Gaslighting is one of the most extreme, dangerous and effective forms of emotional and psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.
Any scientists reading this may be able to actually tell me the answer to these first few questions, but they’re things I’ve kind of wondered about for a while. Is my red the same as your red or is your red actually my blue? Does my chicken taste like your chicken, or does my chicken actually taste of your lobster? I’m not asking about whether they are physically the same, but whether we perceive them in the same way.
However we perceive things, people react to the difference in that perception in different ways. Some are accepting, some actively embrace it, some hate it and get angry, and some will simply tell you that you’re wrong…
I mentioned a thing called “gaslighting” in this post about Kindness. I hadn’t heard of this before as a thing although I guess I recognised what’s involved when I read about it. A bit like an issue I have with reading a horoscope in the evening and applying it to everything that has happened in your day so far, I don’t like retrospectively applying new information to something in such a way. I also don’t believe in Google Self-Diagnosis. However, I think most people reading about this will be able to think of a time when they have been exposed to and have maybe demonstrated this behaviour themselves.
At this juncture, let me say that I am no expert. I have no psychology degree, I’m just sharing what I read and my experiences. If I’ve said something with authority, I’ll have got it from my research. If I say “I think”, that’s my opinion or idea.
This post is a bit long (over 4000 words!) but I actually think it’s quite an interesting subject because it can happen anywhere and in any relationship. I also think it’s worth explaining because most of the articles I read have a passage like this one at Elephant Journal:
There is also a high chance that we will have failed to spot someone was playing this insidious mind game with us and until we fully understand it, there is a high chance that it could happen again.
One of the main reasons we may not recognise it is that many of us will fail to believe those we trust and love are capable of manipulating us (it is this denial that keeps the dynamic going.) Also, the gaslighter will most likely be highly skilled at covering their tracks, keeping things subtle and being a skilled master or mistress of deception.
Gaslighting is one of the most extreme, dangerous and effective forms of emotional and psychological abuse and is mostly carried out intentionally. Gaslighting is a game of mind control and intimidation that is often used by narcissists and sociopaths as a way of controlling, confusing and debilitating someone.
In other words, I think it’s useful for people to know about it. For example, how often have you been called “overly sensitive,” “paranoid,” “mentally unstable,” “silly,” “unhinged,” and many other sensations which cause you to doubt yourself? I can tick off three without thinking, and that’s gaslighting. As Jay Watts for The Guardian put it earlier this year when highlighting that gaslighting was a major part of a domestic abuse and violence story line in The Archers, this is very real but little understood.
I’ve done a bit of research. The thing that most of the articles agree on is that gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity. It erodes their sense of self and can leave them feeling worthless and inadequate, which in turn can lead them to feel dependent on their abuser to fill those gaps in self-worth.
All the articles will usually pair the words “mental abuse” with adjectives such as insidious, awful, extreme, controlling and “most dangerous form of”.
Let’s just give some definitions about other words I’ll use and clear some things up right here. I’ll use the words narcissist and narcissism, because gaslighting is a common technique of a narcissist. According to Sweet Relief, “a narcissist is a person who lacks a clear individual sense of self. A narcissist needs other people to validate his/her existence and to regulate self-esteem. A narcissist tends to be grandiose in his appraisal of himself and his achievements, or conversely lacks confidence or fluctuates between these two seemingly contradictory points of view. A narcissist is psychically enmeshed with other people, needing the other as a base against which to react, and assuming that other people are there to do as s/he needs/wants. A narcissist is not aware that other people exist as separate beings with their own needs and wants, but is highly attuned to them when relevant to himself. A narcissist will consistently and constantly attempt to bring others into behaving in ways that align with his/her mental map of how things between people work.”
There are two other types of people who portray narcissistic tendencies. The sociopath is kind of a narcissist who means it. A narcissist is often “hapless” when it comes to what they’re doing, whereas a sociopath will plan things months in advance to “win” a relationship and defeat their partner. (Because the narcissist generally doesn’t understand what they’re doing and the way it hurts people, I’m loathed to use the word “abuser” in this post, but as the opposite of “victim” it is probably correct.) A sociopath will also move location a lot when their “lie” has fully played out and will seek to reinvent themselves in order to be able to win at more things.
Someone with borderline personality disorder, from what I can gather, differs from the narcissist (who wants to be loved and understood and helped) and the sociopath (who wants to be the best to the torment of all others) in that they have a kind of victim mentality and feel worthless unless they have someone else’s engagement.
The reason for me saying all that is that, in this post, I’m not saying that everyone who gaslights is a narcissist. I’m simply trying to say that it is a narcissistic tendency or tool of someone demonstrating those traits. So, back to gaslighting…
The origin of the term is in a 1938 play called Gaslight in which the abuser would turn down gaslights around a house and tell the victim that she is mistaken about the lights flickering to make his victim feel like she is going crazy. According to Wikipedia, the term has been used since “the 1960’s to describe efforts to manipulate someone’s sense of reality”.
Where articles tend to differ is when discussing how deliberate the act of gaslighting is – some say it’s not, some say it is. All of them say that it’s generally linked to narcissistic behaviour and having to be in control and better than another person. Shey Emma Fett, in an article I read at Everyday Feminism, suggests that the thing that separates a gaslighter from a non-gaslighter is “a paradigm of ownership” which I guess ties in nicely with narcissism.
I like Shey’s article a lot. (We can use first name’s here, can’t we? We’re all friends!) It’s not overly scientific and talks about real life examples from real life experience. As such, I’m going to use it as a basis for explanation of some key points.
The first is that gaslighting is different from a more general manipulation. Manipulation is generally considered to implement a change in behaviour whereas gaslighting aims to change who a person actually is; manipulation might damage self-esteem and self-confidence but gaslighting damages someone’s trust in themselves and their perception of reality.
I’m not entirely sure who the author is, but an article at NarcissticBehaviour.net outlines three stages to gaslighting. I should note that this article highlights gaslighting as a deliberate act and the article, I feel, is passionate at best and angry at worst. As you may have guessed, they’re all related back to narcissism:
- Idealisation. This is the part where the narcissist snares their victim with grand demonstrations of charisma and interest in their new source of narcissistic supply. I believe that this can also be called “introjection”. Once the victim is acquired, the gaslighting can begin.
- Devaluation. Introjection will then evolve a little, and the victim will be repeatedly told something about themselves so that they start to believe it. The narcissist will also start to punish the victim for a failure to obey their unspoken rules which means that the victim will never be able to please the narcissist. The victim is constantly walking on eggshells and trying to please, but never getting it right. They become confused and upset about the loss of what they had. This gives the “puppet master” full control of the their victim but also makes the narcissist despise them as inferior, weak, powerless. Paradoxically, the victim also becomes worthless in the eyes of the gaslighter except for the bountiful narcissistic supply that they are receiving as the victim tries to repair what they had. “I don’t really like you, but I can’t let you leave.”
- Discarding. “The narcissist’s ardor for the game has dampened, in their eyes they have already won the contest, and the fun is over. By this time, the narcissist is totally indifferent to any needs or wishes that the victim may have, in effect they no longer exist in their mind. Not so for the victim, they are left confused and raw with emotion, and are eager to find solutions in order to “fix” the dying relationship. However, the narcissist resists all attempts to rescue the relationship, they will bully with silence, or if there is any kind of response, it will be brutally cold. In effect, the victim has become “worthlessly inferior” to them; they know they have drained the victim dry, that they have now outlived their usefulness, and now it is time for the narcissist to move on to the next source of supply. Any undertaking to win them back by the victim will only feed the narcissists ego, and further provide them with a transient source of narcissistic supply.”
You’ll notice from that that there doesn’t need to be any anger or intimidation. Shey suggests that, in a lot of instances, a useful technique for the gaslighter is turning everything in to them becoming the victim. This can be by telling the victim that their behaviour is making life difficult for the gaslighter (“Your trying to win me over again is a burden on me”), or simply saying that their needs are far bigger than those expressed by the victim (“I know you struggle to get a job, but my job is really stressful. It’s really terrible and hard for me to be in a position to earn money to live”).
Part of this “turning everything in to them becoming the victim” which I haven’t read being related directly to gaslighting is something called psychological projection and is simplified on Wikipedia as being a form of blame shifting so that the abuser does not have to take responsibility for something that they find problematic. Freud conceptualised projection as being when one could not accept thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings as being their own, so they would give them to someone else. This would be as a result of seeing a glimmer of that trait in someone else, assigning the whole thing to them and blowing it out of all proportion.
Because I can’t use an example from someone else on t’interweb, let me use a few of my own. Although I won’t be too specific with some parts, I will be about reactions to them. A while ago I was accused of something. I remember reading the accusation and my first instinct was guilt, and then I remember thinking “what the f*ck?!” For the life of me, I couldn’t work out how I was being accused of feeling what I was being accused of feeling, simply because I didn’t feel it.
I did some quite extensive research on what I was being accused of because its origins were clearly spelt out to me. I reached an understanding of the concept and then tried to lay it over the chain of events to understand where I went “wrong”. As I did this, the main thought crossing my mind was “wait a second, it wasn’t me doing this to the other person, it was the other person doing it to me”.
Interestingly, what I was being accused of (and not just that I was being accused of it) is classic narcissistic behaviour.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, I hate retrospective application of facts in such a way, but I wonder if this was a projection. My accuser rid themselves of the problem and gave it to me instead. The accusation was one of how I treated people, and I believe it fits perfectly with the effects of gaslighting as it had me doubting how I really treat and view others which is something I was very proud of before I was accused of otherwise.
“Sweet Violet” at The Narcissist’s Child also talks about a projection that I guess could be done by most narcissists because they will do the majority of what they do to get a reaction. The author talks about their narcissistic parent assuming that a simple act of setting the table to show pride in what had been learnt in class had a hidden motive. The author puts forward the suggestion that, because the narcissist would do something nice to get something in return, they assume that everyone else does too because of how they would project their requirement to someone else.
These are good examples of something else. The narcissist will primarily target their victim’s integrity and the thing that they care about most and take the most pride in. They will call you a bad son, a bad friend, bad at your job… And because the victim cares, they’ll do everything to prove that their abuser is not right, their pain just feeding the narcissist what they’re looking for.
Shey says that one part of being gaslighted is forgetting what has happened. This I don’t entirely understand against the backdrop of herself blacking out, but I personally recognised this:
It’s one of the reasons I left – because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing or how to fix it, and I couldn’t bear the thought that I might be abusive to someone. I’ve ripped my memories apart, trying to figure what it was that he experienced. What it was that I did.
That’s the line – not being able to work out what had happened. While reading about gaslighting, I also read about Narcissistic Victim Syndrome in which the victim is “feels so torn because they don’t understand what has happened to them“. That’s something I’ve been finding hard recently and is probably the most used phrase in my counselling sessions – “I don’t understand”.
Just like there are stages to the whole gaslighting process, there are stages to the gaslighting arguments. The argument will start off as ridiculous, but it happens anyway because the victim feels the need to defend their action or thoughts, even though they shouldn’t be up for debate. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline suggests that, during arguments, the gaslighter will usually assert that the victim is trying to confuse them, or the gaslighter will counter the argument, divert it, trivialise it or just point blank deny that anything happened. The victim can then have problems articulating the event and why they feel bad about it because it seems unimportant.
During an argument, a gaslighter will say that their victim has misunderstood the tone of what was said, changing between angry and calm and sometimes back again to suit the stage of the argument before countering by saying that the victim always sees things negatively.
Again from Elephant Journal:
[The gaslighter] may say things to make their victim feel insecure and jealous, for example, deliberately mentioning a certain person in a way that makes it sound as though there is more going on behind the scenes. When the victim questions this, the abuser will accuse the victim of having trust issues and this will falsely further confirm in the victim’s mind that they have serious insecurities and also, that they are extremely paranoid.
The abuser will make up very convincing lies to deliberately upset the other person and then call them names, mock them and put them down for getting upset and for overreacting. The abuser will also make light of anything that the victim feels is important to make the victim’s opinions, life-choices and thoughts seem juvenile or that they are inferior to their own. It is likely that the abuser will laugh at or sneer at their victim, but when questioned, convince their victim that they were imagining it.
The victim will then try to be diplomatic in understanding the gaslighter’s point of view in the hope that the victim then won’t be seen as weak, but kind and considerate. Then comes the last part, where the victim begins to lose faith in their judgement and perspective on life.
That touches on the fact that some people are more susceptible to gaslighting than others. These are people who are empathetic rescuers and people pleasers who may need to be seen a positive light. They’re the people who care about their effect on others and so will be accommodating to other people’s needs.
As has been pointed out – THESE ARE GOOD TRAITS TO HAVE! No-one should ever tell you that these are a weakness.
(Actually, an article in Psychology Today suggests that nothing helps narcissists quite as much as a puppy or a dog that gives its attention and love irrespective of any attempts to get it to do so, or how beautiful or clever its owner may be. All you have to do is not abuse it. I guess that is similar to someone showing empathy in that they don’t want anything in return but to be recognised for that caring.)
Shey does say that the victim will, in their heart of hearts, probably know what’s happening to them, but they still like being in the narcissistic relationship – a type of Stockholm Syndrome. That’s why they continue the engagement with the gaslighter, but that might actually be an error. By continuing to engage, the victim is continuing to infer that everything is up for debate, and it shouldn’t be.
The continued engagement is usually a request to the gaslighter sees that what they are suggesting is not what the victim actually feels, and possibly that they don’t like being told what they’re feeling. Unfortunately, though, a debate with a narcissist in which the goal is to exchange understanding is one that the victim will never, ever win.
A further part of continued engagement between abuser and victim is that the abuser in a gaslighting scenario will often infer that the victim needs them. Because the victim feels like they have lost their ability to judge a situation or do something or trust their own feelings, the abuser can reasonably tell the victim that they have become reliant on them to fill that gap. This is the bit, from experience, that really destroys the victim when the abuser moves in to the “discarding” phase of gaslighting.
For completeness, Shey recommends breaking down all the fears that give that the gaslighter power, one of which will ultimately be the loss of a relationship.
So, how much of that do you recognise? I recognise each and every part of being the victim, but this led me to a question.
If you recognise that someone is gaslighting and / or being narcissistic, does it make you equally guilty of those things to tell them? It’s a fairly moot point, because a narcissist will never believe you anyway, but what gives your ideas superiority? Does a claim of non-narcissism actually make you narcissistic? These questions came to mind when I wondered how one would go about helping someone exhibiting narcissistic traits.
I think that most people have a little bit of narcissism in them. We all have strong feelings about how things should be done and can regularly believe that our way is better than someone else’s, either out of experience or direct learning.
We probably all know someone who likes to talk about their achievements and we casually, maybe even flippantly, fob them off as being a narcissist. However, they really might be a psychologically diagnosable narcissist (not to be confused with the more extreme narcissistic personality disorder).
There is a spectrum for narcissism (as there is for most things) and many people won’t reach the level of having a personality disorder. However, while most people’s narcissistic personality traits can occasionally be emphasised, there are people who tend to lack empathy and can only connect with the world when it relates back to themselves.
I just touched on the key word to unlocking the reason for this whole post. The opposite of a narcissist is an empath and, while they are opposites, they are both very similar because they are both perfectly attuned to other people’s feelings. The difference between the two is that a narcissist uses their knowledge to dominate and be superior and get what they want, whereas the empath wants to learn so that they can help and assist and make me people happy and keep equality.
This is similar to what I’ve said before about understanding. The issues with religion, politics and all that is not difference, it’s the lack of understanding and acceptance of that difference that causes the problem.
No-one EVER has a right to tell you how you feel, or that how you feel is wrong. I’m going to type that again – no-one EVER has a right to tell you how you feel. They have the right to understand how you feel and to tell you how they feel because that’s the way a situation is properly dealt with. That’s the way grown ups really deal with a difficulty in their relationship.
However, people all have their own ways of dealing with things. Maybe I’m being too fair here, but people need to live with the reality they’re presented with. If your chicken tastes of my lobster, you’re a lucky person! A lot of the articles I’ve read, as I alluded to earlier, blame narcissists and treat them as evil. Maybe I’m too sympathetic, but I wouldn’t want to live constantly having to defend myself or justify myself by being on the offensive. To give the last word to Shey:
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, and it doesn’t matter whether or not it is fair. There are bigger things at stake here. Let’s not punish each other for doing the things we need to do to be healthy.”
- The UK freephone 24-hour national domestic violence helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge, can be reached on 0808 2000 247.
- One of the closest charities to my heart is Mind. You can donate to them here.
Sympathy, this is my best disguise.
My skin stepped out for my bones to dry up
For the rest of the world outside to see.
You see I, bleed on the side.
It’s a part time thing, a private affair.
I try to keep it out of the light.
I must confess, I didn’t recognize you tonight
Dressed up like my love.
And I hate these things but I always attend
A little sip of something to take off the edge
And I make my way through the ghosts in the room
Trying to crack a smile
And who are you supposed to be?
You look like heaven tonight
Me, I’m a tomb, a corpse in a suit,
Trying to look a little alive
Are you alright?
Cause I worry sometimes
Are you dressed up to take my life?
Keep it coming, keep it coming.
Well I think I saw you for the flash of a moment
Your broken heart and the body that holds it
I lost your scent in the flash of the party
The big bright lights, baby, constantly haunt me
I’ve never been right, have you ever been lied to?
I think I just saw the same scars upon you
Is this a disguise? Or a masquerade for me?
Keep it coming, keep it coming, keep it coming.
Who are you supposed to be?
Yeah, you look just like my love.
Who are you supposed to be?
Are you dressed just like my love?
Who are you supposed to be?
Yeah, you look just like my love.
Who are you supposed to be?
Are you dressed just like my love for Halloween?
Halloween from the album Get Hurt by The Gaslight Anthem