Are You Being "Gaslighted" By the Narcissist in Your Life?

7 signs that your partner is feeding your self-doubt on purpose.

Posted Sep 03, 2017

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

The term “Gaslight” comes from the Academy Award-winning 1944 film by the same name in which a man systematically sets out to drive his wife crazy by making her doubt the reality of her own perceptions. Today that term has been expanded to describe a wider range of behaviors, in which one member of a couple tries to manipulate the other person to accept things as true that are patently false. Generally, modern-day gaslighting takes place in the context of a relationship in which one partner is manipulative, self-centered, low on empathy, and has a vested interest in always being right. This is an apt description of many people who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

If you are in a relationship with someone with this disorder, there is a good chance you have experienced gaslighting yourself. If you have ever wondered why your level of self-doubt and confusion rises when you are with such a partner, here are seven questions to ask yourself that can help you determine if your mate is feeding your self-doubt on purpose.

  1. Do they try to persuade you to doubt the evidence of your senses and what you are thinking and feeling?
  2. Do they try to convince you that what you believe is wrong, and what they believe is right?
  3. Do they react badly if you do not accept their version of the truth?
  4. Are they extremely persistent and sometimes keep the argument going long after you have asked them to please drop the issue?
  5. Do they attempt to bully you into admitting that they are 100 percent right, and you are completely wrong?
  6. Are the facts always twisted so that they are the victim, and you are always at fault?
  7. Do they twist and turn the truth and make such long and complicated arguments to prove their points that, after a while, you become thoroughly confused?

If you find yourself answering “yes” to many of the above questions, you may be being gaslighted.

Why are you being gaslighted?

The three most common reasons are: 

  1. Hiding. Your mate wants to hide something that he or she is doing from you.
  2. Change. Your mate wants to change something about you.
  3. Control. Your mate wants more power over you.

1. Hiding 

They will attempt to convince you to doubt any evidence that shows them in a bad light, makes them feel ashamed, or might create negative consequences for them. This can be something mild, but embarrassing (such as evidence that they have been looking at internet porn), or something more important (such as gambling debts or an affair).

A common scenario involves you finding something that puzzles you. It could be texts from a strange person on your spouse’s phone, unusual charges on your joint credit card account, or even a change in the way that he or she dresses. At first you think there must be a simple explanation, so you mention this to your spouse. Your spouse vehemently denies anything strange is going on. The response is so disproportionate to your question that it makes you more suspicious. You start to pay attention to things that you previously ignored. As the evidence that your spouse is lying starts piling up, you become more and more worried. One day, you confront him or her with the evidence. Your spouse denies the whole thing and tries to convince you that you are paranoid and imagining this because you are an insecure or jealous person.

Was it sex or CPR?

A man comes home early and finds his wife half naked by the pool with their handsome young gardener on top of her. She says: “It’s not what you think! I got dizzy and started to pass out. He saved my life by giving me CPR.” She sticks to her story so convincingly that her husband starts to believe her version of the truth and not his own eyes. He ends up thanking the gardener and tipping him generously for saving his wife’s life.

2. Change

They want to change you so that you are closer to their ideal. This can involve anything from dressing to suit their fantasies or reading different books to getting plastic surgery. If you resist, they try to convince you that you are not good enough as you are.

Example: "Your breasts are too small."

Connie had a slim, petite figure. She enjoyed the freedom of going without a bra. She had always gotten lots of positive attention from men and was very confident about her looks — at least until she met Bill. Bill, a wealthy, narcissistic businessman, was attracted to Connie and enjoyed that other men found her attractive as well. But once he was engaged to her, and other men were out of the picture, he started to work on what he viewed as Connie’s imperfections. 

Bill liked big breasts and had always imagined his future wife would have ample cleavage. When he mentioned to Connie that he would pay for her to get breast implants, he expected her to gratefully accept his offer. He was shocked that she declined. As a narcissist, he could not imagine that Connie might disagree with his idea of perfection. His shock escalated to anger and offense. He started to work on Connie to get her to change her mind. He began nicely: “You are a beautiful woman. You and I both know that. But you could be even more beautiful with bigger breasts.”

When she still refused, he escalated and guilt-tripped her: “You say you love me. If you really loved me, you wouldn’t hesitate to do this small thing for me.” 

This went on for months. Connie began to doubt herself and started asking other people whether they felt her breasts were too small. In the end, she began to wonder if she was being selfish by not going along with Bill’s offer to pay for implants. And eventually she gave in, because Bill was so confident in his opinion that she thought he must be right.

3. Control

Some narcissistic partners want to be the only one with power and influence over you. They will try to isolate you from other people whose opinions you respect, especially those who might disagree with their priorities. If you allow it, they gradually start exerting control over large portions of your life, until you are afraid to make decisions without their permission. They enjoy the sense of power and control that they get from this.

Example: "Am I too attached to my family?"

Sara’s husband Charles was very possessive and wanted all of her attention focused on him. Charles was alienated from his own family and resented the time that Sara spent with hers. He also resented that they still had influence over her. He set out to convince Sara that there was something pathologically wrong with her attachment to them.

Charles: “You are co-dependent and needy. Stop being a child! You are way too close to your family. It isn’t natural for a woman your age. What is wrong with you?” 

Sara started out confident that she was right, and that her love for her family was normal. In the beginning, when Charles would bring the issue up, Sara would defend herself and her family. One night, just as they were going to sleep, Charles would not let go of the topic. She begged him to let her go to sleep and discuss the issue in the morning, but he refused. 

“We are settling this tonight,” he said. “We are not going to sleep until you hear what I have to say. I am tired of you ignoring me!”

Charles kept Sara up all night arguing and trying to get her to see that he was right and she was wrong. By morning, Sara was too exhausted to argue anymore, so she finally admitted he was right just to get some peace and rest. After that, he increased his control over Sara and succeeded in isolated her from her family. Over time, an exhausted and isolated Sara began to question her own judgment and relied more and more on her partner’s version of the truth.

Conclusion

Living with someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a bit like living in an alternate reality where you are expected to accept whatever that individual says as true, even when it is obviously wrong. If you object, you are made to feel as if you are at fault. Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who tells a skeptical Alice, “Why, sometimes I have believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” such partners insist that you accept all their opinions as absolute truth. Even if you are clear in the beginning about the difference between reality and what you are being asked to accept, after a while most people begin to get too tired or afraid of their partner's anger to keep correcting them. It is a small step from there to actually beginning to doubt your own perceptions.

Note: This article contains material adapted from two of my Quora.com posts: "What are the questions to ask yourself to know if you are being gaslighted?" (8/12/17) and "Are narcissists aware of the emotional confusion (fog) they cause on their spouse or are they simply unaware they are doing it?" (8/17/17).

Elinor Greenberg, PhD, CGP

Has a private practice in NYC, consults on Narcissistic Adaptations, and is the author of the book, Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety.

www.elinorgreenberg.com