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Narcissists Use “Gaslighting” to Control and Abuse

What is gaslighting, and are you a target?

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If you are dealing with a narcissist in your life or grew up with a narcissistic parent, you may have experienced “gaslighting.” It is a form of verbal and psychological abuse that is insidiously cruel, with the intention of making a person doubt their own sanity. It destabilizes you and can make you wonder about your own memory or perception of reality.

True narcissists are not accountable for their own bad behavior. It is common for them to blame others and make it someone else’s fault. They use denial, accusation, misdirection, and lying to throw you off base. You can walk away wondering if it is just your imagination, or if you are sorely mistaken, and it is truly your fault. Here are some examples of how gaslighting can play out in relationships:

  • Claire used manipulative gaslighting on her brother, Jack. She was jealous of Jack, and when she would go to his house, she would steal things from him. She then proudly displayed those things in her own home. When Jack would visit and see the stolen goods, he would say, “Hey, Claire, that’s mine!” Claire then would follow up by telling Jack that he had given these items to her, and he must have just forgotten. Jack told me he usually caved and chalked it up to his own lapse of memory.
  • A young woman wrote to me about her narcissistic ex-husband. He had not paid the light bill when they were married. He came home to find her and the children sitting in the dark with candles. She showed him the delinquent bill, and he yelled, “I paid that bill. Are you going to believe your eyes or me?” As they stood there in the dark.

We see gaslighting happen when a spouse decides to cheat and attempts to conceal the infidelity. When confronted, it is common for them to accuse their spouse of being crazy, jealous, or insecure. I’ve talked to many men and women betrayed by partners who say that for quite some time, they actually thought they were just losing their minds and being unreasonable. They look back after finding out the truth and wonder how someone could manipulate them with such conviction and forceful intent.

Brenda was in therapy discussing her narcissistic mother. When she confronted her mother about childhood issues, the mother’s reaction was to say “You are too sensitive”; “That did not happen”; “It’s just your imagination!” Brenda then recoiled in self-doubt and wondered if she had just made up her reality. She was left with the feeling that she did not matter.

Many adult children of narcissistic parents attempt to eventually confront their parents about their childhoods. This usually does not go well with a narcissist, and I don’t encourage it. What usually happens is that the narcissistic parent denies the reality, calls their child a liar, or just says they don’t remember it that way at all. This results in the adult child feeling more angst, disappointment, and pain. It leaves them with one more experience of not having their feelings validated or acknowledged, and they walk away once again feeling loss and a lack of authenticity. One client sadly joked with me, saying, “My parents say, 'Come on home and visit; we will leave the gaslight on for you!'”

Gaslighting is emotionally abusive and ultimately gives the abuser more power to dominate a relationship. It can happen gradually, so the victim goes from just thinking they misread a situation to really believing they must be going crazy. This can cause long-term damage to a person’s mental health, resulting in mistrust toward others in general, and can even interfere with their ability to form healthy relationships in the future.

If you think you are a victim of gaslighting, here are five suggestions:

  1. Keep a journal, and write down narratives of what you experience and feel.
  2. Talk through experiences with a trusted friend or therapist.
  3. Practice trusting your own feelings and intuition.
  4. Learn to set boundaries, and stop abusive comments on the spot.
  5. Practice giving the situation of gaslighting some time. Think it through before doubting yourself.

We can all have different perceptions of experiences in life. We can disagree with others about our perceptions. This is not gaslighting. Remember that gaslighting is used purposefully to benefit the person doing it and to hurt you. The term gaslighting originated from a 1938 stage play, Gas Light. According to Wikipedia, the story is about a husband who “attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes.”

Gaslighting is psychologically and emotionally abusive. If it is happening to you, find a way to get help, and remove yourself from the situation.

More from Karyl McBride Ph.D.
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