Narcissistic abuse is finally getting the attention it deserves. A term once reserved to describe the emotional abuse suffered by children at the hands of an excessively self-involved, self-serving and/or un-empathetic parent, in the last few years, narcissistic abuse has come to define adult-to-adult relationships where one person’s grandiose sense of self is basically augmented at the other’s expense.
In general, abuse from the narcissist includes an alarming amount of self-absorption and lack of emotional empathy, as well as a vast supply of entitlement, alongside a horrible little habit of continually devaluing and undermining the non-narcissist (whom we could refer to as the “co-narcissist”—someone who is compelled to create close connections with narcissistic people.)
Somewhat dysfunctional dynamics between a narcissistic person and a co-narcissistic person can hobble along for years, and sometimes even decades. As long as the co-narcissist doesn’t emotionally or psychologically develop all that much, and therefore start asking for more than the narcissistic person is prepared to give, then the low-grade fever of invisibility and anxiety that characterizes such connections could last a lifetime. Where things get sticky, however, is when the dynamic takes a turn for the worse, and takes a dive into a more devious form of narcissistic abuse, known as “gaslighting.”
That’s when things can get really, really dark.
What is Gaslighting?
“Gaslighting” is a form of emotional and psychological abuse where the narcissistic person systemically begins to covertly undermine the other’s ability to trust his or her own perceptions, question their self-worth, and even cause them to start second guessing their very identity.
The term was popularized by the 1944 mystery-thriller film, Gas Light, about a man who steadily manipulates his wife into believing that she’s losing her mind, by continually negating her experience, and quite convincingly persuading her that her perceptions are not real.
Gaslighting has come to define an insidious form of manipulation, and it is perpetrated through the continual assertion of twisted half-truths, mild to severe exaggerations, and even the telling of blatant lies, all of which are clandestinely designed to slowly but surely brainwash someone into acquiescing their power, and yielding themselves to being fully controlled by the person doing the gaslighting.
The 3 Main Tactics of the Narcissistic “Gaslighter”
Exaggerations, Half-Truths, Lies & More Lies. When you’re in relationship with a gaslighter, truth is twisted and falsehoods repeated so often and with such conviction, that you can easily lose confidence in your own ability to assess reality accurately.
From minimizing (and even entirely dismissing) the negative impact of their bad behavior, to twisting around the things that you’ve said, to completely negating previous abusive episodes, to denying having ever agreed to things previously agreed upon, gaslighters seek to undermine your ability to trust your memory, and to gain complete control over what you do, and how you do it.
In the crazy-making world of the gaslighter, up is down and down is up, left is right and right is left and it’s all your fault if you didn’t know that and can’t see it as clearly as they can!
Mild Exaggerations, Half-Truths & Lies: Minimizing your experience (i.e., “You’re not really angry with your sister! Go make up and drop this nonsense.”), negating your experience (i.e., “What are you complaining about? You’re so ungrateful!”) and/or dismissing your knowing (i.e., “You don’t even know what you’re talking about. You’re crazy!”)
Moderate to Severe Exaggerations, Half-Truths & Lies: Failing to acknowledge the agreements the two of you made that he or she is now breaking (i.e., “I never promised you that! You’re insane!), denying your memory of reality (i.e., “That never happened. I don’t know where you come up with these ridiculous ideas!), blaming you for things they’ve done (i.e., “You’re the abusive one! You’re always messing things up. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be happy [famous, rich, etc.]) or habitually deceiving you, often by failing to share important information.
They Attack Your Character, and Use What You Love Against You. Things normally off limits in the most hot-blooded of arguments between lovers and friends are somehow fair game to the gaslighter. He or she will think nothing of causing you to question your own intelligence, disbelieve your deeper knowing, doubt the loyalty of your loved ones, and/or get you to mistrust or even betray your own core values.
When they want something they’re not yet getting, they’ll pull out all the stops and use everything and anything to get you to bend to their will. They may think little or nothing of brutal name calling, crushing character assassinations or dismissive psychological labels–just to get you off kilter so they can more easily gain leverage in the direction of their goal.
Often projecting their own insecurities onto you, they will ruthlessly criticize and disparage you until your self-confidence is so battered, it will no longer get in their way.
Mild Character Attacks: They undermine your confidence in your own inner knowing and in your ability to properly assess situations, (i.e., “I wouldn’t trust myself if I were you. You’re not the brightest bulb in the bunch,”), or covertly cause you to doubt your integrity, (i.e., “Oh yeah? Says the hypocrite herself!”) or even get you to begin questioning your own values (i.e., “That’s what you believe? Seriously? Who raised you? A pack of wolves?”)
Moderate to Severe Character Attacks: Gather social support for their toxic perspective, (i.e., “You should hear what people are saying about you behind your back. Everyone agrees with me!”) shame you for expressing your feelings and needs and/or for trying to set boundaries, (i.e., “You’re incredibly selfish for wanting what you want,”) or instill fear that you will always be alone and isolated without them (i.e., “No one else will ever love you like I do because you’re such a bad person.”)
They Need to Be Superior and Will Put You Down at Every Turn. While most narcissistic people tend to brag, take undeserved credit and/or boost their importance wherever they go, gaslighters go one step further by also focusing on making you feel inferior. They do this through thinly veiled put downs, over and covert criticisms, psychological intimidation and/or by making nasty and undermining accusations.
Gaslighters rarely take responsibility for their side of things and instead, use disagreements or breakdowns as opportunities to assert superiority. They are aggressive fighters, doing any and everything to win an argument. That means that, to keep the peace, you’ll always need to be in the one down position — the “loser,” and therefore, once again shown to be inferior and defective compared to their superiority and perfection.
Mild Assertion of Superiority: The gaslighter will frequently mock you for being so sensitive (i.e., “You’re such a big baby! Man up!”), tease you publically (i.e., “Oh, she’s always been a big Drama Queen!”) or act condescending toward you (i.e., “What stupid ideas are coming out of that pretty little head of yours now?”).
Moderate to Severe Assertion of Superiority: The gaslighter will put down your credentials and the institutions from which they come (i.e., “Harvard? Seriously? Who even listens to the dinosaurs coming from that antiquated Good Ole Boys Club?”), they’ll shame you for your thoughts and opinions (i.e., “What makes you have anything of value to say on the subject? You just like to hear yourself talk,”) and/or viscously attack you with the intention of getting you to admit you are wrong and they are right.
Given the toxic nature of the gaslighter’s behavior, it’s easy to villainize him or her. The majority of articles I read in researching this one used terms like “perpetrator,” “bully,” “abuser,” “manipulator,” “psychopath,” and “narcissist” to describe the gaslighter, and “victim,” “prey,” abused,” and “target” to describe the gaslightees. And yes, it’s understandable that we would want to blame and shame the gaslighter, who’s clearly a troubled and maybe even a sociopathic person.
Yet, if you yourself have ever been gaslighted, then…
it’s a lot better use
of your time to try to understand
what makes you such an easy target.
Because here’s the thing…
Gaslighting can’t happen unless you allow it.
And as long as your attention stays focused on the evil gaslighter, and the sick, despicable, low-life you now believe that person to be, you’re not looking to discover – and evolve – all of the covert ways that you yourself not only left yourself wide open for abuse, but maybe even covertly invited it in.
So even if the other person is 97% at fault for behaving in toxic and abusive ways, until you take responsibility for your 3%, and figure out how to change how you show up in ways that make you a target, you’ll never really be able to trust yourself to do it differently in your future.
So, what are the tough questions we can ask ourselves to ensure we will never put ourselves in the position to be used and abused by a gaslighter again?
First let me distinguish between a shaming/blaming question that will never provide the growth we are hoping for, and an empowered one that can catapult us beyond old, painful and toxic ways of relating.
A shaming question might look like…
“What’s wrong with me?”
“How can I be so stupid?”
“Why can’t I ever get it right?”
None of these questions will ever deliver you from toxic patterns and in fact, will only dig them in deeper. Because shame rarely, if ever, leads to any true growth.
To graduate yourself from being the target of gaslighting, the questions you might need to ask yourself are more like…
“How did I give my power away?”
“What was motivating me to do that?”
“What can I do to reclaim it?”
Life lessons are sometimes very expensive and if you’ve lost a lot to the gaslighter, you want to see if you can honor those losses by viewing them as the cost of growing oneself wiser, happier, healthier and free from painful patterns in love.
Your biggest concern now
needs to be how you’re going to show up
in all of your relationships in
healthier ways from this moment forward.
What would it look like for you to stop giving away your power to others and to be more self-defined?
To outgrow co-dependency and begin trusting in your own ability to properly take care of yourself?
To have more faith in your own gifts and talents, and begin to truly value who you are?
To raise your expectations of healthy mutuality in all of your relationships?
To develop a sense of what healthy boundaries are and have the courage to set them?
To come to trust your own deeper knowing?
To learn how to stand up for yourself?
To stop self-abandoning in order to desperately try to keep others from leaving you?
In other words, where your full attention needs to be right now, is on identifying the ways you need to outgrow your own toxic ways of relating that have left the door wide open for you to be abused! And on plugging up those holes such that you are no longer a target.
In fact, taking on your own growth and development in this way will begin to make you not only just immune, but also invisible to the gaslighter. Because he or she is not looking for a healthy person. He or she is looking for someone who matches their own pathologies perfectly.
You want to outgrow being that person.
Gaslighters will always be there. That probably won’t change. Yet they no longer need to find their home in you.