
What is Gaslighting in Narcissism? How does the Narcissist use gaslighting to control and manipulate you?
What is Gaslighting?
The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play called “Gaslight,” most famous for a 1944 movie remake for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar.
In it, Gregory (the gaslighter) is looking for jewels in the attic. But when he turns the gas lights on up there, it causes the other lights in the house to dim.
His wife Paula (the victim) questions him on this, and to cover his tracks, he simply tells her that the lights aren’t dim. They were never dim. She must be imagining it.
To hide his actions, he needs to really make her believe she’s losing her senses. So he starts playing tricks, such as hiding or moving objects, and claiming Paula had taken them.
He even convinces Paula that her mother suffered from psychotic symptoms and was committed to an asylum.
Eventually, Paula buys into the gaslighting and starts to truly believe she’s losing her mind. Then, Gregory has full control over her and can continue his criminal activities.
Gaslighting makes victims feel like the ground is moving beneath their feet, like they have no anchor in the real world to know what’s true or not.
It puts the victim of Gaslighting under the spell of the gaslighter, and leaves them at their mercy.
Given that people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have a tendency to lie, and a strong need to be in control over other people, it’s perhaps unsurprising that gaslighting is a favored tactic of narcissists.
In this article we’ll talk about what gaslighting is in Narcissism, why narcissists use it, and how you can fight back against it.
2 Examples of Gaslighting
We’re not talking about simple lies here.
Let’s say your narcissist husband is having an affair, and the other woman has black hair. You’re blonde, and one day you find a long black hair on the couch. None of your friends have black hair, so you ask your husband about it.
“Oh that? That’s probably Jeff’s. You know, Jeff. The rocker. He came over the other day when you were working late.”
This isn’t gaslighting. It’s just a plain, old-fashioned, garden-variety lie. Now take this example.
“Oh that? That’ll be Jeff’s. You know, the rocker. I told you he came round the other day. Don’t you remember? We had a whole conversation about it! Are you OK? I’ve noticed you’ve been forgetting things a lot lately. Are you stressed from work or something?”
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is gaslighting in Narcissism. Notice how subtle it is? Who hasn’t forgotten a conversation at some point? It could have easily happened this way.
But the narcissist is making your supposed forgetfulness “a thing.” If you accept this, he’s started to drive a wedge into your sense of self-trust.
Now he can use the same tactic again in the future, using this incident as evidence that he’s right.
But not all gaslighting is so subtle. Here’s another, more extreme example of how the conversation could go. So again, you find the hair…
“Oh that?” He takes the hair from you. “What are you talking about? That’s nothing, forget about it.”
You let it go, but it preys on your mind, so you bring up the hair again a few days later.
“That hair from a few days ago? What do you mean “long”? It was three, three inches, tops! Seriously, I remember you holding up this short hair saying it was long. I thought you were joking! You really thought that hair was long? Are you feeling OK? I have noticed you being very forgetful lately…”
This is more extreme gaslighting. You saw something with your own two eyes, plain as day. But the narcissist denies that reality completely.
Gaslighting and lying
You might think that wouldn’t work, that you wouldn’t question something you actually saw.
But it can happen. Especially when the gaslighter is a powerful, controlling figure in your life (which narcissists often are), and they have already been lying to and manipulating you in other ways (which narcissists often do).
Yet, gaslighting in Narcissism can become even more malicious than this. These examples are reactive – the gaslighter is using this technique to get himself out of a jam.
But it can also be proactive – to make you doubt your reality even when they don’t have a difficult situation to get themselves out of. The logic here is simple – get control over you now, in case that control might be needed in the future.
The movie Gaslight has several classic examples of this. In one scene, Gregory moves a painting from the wall, and confronts Paula to ask why she moved it.
She says, correctly, that she didn’t. But Gregory is able to convince her that she did, much to her distress and confusion.
As a general rule, gaslighting is:
- When someone tries to convince you something happened, but it didn’t (“You keep leaving the door unlocked!”)
- When someone tries to convince you something didn’t happen, but it did (“I never called you a ‘worthless idiot’! Why do you always lie like this?”)
Is Gaslighting a form of Narcissism?
Gaslighting is not unique to narcissists. It isn’t a feature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, in the same way that things like narcissistic injuries, or narcissistic rage are.
However, since it is an effective (albeit insidious) method of manipulation, it is often seen in people who possess the so-called “dark triad” of personality traits – psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism.
For this reason, gaslighting is a common tactic in cults – it’s used to break down the victim of gaslighting their’ sense of reality so that the cult leader can get more control over the group.
Of course, with some exceptions, cult leaders are typically characterized by one or more of the dark triad traits.
Reading Suggestion: 11 Typical Examples of Narcissist text Messages
So, if gaslighting is used consistently and deliberately, this would be a big red flag that an individual possesses one of these traits. This is especially true if the goal of the gaslighting is to gain control over other people.
However, that doesn’t mean only people with such traits would use gaslighting. People without these conditions might employ gaslighting too for various different reasons.
Perhaps they have something to hide (maybe they’ve been caught in a lie and see no other way out), they are trying to change something about you. It is still a form of emotional abuse, however, no matter who uses it or why.
What is Narcissistic Gaslighting?
So while gaslighting isn’t a form of narcissism, there is something unique about narcissism and gaslighting.
Due to the nature of NPD, narcissists often find themselves in positions where gaslighting is beneficial to them – and they often have no concerns about using it.
Narcissism and Gaslighting
Let’s just run through the basic characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, then we can see how gaslighting fits into this:
- Narcissists think they’re “all that.” They have an inflated sense of their own importance and have little time or interest in things that don’t benefit them in some way.
- Underneath it all, however, narcissists are actually fragile. They hold deep-seated concerns that they are actually worthless, and the grandiose exterior is a way of covering this up.
- Because of this low sense of self-esteem, narcissists have to put a lot of effort into getting attention and praise from others. They can’t “create” their own self-esteem – they have to get it from others (narcissistic supply).
- If they don’t get enough praise and attention, the insecure self underneath might become more obvious. To a narcissist, this is extremely painful (a narcissistic injury) and must not happen. They must be superior to others. They must avoid coming face-to-face with that true self underneath.
- Since many narcissists also lack empathy, they have fewer constraints on the types of things they can do to get this feeling of superiority, this narcissistic supply. This includes lying and abusive behaviour.
Given this psychological framework, we can start to understand why gaslighting is so common among narcissists. Here are a few possibilities:
Gaslighting to cover up lies
What will a narcissist do if you catch them in a lie? It’s not likely they’ll admit it and apologise (perfect people don’t make mistakes). So what’s the move here?
Well, they have a many options. They could cover up the lie with another lie. They could deflect the issue by becoming angry and abusive.
Or, they could simply deny they ever lied in the first place. If they are able to convince you of this and do it consistently, they are even freer to lie, because they have an easy way to get away with it. This gives them a much more reliable source of narcissistic supply.
Gaslighting to gain control
Thinking about the above framework, you can imagine how important control is to a narcissist.
You can’t just have the people in your life running around freely, doing and saying whatever they want.
If you let them do that, they might not give you enough supply. Or worse, they might say something that would trigger a narcissistic injury.
Gaslighting is one of many techniques a narcissist can use to gain control.
If you rely on a narcissist for something so fundamental as knowing what’s true and what isn’t, they can do whatever they want.
If they want to make themselves feel better by putting you down, they can. If you challenge it later, they can just deny they ever said it.
On top of that, the fact that they are in control is a source of supply in itself, because they are in the powerful, dominant position in the relationship, and you are not.
Gaslighting to cover up Emotional abuse
Narcissists are often abusive. In rare cases, the abuse is an end in itself.
This mainly occurs in people who have “malignant narcissism”, which is something of a cross between narcissism and psychopathy.
Such people derive pleasure from the suffering of others, and so gaslighting, to them, maybe just a fun game to play.
As I say, however, this is rare. Most often, narcissists are abusive as a result of a narcissistic injury, which triggers an angry outburst commonly known as narcissistic rage.
In these cases, narcissists may use gaslighting to cover up the (emotional) abuse, to make you think it didn’t happen, or that you’re exaggerating the extent or circumstance of the abuse.
Indeed, one study from 2003 found a strong correlation between gaslighting and a range of other forms of abuse.
Gaslighting rarely happens by itself, and for many people, the denial of the abuse can be as bad or worse than the actual abuse itself.
How do you tell if someone’s Gaslighting you?
Gaslighting can happen in any relationship – it could happen through a romantic partner, a friend, a work colleague or boss, a family member, or any situation where you deal with an individual regularly.
Due to the nature of gaslighting, you might not even realise that something is being done to you.
It can be worse than that, because you might actually see your abuser as the one who can help you.
If you really believe that you’re losing your senses, but someone you trust is at hand to help you figure out what’s true and what isn’t, it would be natural to see them as your guiding light in a difficult time.
What you may not realize, however, is that they are the ones causing your confusion in the first place.
Here are a few warning signs to look out for, which might mean someone’s gaslighting you:
- They tell you something is true, but that goes against something you’ve directly seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. For example, they deny they said something that you remember them saying.
- They tell you something happened that you have no memory or evidence of. For example, they claim you said something that you don’t remember saying.
- If you question their version of the truth, they react negatively
- They continually bring up the topic and try to bully you until you accept that they are right
- Their version of events somehow always has them in an innocent or positive position, with you as the person to blame
- They mix praise and abuse – when you accept that they are right, they shower you with affection and kind words (this is to reinforce that behavior). When you don’t, they turn nasty.
- They accuse you of doing things that they have in fact done (or you suspect them of doing). For example, if you catch a romantic partner cheating, they claim you are the one cheating.
- They turn people against you. They use triangulation, bringing a third person into your relationship (literally or figuratively) “Your sister knows I would never say something like that to you. She would never accuse me of that.”
As well as looking at the potential gaslighter’s behaviour, also look at yourself too. If you’re being gaslighted, you might…
- feel different, like you’re not the same person you used to be
- find yourself questioning your memory
- feel like you’re always doing things wrong, always to blame for something
- make excuses for behavior that is objectively abusive (whether that’s emotional abuse, physical, or sexual abuse).
- become isolated from the people you trust, such as close friends and family members. The gaslighter may have played a role in, or encouraged your withdrawal
- constantly second-guess yourself and find it hard to make decisions
- suffer from emotional disturbances, such as feelings of hopelessness, depression, and anxiety
How To Respond to the Gaslighting of the Narcissist?
So now that you know what gaslighting is, and how to tell if someone’s gaslighting you, the next question is, how do you handle a gaslighter?
Ariel Leve, an author and columnist for the UK Guardian, has some powerful suggestions on how to deal with gaslighting, which she outlines in her TED Talk.
These are based on Leve’s experiences with her mother, who she says was emotionally abusive, and would frequently engage in gaslighting – often to deny that the previous abuse had taken place at all.
Here’s what Leve recommends:
Gaslighters will often use bullying and intimidation to try to push their version of reality onto you, through the sheer force of their personality.
Think back to a time you’ve been gaslighted. You’ll remember there was a time when you knew the truth.
Then there was a time afterward when you were unsure about it. However, there was a third time – a transition between these two states.
It started with a single moment, a microsecond of doubt where you started to entertain their version of the truth.
For most normal, reasonable people, this is a healthy reaction when someone disagrees with us.
To get along with others, we use our empathy, we look at things from their point of view. Only then can we decide if we really agree or not.
But with gaslighting, there is no need to see their point of view. This is not a debate.
There will be no presentation of evidence and no arguments for or against it. Remain defiant – what you know to be true, is true.
Don’t look for accountability
It is extremely unlikely that narcissists will admit their actions, or have a moment of revelation when you confront them about it. You’re not going to hear
“You’re right.” or “I’m sorry”.
When Leve used the term “Child abuse” with her mother for the first time, the response was typical “What about Mommy abuse? Nobody ever talks about that!”
Confrontation may simply lead to further abuse, and give them more ammunition to use against you. The time and energy you spend looking for accountability will be better spent elsewhere.
Let go of the need for things to be different
If you want things to be different in the relationship with the narcissist, you are playing into a manipulator’s hands.
Making the type of change that you want, requires them to see that they are abusing you, accept it, and then change.
This is most likely a false hope when dealing with narcissists, as it would mean facing a huge narcissistic injury. Hoping for things to be different will only keep you in the relationship for longer than you need to be.
If you’re being gaslighted, you’re being abused – this isn’t a situation you should try to change, it’s a situation you should try to get away from. Disengage, put yourself first.
Develop healthy coping methods
In her talk, Leve discusses an unhealthy coping strategy she developed to deal with her mother’s abuse – detachment.
The constant push-and-pull, “I love you” one minute, “I hate you” the next, caused her to detach, to become “numb” in a sense.
This might have helped her deal with the pain in the moment, but it caused issues down the line – she had trouble trusting or connecting with people in her adult life, for instance.
Be wary of coping measures that helps you feel better in the moment, but make things worse later in life: use of alcohol or drugs, self-harm, smoking, denial, overeating, and social isolation.
Instead focus on healthy coping methods: meditation, breathing techniques, exercise, social interaction (with trusted people), therapy.
Keep a journal
Leve also says that writing things down had been very helpful to her. She called it “testimony”.
You can think of your journal as a witness in a court case, someone who saw what happened and can remind you.
It can make it easier to tell the gaslighter’s false reality from the real one.
It can also be really helpful to talk about your feelings and emotions in your journal.
This is called expressive writing, and it’s a common technique used in therapy for people who have been through traumatic events.
So your journal serves a dual purpose – it helps you keep track of reality, and it is also a healthy coping method.
Have you had any experience with gaslighting at the hands of narcissists? Are you a victim of gaslighting? If so, let me know in the comments below!
5 thoughts on “What is Gaslighting in Narcissism? Narcissistic Gaslighting Explained”
My brother is a gaslighting narcissist. His wife finally got up the courage to leave and left with very little belongings. My brother would not allow her to take their 2 kids, 1 is 13 and 1 is 18. Because he says that she is involved in a prostitution ring, has had sex with underage boys, and even has had sex with the local police and fire department. She has filed for divorce, thank god! But he is driving by her apartment in the middle of every night to see what cars are there which of course he always sees around his house. He is at war with every neighbor around him because she has been having sex with all of them. There is no talking about issues. It is his way or no way. His opinion is the only one that matters because he is always right. He has been trying to convince, me, his sister, of some of the outlandish things that she has been doing. He is always talking about all these things in front of the kids and i can see that he has not been cleaning his house, his yard, etc. He spends all his time in the shop because he hears people (neighbors) talking about him while she (his wife) is there with them. I have tried to talk to him and he gets out of control. He has not been faithful to her, yet, when they separated before she forgave him and came back, but that was short lived. He then went on a tangent that she was cheating on him the whole time yet he doesn’t have any concrete evidence. He found a neighbors phone number in her phone and he went bullistic. In fact she wasn’t allowed to talk to any of her neighbors. My brother would be happy living in a cave by himself and expects her to be the same way. They were together for 18 years and I am sure most of it was hell for her. He is getting ready to go to court for his divorce and she is isn’t really asking for anything but what is fair and he doesn’t want her to have one cent. I told him if he goes into court with all these allegations without proof they are likely to commit him. Then he said that she knows the judge because she actually is friends with a court clerk. So she now is involved with judge! I asked him if she took a polygraph test would that make him feel better and he said not really but he would be interested in the results…..My brother is the only family I have left but he is destroying her and the kids and doesn’t care. Is there anything I can do?
Please follow your sister in law’s foot steps. I’m sure this situation breaks your heart, but he has probably done the same thing to you too. He needs professional help or an exorcism that you cannot provide. So, pray for him. Don’t loose yourself in his problem. Live your life and be happy. He will always be your brother. Share with him occasionally, just don’t allow him to abuse you. Save yourself because you can’t save him. If he accepts he has a problem and wants to get help then there is hope with a psychiatrist, God, your love and prayers can help him overcome. Otherwise he’s just a hot mess living his life in a mental hell. Just don’t let yourself get pulled into his mess. I’m happy his wife is closing that chapter of her life, but my worry is for the kids. Please help that the children go with their mother. The children deserve to be free too. I will pray for you and your family. Blessings, Tam
I’m involved with a narcissistic husband. I have two young kids. Going to therapy. But his rage is getting out of control. I never want to be home. The pandemic has not been great nor being home on maternity leave. I don’t know how to tell him he’s hurting his family with the built up anger and cursing. Degrading me in front of people and his mother. He needs to go to therapy and we both can communicate better.
I have two sons one 38 and the other 37 both seem to be well absorbed and unable to say sorry for anything. The eldest cannot be questioned about purchases he has made regardless of the questions intent. They both make fun of most things I have accomplished in life. I recall one day when the eldest was young his brothers kite went into a tree and was gone forever the eldest was laughing hopelessly, I thought how mean is that approaching this as you should be reacting as though I am sorry that happened his response was look at it no more kite! and then the wife chimes in Wich she has done a lot. My thinking on her is that the husband is always attacking my sons and cannot be doing this, and she would do anything to divert me from parenting!
My wife of 39 years shows signs of diverting every question I ask and dominates conversation among friends.
Reading all of this is scarring me I have depression the youngest son does not come around because things always have to be his way the eldest is very hard to deal with his constant belittling of me the wife does not see that her sons could be doing this!
I am too old to start over 66 what should I do sign old and lonely
I sympathize with anyone who is the victim of a narcissist. My husband & I just recently realized that our youngest daughter who just turned 34, is a narcissist. She & her husband split up in February after less than 2 years of marriage.
Several months prior to their separation, she was accusing him of cheating, and told us he was verbally abusive.
She also said he was a narcissist.
She sent me long, rambling texts about his cheating & abuse towards her. Then, she placed a tracker on his car, & began recording their conversations as evidence of his ‘abuse’. I listened to the recordings she had made, & there was nothing in them that made me think he was being abusive. Instead what I heard was a man who was frustrated & upset, and who was venting (not in an irrational way). In a couple of the recordings,
it seemed she was manipulating him into believing that he was the one who had asked for a divorce. I had the impression based on these recordings she had made, that they were ‘slanted’ in a favorable manner towards her, while appearing to paint him in a bad light.
This left me feeling uneasy.
She begged her father to come & stay with us while she went through/ finished up her divorce. The idea was she would stay with us for a few short months, & then find an apartment & move out. I agreed with my husband that she could stay with us. However, I remember thinking that
I didn’t understand why there was a need to stay with us in the first place. She had a very well-paying job, & could’ve just as easily moved into an apartment.
That was 5 months ago.
In the interim, she went from behaving in a normal manner
to some very bizarre behavior.
At times she would talk in whispers, & would be upset when
we couldn’t understand what she was saying.
She seemed to believe her soon-to-ex was driving by our house.
We have cameras, and did not find any evidence to support her claim.
Then she began gaslighting me.
I would wake up in the morning to find items of mine had been moved around the house or rearranged. When questioned, she would either deny having moved them, or would say she ‘didn’t remember’
Her sleep patterns started to become erratic – and she became lethargic.
One evening, I felt her staring at me from across the room, as we were watching a program on tv.
When I would look in her direction, she would avert her eyes away from me. Finally, I surreptitiously took several photos of her
to catch her looking at me.
The photos I took when viewed later, were very upsetting. They showed that she wasn’t looking in my direction in a casual manner.
She was glaring at me in a very
angry, hateful way. To me it looked as if she were suppressing a great deal of anger. At that point, I immediately
went from having felt uneasy to feeling unsafe.
I showed the photos to my husband, & he found them shocking.
By this point, she had already done a number of things that made both of us feel that either something had to change immediately or she had to leave.
We were both done with her lies & drama. We confronted her about her behavior. She just lied & denied.
Her attitude was rude & condescending. She said that she had not done anything wrong. She claimed not to remember things she had done, or stated she had not done those things, when in fact
We then told her we no longer wanted her in our home, & we asked her to leave.
She then packed some items and left without saying a word.
The day after she left, paperwork from job arrived in the mail –
she had been fired. That was
in May 2022.
We didn’t hear from her for 3 weeks, despite
having texted her a number of times to check on her.
After 3 weeks, she suddenly showed up on our doorstep like a stray cat, crying & disheveled. She stated she had been living in her car & had run out of money & had nowhere to go.
Frankly, neither one of us wanted her here because of the hell she had put us through. (I left out many of the things she had done for the sake of semi-brevity )
We told her we did not want her living in our home any longer because our trust was completely broken. However, we told her that we would allow her to stay in our garage provided she sought mental health help. She tearfully agreed. So, we purchased a cot for her, & gave her a chair. That was 5 weeks ago. To date, she remains in our garage.
She refused to seek mental health help despite having promised to do so. We feed her twice a day. She is allowed into our home only for the purposes of toileting & bathing-
and only- after she knocks and we open the door to allow her in.
There is very little communication between us. Her father has tried to talk to her a number of times, but has come away frustrated.
It is impossible to advise or help someone who feels they know
She has not acknowledged her behavior, or apologized or expressed any remorse for her actions – and doesn’t seem to understand why we won’t allow her to ‘just’ live in our home again.
Recently, she has been sending me countless nonsensical texts – screenshots & pictures off of the internet that make no sense to me. She will send as many as 200 texts a day – occasionally I will interject a one word reply or a brief sentence.
However, 99% of the time I delete her texts without even looking at them, because they make no sense. smh
Fortunately, she is seeking employment and will hopefully leave soon.
Both her father & I have been left heartbroken by her behavior.
Our intent was to help her, but instead it seems that we only ended up enabling her.
Once she has left, it is highly doubtful we will have much contact with her.
We are approaching our retirement years,
& we refuse
to allow her any opportunity to ever try to manipulate or mistreat us again.
As hard & as it sad as it may be, I think sometimes for the sake of self-preservation, you have to phase people out of your life regardless of their relationship to you.
I posted because I have read a number of articles where it is the parent Who behaves in a narcissistic fashion towards their child. However, there seems to be very little information when the situation is reversed, and it is the child who is the narcissist.
I wondered how many other parents might dealing with a similar situation with an adult child.