In the 1944 film, Gaslight, a woman named Paula is manipulated by her husband. He meticulously works to make her feel as if she is losing her mind. One plot point involves the brightening and dimming of the gaslights in their home. Almost 80 years later, the verb “gaslighting” remains the film’s most enduring legacy and the term narcissistic gaslighting has been growing in it’s common usage.
No one gaslights like a narcissist. For example, they lie, blame and never admit their own flaws. These chronic actions can serve to shatter the confidence of the people in their life. They are left to wonder if, like Paula, they are losing their minds.
Narcissistic Gaslighting: How It’s Done
- Hiding Behind a False Image: They want others to always see them as powerful, smart, wealthy, sexy, and more. The goal is to charm people to envy or even worship them. The narcissist will let you know that he/she is better, more moral, smarter, more ethical, and smarter than you are.
- Breaking Rules: From running red lights to cutting ahead of you on a line, narcissists work to make you think they are not subject to the same rules as everyone else. It’s called entitlement and it’s probably one of the most common narcissistic traits. Entitlement arises out of the narcissists core belief that he/she is different than everyone else. This sense of specialness is the foundation of narcissism. The simplistic motto of the narcissist is “the customer is always right”. So the narcissistic customer who buys a pair of shoes, wears them for a month and tries to return them might truly believe they are right.
- Invalidating Your Emotions: Their words and actions wouldn’t bother you if, for example, you weren’t so oversensitive or self-centered. Since narcissists are master blamers, you are the entire problem. There is something wrong with you. So your feedback is not welcome. It’s not a conversation, it’s a kangaroo court and the goal is to find you guilty, broken and just plain wrong.
- Violating Boundaries: Again, such restrictions don’t apply to someone as special and important as them. This can manifest in small ways like ignoring your request that you do not contact them past a certain time. It can also get quite ugly and dangerous, e.g. date rape. f you are dealing with a more covert narcissist, then they will violate the rights of other’s out of a sense of victimhood. For example, once someone shared with me that felt entitled to steal things from other people. This woman believed she was owed “reparations” for her bad childhood. She thought that people who criticized her were only doing so because they had “backwards moral beliefs”. Once again, you can see how she believed she was the superior person who was entitled to being able to steal other people’s property. Those who criticized her were the ones who she thought had the problem.
- Lying and Exaggerating: This may take the form of making others feel inferior or taking credit for the accomplishments of someone else. They satisfy two needs in one shot: boosting themselves while putting you down. A common narcissistic trait is antagonism. And they will not only often lie to your face, and but also lie about you to others. That’s called smearing.
Of course, there are countless variations on these basic themes. Therefore, step one involves learning to recognize when you are being played by a ruthless expert. From there comes the effort to recover and rebuild.
Narcissistic Gaslighting: What It Is Not
Online, there is a cottage industry of coaches and online communities who focus on narcissism. While there might be helpful aspects to some of these services, they also create problems. We live in a time and place where many people enjoy hurling psychiatric labels at each other and smearing each other with diagnostic accusations. So one such problem is the loosening and broadening of the definition of narcissistic gaslighting. Many aspects of the current dialogue about narcissism trivialize it.
Here is what gaslighting it is not:
- A way to refer to a disagreement
- A way to demonize someone you are mad at
- A description of someone who says “no” to you
- A way to describe someone who has a different opinion or perspective than “your truth”.
The person who uses the narcissistic gaslighting tactic makes a chronic and concerted effort to get you to doubt yourself and question your reality. It is deliberate. And it’s purpose is to manipulate and control.
Narcissistic gaslighting is usually serious business, and often goes hand in hand with narcissistic abuse. It is a tactic that is used by people who have the intention of manipulating, exploiting and abusing. It’s used by cheaters and abusers who are trying to gain the upper hand.
In my practice, the individuals and couples that I’ve worked with that had faced this problem all were in very deep trouble. They faced intense emotional abuse, domestic violence, betrayal and often had very obviously high conflict relationships. In many of these, one of the partners was a person who was at serious risk of abuse and exploitation.
Narcissistic Gaslighting: An Example
Several years ago, I worked with a man I will call “Peter”. He came to work with me after breaking up with “Bob”, his partner of eight years. He described to me the lowest period in his life; the months after he tested positive for H.I.V. After he had received his test results his life was further shattered by the response that Bob gave him. Bob had previously told Peter that he was HIV negative and Peter took him at his word. They agreed to have sex without a condom. Peter remembered this clearly.
But when Peter confronted Bob about this, Bob blamed Peter’s depression for the problem. He regularly referred to Peter as “struggling with mental illness” and told Peter how worried his friends and family were about his “mental problems”. He insisted he had disclosed his HIV positive status and accused Peter of “playing the victim”.
But this dynamic was not new. Over the eight years of their relationship, Peter’s self esteem had eroded. Despite the fact that he was a handsome, educated and successful man, he felt worthless and filled with doubt. Throughout their relationship, Bob would reach out to Peter’s friends and family plying them with stories about “Peter’s emotional instability and paranoia”. He regularly reminded Peter that “no one would want him if they broke up, because he had too much mental and emotional baggage.”
During their time together, Peter lived with a stream of denials from Bob. When Bob sold their car, he told Peter “We talked about this”. Peter remembered no such conversation. When Peter discovered that 900.00 was charged to his visa account, Peter told him Bob loaned him his card. Of course, Peter remembered no such thing.
How did their relationship end? Bob was arrested for running an elaborate white collar embezzlement scheme. Peter had lived with a man who spent years not only conning him, but also many others. They had dozens of conversations that always led to the same conclusion; Peter was confused, he forgot, or was “troubled”. Peter was always to blame because he was “damaged”. Bob always took no responsibility. That’s what gaslighting is.
6 Tips to Take Back Your Confidence After Narcissistic Gaslighting
1. Memorize the Tactics and Lingo
The narcissistic gaslighter has several go-to phrases to keep you second-guessing. Learn to quickly identify them. For example, you’ll be accused of over-reacting, making things up, needing to calm down, taking things too personally, and always blowing situations out of proportion.
2. Name Your Own Emotions
When the gaslighter employs the tactics in #1, you can calmly counter by sharing your truths. Remind them that your feelings are valid. Make it clear that you know what you feel and what you saw.
3. Set Your Competitive Instincts Aside
The goal is not to outsmart the narcissist. They will never admit to it anyway. Instead, show them that you are willing and capable to walk away. Disengage from the conversation. They need you to fuel their role-playing. Taking away their supply is far more effective than attempting to prove them wrong.
4. Keep a Journal
As #3 emphasizes, this is just for you. Keep track of your conversations and actions. Refer back to the journal every time the gaslighter tries to manipulate you. It won’t change them but it can be very soothing for you.
5. Gather Evidence
If you plan to report the gaslighter and/or recruit others to the cause, you will need evidence. A narcissist can be very convincing. So, save screenshots, photos, etc. so your claims will be taken seriously.
6. Practice Self-Care
The gaslighter can cause you to lose faith in yourself. Self-care is a reminder that you are worth such effort. It also helps create the strong version of yourself needed to handle this vexing issue. Create a daily regimen that involves healthy eating, regular sleep patterns, and some exercise.
The damage a narcissistic gaslighter can do may require outside help to manage. If you have been living with someone who abuses, exploits, controls and gaslights you, then it’s important to get trauma informed treatment. This is particularly true if you were raised by a narcissistic parent. Please read more about trauma therapy and let’s connect for a free consultation and get you on a path toward healing and recovery.