How to Deal With Gaslighting
What is Gaslighting?
If you are not familiar with the term "gaslighting," it originated from an old movie starring Ingrid Bergman entitled Gaslight. In the movie, a man attempts to drive his wife crazy by manipulating her surroundings, then claiming her perception of the manipulated surroundings is mistaken or delusional. In the movie, when the lights dim because of something he is doing and she comments on it, he says the lights have not dimmed at all and that she is delusional. In this same way, gaslighting is a type of mental abuse where a person is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception and ultimately their own sanity. It's a pervasive, insidious form of abuse akin to brainwashing where one person attempts to basically override and control the other person's reality.
This can range from simple denial of something (you remind the narcissist of something they did or said and the narcissist replies, That never happened! You're making it up!) to an elaborate staging of a situation designed to confuse and upset someone (you walk into your home after work and there is a party happening; you ask the narcissist what is going on and the narcissist responds, We had this party planned for a month! We talked about it all the time! What do you mean, you didn't know about it?) Gaslighting is designed to keep you off-balance and unsure so that the narcissist can control you - and everything else. Confused, frightened, doubtful people are much easier to manipulate and control than those who are very sure of themselves.
It should be noted here that being subjected to gaslighting is not an indication of weakness. Anybody can start to doubt themselves and their perceptions when they are subjected to this horrible mind game for months or even years on end, and anyone can be a victim of it. Gaslighting can also be more subtle and harder to define, which makes it even harder to detect - or prove. For example, you ask the narcissist why they are being cruel to you. Instead of actually addressing that, the narcissist says that you don't care about them. Instead of insisting that the narcissist answer this very reasonable question, you start defending yourself and then the point is lost. No one is talking about the narcissist's cruelty anymore. It has become all about you and what you are doing wrong. The narcissist insists that you don't care, listing a litany of complaints about how cruel and uncaring your behavior is. You become convinced the narcissist really believes this, so you begin overcompensating, trying to do things to prove you do care. The harder you try, the more the narcissist will deny you. The narcissist now sees that this can be used as a weapon to hurt you and manipulate you into doing what the narcissist wants you to do. The narcissist has won, and more importantly, the narcissist has avoided being taken to task over bad behavior.
Gaslighting is a way for narcissists to dodge responsibility for their actions, and to keep from ever having to answer for anything they've done. It's a way of saying "The problem isn't me, it's you." Just saying that isn't enough, however. This tactic can only work if they can actually convince you that it's true. They use gaslighting in order to do that. If gaslighting is successful, if the narcissist can convince the victim that the victim is not caring enough, or too sensitive, or crazy, or that the victim is actually the abuser, the narcissist never has to answer for anything ever again. This is the crux of what the narcissist is trying to do.
How Does Gaslighting Affect People?
It takes a very strong person to completely withstand gaslighting, especially if they don't realize that's what is going on. As mentioned above, gaslighting is hard to detect and even harder to prove. The only way to fight gaslighting is to learn to recognize it for what it is. That is the only way you can stop it from damaging your self-image and your stability.
Remember: You are not the crazy one. You are not the wrong one. You are not the abuser, or the cruel one. You are not too sensitive. You are not uncaring or abusive just because you are a human being who makes mistakes and has feelings. Remind yourself that your perception has always been fine until now. Remind yourself that no one but the narcissist accuses you of these supposed perception problems. Remind yourself that no one but the narcissist accuses you of being a liar or an abuser or too sensitive... whatever the narcissist is trying to convince you of, remind yourself that no one but the narcissist sees it. Most importantly: don't lose sight of who you are. You know who you are. Don't let the narcissist take that away from you.
Narcissists are willing to sacrifice anybody for their own wants and needs. Narcissists want you to set yourself on fire to keep them warm. You say, "I'm dying! I'm burning to death!" and they say, "Well, I'm cold. Why don't you care that I'm cold? You selfish evil person, how can you be so heartless?" Your suffering is not important to them and in some cases, it's actually the icing on the cake. All narcissists have a cruel, envious core in their personality. They are jealous, they are hurting and they want to destroy things they are jealous of, so there are times that being cruel brings them pleasure. If you have ever dealt with a narcissist, you probably know that. There are times you can see it in their face.
This is because narcissists want you to prove that you love them. It makes them feel safe, true, but more than that, it makes them feel powerful. To that end, they will never stop trying to make you prove it. After you jump one hurdle, there are 15 more waiting. It never ends, and if you were to set yourself on fire to keep them warm, this would be more proof that you love them. Over and over and over again.
A narcissist who feels safe can be a dangerous narcissist; they may then feel there is no reason not to do terrible things because they are safe in the idea that you will never leave. Unfortunately, it is a trap that many people fall into, because when a non-personality disordered person is in a relationship, if our partner is not happy and they say it is because of something we are doing (or not doing) we tend to believe them. Why would they say it if it wasn't true? The sad truth is that narcissists need too much. They need more and want more than anyone can possibly give them. They are unreasonable, unrealistic and they don't understand give and take. They truly believe that they should be given everything, and any insinuation that they should give is perceived as blasphemy. Respect? Consideration? Compromise? These are not words narcissists understand as applying to other people. If they have to destroy your perception of yourself or your very reality in order to get what they want, they have no problem with that.
Are You Being Gaslighted?
If you are not sure whether you are being gaslighted, here are a few things you can look for:
- if you are constantly second-guessing yourself
- if you have the sense that you used to be a very different person; someone who was happier and more confident
- if you have trouble making even simple decisions
- if you are always apologizing to the narcissist
- if you notice the narcissist making accusations or calling out behavior in you that no one has ever mentioned before
- if you feel confused or crazy and you don't know why
These are all signs that you may be being gaslighted. If you recognize any of these signs, please seek help or leave the relationship.
How Can You Stop Gaslighting?
There are 3 stages a person goes through when they are subjected to gaslighting. These are disbelief, defense and depression.
- Disbelief is defined as when the gaslighting first happens and you just sort of dismiss it as a weird occurrence or something that was out of character but isolated. You don't recognize what is happening or if you do, you disregard it because you have feelings for the narcissist and don't want to acknowledge something they are doing wrong.
- Defense is defined as the period of time when you are defending yourself against the accusations or manipulation. This stage can last a long time. As in our earlier example, let's say you ask the narcissist why they are being cruel to you and instead of actually addressing that, the narcissist says that you don't care about them. The narcissist might also say that you are imagining things, or that you are too sensitive or any number of things designed to take the focus off of their behavior and put it on yours. The end result is that the conversation becomes focused on you and how you are actually the problem. You defend, implore, remind, beseech, you do everything you can to prove these things are not true. This is where it becomes dangerous because though you are defending yourself, by doing so you have agreed that it is a problem worth talking about. The narcissist has manipulated you into agreeing it is all about you. The more you try to defend yourself, the crazier it will drive you and the more it convinces you that you really are the problem. If the narcissist would only see the truth, if you keep trying, the narcissist has to admit it, has to see it, has to believe it. Right? Wrong. They don't. And they never will, because they don't want to. This is probably the hardest thing for those who love a narcissist to understand and accept: they do not want to see you as a good person. They don't want to believe you and they are never going to. They want you to be just as horrible as they believe they themselves are, and they will do absolutely everything they can to prove that you are. It's a vicious cycle and the only way out is to stop participating in it.
- Depression is when you have stopped defending yourself against the manipulation and just give up. You allow the narcissist to control your reality and suffer more every day, for no other reason than because a sick, miserable, disordered person wants you to be just as miserable, sick and disordered as they are.
This doesn't have to happen. You can learn to defeat gaslighting by not participating in it. Don't allow the narcissist to control the conversation; make them stick to the topic or stop the conversation. Don't allow the narcissist to deflect the conversation - and the blame - onto you; ignore all attempts to do so. Don't defend yourself; you are validating the accusations by doing so. Repeat: you are validating the accusations when you defend yourself against them. Ignore them. Don't continue the conversation when gaslighting is occurring. Calmly tell the narcissist that you know things did not occur that way and walk away. Gaslighting can only work if you let it work - and you don't have to anymore.