Last Updated on April 14, 2021 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.
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 they are even more free 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, may be 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 realise, however, is that they are the one 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. 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, 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.
When dealing with narcissists, this is most likely a false hope, 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 measure that help you feel better in the moment, but make things worse later in life: use of alcohol or drugs, self-harm, smoking, denial, over eating, 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!