The Power Dynamics of Gaslighting: How Narcissists Use It for Control
“Gaslighting” is an expression you may notice coming into conversations a lot recently. It was the Miriam-Webster word of the year in 2022! The word “gaslighting” came from the 1938 stage play Gaslight. In this creepy story, a husband tries to drive his wife insane by dimming their home’s gas-powered lights, and when his wife notices and comments, he denies that the lighting has changed in any way. This devilish scheme causes her to begin doubting her perception, judgment, and reality. Does this sound familiar?
Gaslighting is a specific form of emotional abuse and coercive control often used by narcissists. When engaging in gaslighting, narcissists derive a sense of superiority from their ability to manipulate and control the beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions of others.
Recognizing Gaslighting: Signs and Tactics Used by Narcissists in Emotional Abuse
There are several signs that indicate you may be the target of gaslighting:
- A narcissist uses your fears or insecurities against you, exploiting any vulnerabilities you have shared with them to assert dominance and superiority.
- They want you to believe that they know you better than you know yourself, often claiming to know your thoughts and feelings. If you challenge their assertions, they will accuse you of lying and may respond with dismissive gestures or expressions.
- A narcissist may require you to engage in actions that are inappropriate, morally wrong, or even illegal, while insisting that it is acceptable behavior. If you find yourself regularly being told that something you feel is abnormal is actually “normal,” it is likely that you are 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 like I was being used. It also felt like she should, as the adult, speak to other adults on her behalf directly. She made it clear that she was disappointed with me for wanting her to be honest and to stop expecting me to lie for her.
- A narcissist may “diagnose” you with mental illness or other issues as a means of undermining your judgment and sanity. They may insult you or question your decision-making, suggesting that you need therapy or medication. However, it is important to understand that these tactics are not about you; they are solely about the narcissist’s need for control and superiority.
- Gaslighting often involves the narcissist “rewriting history,” denying or distorting events that you know to be accurate or real. This can be particularly distressing when you witness the narcissist engaging in frightening or abusive behavior, only to have them deny it later. 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 or when she was exhibiting a narcissistic rage. I would later ask her about it, and she would gaslight me. For example, I once 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 hadn’t known I’d overheard the entire hurtful scenario and, looking at me with shock and disbelief, she replied, “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.”
By gaslighting, narcissists may also undermine your memory, recalling shared experiences in ways that portray themselves as rational, good, and righteous, while casting your behavior as irrational or shameful. They often position themselves as either the hero or the victim in their retelling of events.
Gaslighting can be a manipulative tactic to elicit an emotional reaction from you. Their target’s reaction serves as a form of narcissistic supply by boosting their sense of superiority and control. In these types of situations, the narcissist will remain calm and rational, intentionally causing their target to feel insecure and irrational.
When subjected to gaslighting, a target may not be aware of what is happening, but they may have an intuitive sense that some sort of mind game is being played. Gaslighting leads to confusion, stress, frustration, and a sense of being unable to understand the situation. Ultimately, gaslighting grants the narcissist a significant amount of power and control over the target.
Gaslighting and Memory Distortion: How Narcissists Rewrite History to Maintain Control
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 a constant feeling of confusion or being off-balance. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of healing from gaslighting. That’s because we’ve learned to disregard our own intuition, and our sense of self-trust, as well as our memories, minds, and indeed our very perception! But because we have learned to trust our narcissist’s interpretation of the world, we rely on their version of reality instead of our own. We convince ourselves that their version of reality is correct, and there’s a feeling of things not adding up; we start feeling confused or maybe disoriented. I came to think of these discrepancies (between my reality and my mother’s version) as a flaw within myself. I continually tried to figure out and make sense of the discrepancy 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 receive unexpected or inappropriate responses to common questions or actions from your 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 question yourself. You feel confused by things the narcissist says and does, but your observations can’t be validated because no one but you is 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 as if 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 you have that makes them appear less than great. If the gaslighting is constant, you will begin to depend on your narcissist’s interpretation of reality. When this happens you may eventually lose your sense of self and you may also begin to disassociate. What’s happening is that you’re losing your self-identity, becoming the version of “you” that your narcissist thinks you are or wants you to be.
In summary, gaslighting is a manipulative tactic employed by narcissists to exert control and power. It is a form of emotional abuse that can leave you feeling confused, stressed, and insecure. Recognizing the signs of gaslighting is crucial in order to protect oneself from its harmful effects.
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For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers.
My mom didn’t hug or kiss, smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She never seemed happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day and wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did. My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities, and at times, she ignored me, not speaking to me for days, weeks, or even months. When she felt sad I was expected to emotionally care-take her. When she didn’t feel like parenting, I was responsible for my siblings. When she lost her temper she hit. When I was disobedient, there were bizarre punishments.
I was not allowed to express feelings, ask questions, or show initiative or curiosity. My feelings were discounted, minimized, or invalidated. She re-wrote my memories, and I was expected to believe her version. I was to obey, stay quiet, and not question.
If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. If there is manipulation, power struggles, or cruelty in your relationship, this book can help. If you second-guess your memory, doubt your judgment or sanity, or continually seek your mother’s withheld affection, attention, approval, or love, this book can explain why.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
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