What is gaslighting?
“Gaslighting” is an expression borrowed from the 1938 stage play Gaslight. In the story, a husband tries to drive his wife insane by dimming their home’s gas-powered lights. When his wife notices and comments, he denies that their home illumination has changed in any way. This devilish scheme causes her to begin doubting her perception, judgment, and reality. Does this sound familiar?
How do I know if I’m being gaslighted?
Gaslighting can be used to get a reaction. For a narcissist, when a target reacts, it’s a form of narcissistic supply. The narcissist remains calm and rational, which causes the target to feel insecure and irrational. When you’re being gaslighted, you don’t always know what’s happening, but you may intuitively feel that some kind of mind-game is going on. You’re confused, stressed, and frustrated, and you can’t figure out why. All of this gives a narcissist a huge amount of power and control. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. When a narcissist gaslights, they feel superior in their ability to control your beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions.
You’re likely being gaslighted if:
- A narcissist uses your fears or insecurities against you. If you divulge any insecurities or personal worries to them, at some point, those will be used against you. This allows the narcissist to feel superior to you.
- A narcissist wants you to think they know you better than you know yourself. They might say they know what you’re thinking, and if you say they’re wrong, they’ll only believe you’re lying. They may roll their eyes or make a disgusted face. Narcissists simply cannot allow themselves to be wrong.
- A narcissist requires you to do things that aren’t appropriate (or morally right or legal, etc.) and tells you that it’s OK.
- If you’re regularly told that something’s “normal” when you feel it isn’t, then you’re probably being gaslighted. For example, when I was a child, my mother frequently had me lie to other adults on her behalf. Usually, the lie was that she had a headache, or she didn’t feel well or wasn’t home. She expected this from me without question. Growing up this way, I believed that doing this for my mother was normal. In my teens, when I started to recognize that this wasn’t something all kids had to do, I refused to continue doing it. It felt wrong, and I felt I was being used. It also felt like she should, as the adult, speak to other adults directly. She made it clear that she was disappointed with me for wanting her to be honest and not expect me to lie for her anymore.
- A narcissist “diagnoses” you and tells you what’s “wrong” with you. You’re informed that you’re mentally ill, or you need help, or that you have “issues.” When a narcissist doesn’t get their way, they will insult you and question your judgment or your sanity. They may tell you that you need therapy or medication. This really isn’t about you, though. In fact, it has nothing to do with you; it’s all about their need to feel superior and in control of you and your relationship.
- A narcissist rewrites history. They inform you that what you know to be accurate or real is, in fact, not correct or factual. The most common type of gaslighting I experienced as a child was when I witnessed my mother saying or doing something frightening, threatening, or mean-spirited (and when she was exhibiting a narcissistic rage). I would later ask her about it, and she would gaslight me. For example, I overheard her viciously mistreating my grandmother by loudly verbally abusing her. I confronted my mother about it when she exited my grandmother’s bedroom. She didn’t realize I’d overheard the entire vicious scenario and looked at me with shock and disbelief. Then she looked confused and said, “What are you talking about? I didn’t scream at her or call her names.” She calmly and flatly denied it, explaining, “You must have dreamt it.”
- A narcissist tells you your memory is faulty. Narcissists recall or retell a shared memory very differently than you, which is OK since we all perceive differently. The problem here is that they will describe their behavior or reaction as rational, good, and righteous, but spin yours as irrational or shameful. In their version, they are always either the hero or the victim.
What does gaslighting do?
Gaslighting can have severe mental and emotional effects, especially if it’s ongoing. If you’re being gaslighted, you may begin doing whatever it takes to avoid stress, arguments or to prevent the narcissist from becoming triggered, angry, or abusive.
A significant symptom of gaslighting is the constant feeling of confusion or being off-balance that I’ve mentioned. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of healing from gaslighting. That’s because we’ve learned to disregard our intuition, our sense of trust, memories, minds, and indeed our perception of anything! Because we may have learned to trust the narcissist’s interpretation of the world and rely on it instead of our own, we begin to doubt our reality and convince ourselves that their version of reality is correct. There’s a feeling of things not adding up; a feeling of confusion and disorientation when we’re around them. I came to think of these discrepancies (between my reality and my mother’s version) as a flaw in myself. I drove myself crazy trying to figure out and make sense of the disparity between what I observed with my senses and what I was told that I observed. This kind of internal conflict is called cognitive dissonance, and it’s the “crazy-making” aspect of gaslighting.
You may get unexpected or inappropriate responses to common questions or actions from a narcissist, and your reactions may be deemed to be incorrect or unreasonable. You may get strange “looks” from them that make you question your every move. Fearful for your mental health, you might worry that you are losing your mind. You may begin believing you’re illogical, irrational, or mentally ill. You likely feel confused by things the narcissist says and does, but your observations can’t be validated because no one else is usually around when it happens.
You’ll come to doubt your memory. This was a big one for me, because my mother liked to overwrite my perceptions and memories with her own, I heard a lot of, “I never said that,” “You dreamt it,” or “You imagined it.” This was the attribute of gaslighting that harmed me the most. Continually being told that I perceived and remembered events “incorrectly” had me in a continual state of self-doubt, confusion, and disorientation. It negatively impacted my ability to make decisions and to trust my judgment.
Gaslighting leads to feeling depressed, anxious, helpless, hopeless, or exhausted. Life may begin to feel surreal, you may feel like you’re invisible, or like you don’t actually exist. Your sense of reality may seem” fuzzy,” and you can’t think straight You’ll have trouble problem-solving and making decisions because you doubt your judgment or your observations.
And while you’re struggling, the narcissist will continue to play mind games and twist your perception.
Eventually, you may begin to rely on the narcissist to tell you what’s “real” and what isn’t. They’ll happily tell you what you’re thinking and what you remember, and they’ll correct any memory that makes them appear less than great. If the gaslighting is constant, your reality will begin to depend on the narcissist’s interpretation. You’ll eventually lose your sense of self, and when this happens, you’ve probably also started to disassociate. What’s happening is that you’re losing your self-identity and becoming the version of “you” that your narcissist thinks you are.
Could you be feeling the effects of Narcissism Awareness Grief? Download the free chapter to find out:
from Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions.
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. The good news is that we can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
Understand the Abuse Cycle
Learn about codependency
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control, by using loving-detachment
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, author Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on family dysfunction and narcissism. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology. She has worked in numerous human service fields, including domestic violence and partner abuse.
She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward, including the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains maternal narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
The Lemon Moms series, as well as her other books and articles, are an aggregation of education, insight, and personal growth resulting from childhood experiences and her subsequent recovery work.
She writes about strategies for recovering and moving on from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships on The Toolbox blog.
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.