The term “gaslighting” is defined by Wikipedia as “...a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.” It is a stock-in-trade of narcissists and used intentionally by the malignant narcissist to keep her victim off balance and, often, to provide the narcissist with amusement.
That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? If you haven’t had the dubious pleasure of being in a close relationship with a malignant narcissist, it may even seem far fetched. But, sadly, it is the truth: garden variety narcissists gaslight just as malignant narcissists do, but their motives may be quite different.
The “ordinary” narcissist gaslights primarily to restructure history to favour her. (Yes, men are narcissists too and do the same things, but I don’t want to play with multiple personal pronouns so, for simplicity’s sake, I’m sticking to the female gender here.) Let’s say you and your narcissistic cousin are out shopping and you suddenly remember that Trendy Bootery is having a massive sale. You mention this to your cousin and after a little bit of convincing, she agrees to go to the sale. There, she finds some really cute boots but waffles on buying them and you convince her to do so. Later, you and cousin are with some friends having a drink and someone compliments cousin on her boots. The story she tells, however, is that she remembered the sale, you had to be talked into going and you tried to talk her out of the boots. Later, when you two are alone, you ask why she twisted the tale and she looks at you like you have two heads—“but that is what happened!” she insists. You have just been gaslighted.
Because your cousin is not a malignant narcissist, she has altered the reality of the experience simply to make herself the bright, decisive one. She remembered the sale and you were reluctant to go. She was bravely unwavering while you didn’t want her to have the adorable boots. It is all about making her look good—but not about making you feel bad. If you do, it is simply fallout, but not her intent.
The malignant narcissist, however, may use gaslighting for far more nefarious purposes: in the play and movie, “Gaslight,” the abuser intentionally “…uses a variety of tricks to convince his spouse that she is crazy, so that she won't be believed when she reports strange things that are genuinely occurring, including the dimming of the gas lamps in the house (which happens when her husband turns on the normally unused gas lamps in the attic to conduct clandestine activities there). Since then, it has become a colloquial expression that is now also used in clinical and research literature.” Oh, the malignant narcissist may also gaslight to reflect well upon herself and poorly on you, but she will also gaslight with malicious intent, anything from setting you up (like in the play and movie) to simply as a source of amusement for herself. The malignant narcissist, remember, has no conscience so using your feelings as a play-toy for her amusement is perfectly acceptable to her.
My mother used the technique not only to make me crazy but to distance family members from me. Victims of narcissists must not have allies, people who believe in them, if the narcissist is to succeed in using that victim. You cannot either scapegoat or gaslight someone if others are aware of the truth. Like all abusers, the narcissist will seek to distance her victim from all possible sources of support, thereby making the victim dependent on her abuser.
One of my NM's favourite techniques was to impute motives for my behaviour that, in truth, had nothing to do with my real motives. While taking a Home Ec course in school, we were taught how to set a proper table. When I got home from school I painstakingly scrounged up the necessary items to set a proper table, hoping to get praise from my mother when she got home. Instead, I got nothing except a suspicious eye and raised eyebrow. Later, when dinner was over and I asked my mother for a ride to that evening’s Girl Scout meeting, she leaped up from her chair triumphantly, shouting “Aha! I knew there was something you were buttering me up for!” and refused to drive me. Over a course of years of this sort of thing, I began questioning my own motives, even when on another level, I knew better.
My ex-husband was the kind of malignant narcissist who derived great amusement from gaslighting me—rather like a little boy who enjoyed pulling the wings off of flies. On one occasion in which I was insisting something happened one way and he was implacably insisting it happened another, I found myself twisting in the wind, torn between my own memory and his very certainty that I was remembering incorrectly. “Why are you doing this?” I remember crying to him. “Don’t you know this is crazy-making?” He merely smiled slowly and nodded his head. He knew—and he was doing it on purpose!
In a short sentence, gaslighting is a technique used to manipulate or even destroy someone’s perception of reality. Hilde Lindemann, philosophy professor and well known bioethicist, believes that with regard to women, the “...ability to resist depends on her ability to trust her own judgements.” I disagree, primarily because this smacks of blaming the victim. I think that women who have long trusted their own judgments but are intelligent enough to recognize that they are fallible and therefore may misremember something, fall prey to gaslighting as well as their less self-assured sisters. The thing about a person who gaslights another is that they portray a degree of absolute certainty that they are right, and that very certainty can cause anyone not as narcissistic as they are to buy into it.
Lindemann believes that “Establishing ‘counterstories’ to that of the gaslighter may help the victim re-acquire or even for the first time ‘acquire ordinary levels of free agency.’” I dispute this as well, for it implies that the victim must create her own tales that run contrary to those set out by the abuser. This is digging deeper into an alternate reality. The victim must stick firmly to the truth, write the truth down if necessary so she can remind herself of it through regular reading and re-reading. If there are witnesses, asking them for clarification helps. But the primary weapon against gaslighting is awareness not only that it exists but that one’s parent/partner/employer/co-worker may employ it. One must also develop the ability to recognize it.
One error “normies” (normal people or those who were not raised in a narcissistic household) frequently make when dealing with narcissists is to base their opinions on their own selves. “Why would anyone want to do that?” they might ask. Unable to relate to gaslighting or why someone would gaslight another, too often the uninitiated are unable to grasp the motivations of the narcissist and turn it around to blame the victim: “what did you do to cause her to do that?” or even outright disbelief, which is tantamount to calling the victim a liar. The idea that someone would—or even could—offer…and pull off…a wholly distorted version of reality as the truth is pretty much discounted by normal people. You and I, of course, wouldn’t do it not only because it is dishonest, but also because we would be humiliated when the truth came out and we were revealed as liars. Narcissists do not suffer the pangs of conscience for dishonesty, and they bend reality to fit their needs, fully believing themselves justified and somehow avoiding cognitive dissonance in their own brains when they reassemble reality to fit their objectives. They gaslight because there is something in it for them, and they have no fear that others will have the temerity to call them on their lies—in fact, they count on the fact that their very self-assuredness will cause others to question their own recollections of a circumstance or event, and they can be very successful at it.
In the article “Gaslighting: An Abuser’s Favourite Tactic,” the following forum quotes have been assembled. Anything seem familiar?
For those who don’t know what gaslighting is, it’s something our abusers do or say to make US think WE’RE the ones who are going insane. They say and do things to make us question our sanity, our memory of events, our boundaries, our values, and our beliefs. It’s when they says things like:
• “I never said that.” (when you KNOW they did and have a clear memory of it)
• “You’re imagining things.” (when you KNOW you’re not)
• “You’re always overreacting.” (when you’re reacting EXACTLY as any normal, well-adjusted person would react.
• “You’re such a drama queen.” (when HE is the one creating drama)
• “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” (when you know EXACTLY what you’re talking about)
• “You’re always accusing me of things.” (when, the reason you accuse him of things is because you KNOW he has lied or cheated)
• “You’re always so suspicious.” (when he has given you AMPLE reason to be)
• “What about all the sh*t you’ve done to ME?” (when you haven’t done a THING to him other than love him, appease him, cater to his every want and whim)
These are examples of gaslighting, and we’re all familiar with it, because it’s this stealth form of psychological abuse that makes us start asking or telling ourselves:
• “Hmm, maybe he’s right. I need to lighten up a bit.”
• “I guess I shouldn’t be so jealous or suspicious. After all, he’s right: he did only cheat on me that ONE time. I should let it go.”
• “Perhaps I AM a lot more stressed out about work, and I really am taking it out on him.”
• “Yeah, he’s right, I’ve done bad things to HIM as well. Like the time I accidentally bought soap with lavender, which I know he’s allergic to.”
Narcissists gaslight—it’s what they do. It keeps them blameless, allows them to look like heroes or victims…or both…whichever will give them the best Nsupply at the moment in question. Some, the malignant narcissists, will gaslight people for no other reason than to sadistically enjoy the psychological torment of their victims. Their behaviour cannot be explained in rational terms because it is not rational. And the best thing you can do it you discover that you are in a relationship with a narcissist and you are being gaslighted is to leave.
But sometimes we can’t leave. We may be financially dependent on the narcissist or we may still be too young to escape a narcissistic household. What then?
Fighting with a narcissist is a losing battle. Even if you manage to win a battle—even if you win all of the battles, you are going to lose the war because narcissists don’t “get better,” they get even. And they use dirty, underhanded tactics to get even because life for them is a war and they don’t give a damn about fair, they only care about winning, whatever the cost. So, you don’t fight with the narcissist because it only makes things worse. But you don’t buy into the bullshit, either…and you make your escape plans, quietly and under the narcissist’s radar. Because the only way to win the war with a narcissist is to remove yourself from the field.
Learn what the narcissist’s tools are and how they use them. Be on the lookout for having those tools used on you and don’t let your belief in yourself waver. Agree superficially with the narcissist if necessary in order to buy yourself time, but never buy into the narcissist’s altered reality. Remember the truth—write it down in detail so you can refer to it if you must—and don’t let the narcissist persuade or intimidate or confuse you into buying her version of events, not even if the narcissist offers “witnesses” to bolster her version: narcissists often have “flying monkeys,” dupes or conscienceless little sycophants, who will echo whatever the narcissist has to say. Stick to truth and reality and get out as soon as you can.
Next: Triangulation: another narcissist’s tool
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.