If you are dealing with a narcissist in your life or grew up with a narcissistic parent, you may have experienced “gaslighting.” It is a form of verbal and psychological abuse that is insidiously cruel, with the intention of making a person doubt their own sanity. It destabilizes a person and can make you wonder about your own memory or perception of reality.
True narcissists are not accountable for their own bad behavior. It is common for them to blame others and make it someone else’s fault. They use denial, accusation, misdirection and lying to throw you off base. You can walk away wondering if it is just your imagination or if you are sorely mistaken and it is truly your fault. Here are some examples of how gaslighting can play out in relationships.
Claire used manipulative gaslighting on her brother Jack. She was jealous of Jack and when she would go to his house, she would steal things from him. She then proudly displayed those things in her own home. When Jack would visit and see the stolen goods, he would say, “Hey Claire, that’s mine!” Claire then would follow by telling Jack that he had given these items to her and he must have just forgotten! Jack told me he usually caved and chalked it up to his own lapse of memory.
A young woman wrote to me about her narcissistic ex-husband. He had not paid the light bill when they were married. He came home to find her and the children sitting in the dark with candles. She showed him the delinquent bill and he yelled, “I paid that bill, are you going to believe your eyes or me?” As they stood there in the dark!
We see gaslighting happen when a spouse decides to cheat and is attempting to conceal the infidelity. When confronted, it is common for them to accuse their spouse of being crazy, too jealous, or insecure. I’ve talked to many men and women who have been betrayed by their partners who say that for quite some time in their situations with a cheater, they actually thought they were just losing their minds and being unreasonable. They look back after finding the truth and wonder how someone could manipulate them in this way and with such conviction and forceful intent.
Brenda was in therapy discussing her narcissistic mother. When Brenda confronted her mother on childhood issues, the mother’s reaction was to say: “it’s just your imagination!” “You are too sensitive.” “That did not happen.” Brenda then recoiled in self-doubt and wondered if she had just made up her reality. She was left with the feeling that she did not matter.
Many adult children of narcissistic parents attempt to eventually confront their parents about their childhood. This usually does not go well with a narcissist and I don’t encourage it. What usually happens is the narcissistic parent denies the reality, calls their child a liar, or just says they don’t remember it that way at all. This results in the adult child feeling more angst, disappointment and pain. It leaves them with one more experience of not having their feelings validated or acknowledged and they walk away once again feeling loss and lack of authenticity with the parent. One client sadly joked with me saying, “my parents say come on home and visit, we will leave the gaslight on for you!”
Gaslighting is emotionally abusive and ultimately gives the abuser more power to dominate the relationship. It can happen very gradually, so the victim goes from just thinking they misread a situation to really believing they must be going crazy. This can cause long term damage to a person’s mental health resulting in mistrust towards others in general and can even interfere with the ability to form healthy relationships in the future.
If you think you are a victim of gaslighting, here are 5 suggestions:
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.