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 the home illumination has changed in any way. The scheme causes her to begin doubting her perception, judgment, and reality.
Narcissists intentionally gaslight others to cause an emotional or physical reaction. When their target reacts, it’s a form of narcissistic supply, which makes the narcissist feel stronger. The narcissist remains calm and rational, which causes their target to feel insecure and irrational.
How do I know if I’m being gaslighted?
When you’re being gaslighted, you don’t always know what’s happening, but you may intuitively feel that something isn’t right. You’re primarily confused, stressed, and frustrated, but you can’t figure out the reason why. It gives a narcissist a huge amount of power and control for you to feel these emotions. It’s “narcissistic supply” for them, and emotional abuse for you, in the form of a mind game. (Narcissistic supply is the insatiable need for attention that a narcissist craves, used to prop up and feed their sense of self-worth and self-esteem.) When a narcissist gaslights, they feel superior in controlling your beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions.
You’re likely being gaslighted if:
- Your narcissist uses your fears or insecurities against you. If you divulge any insecurities or personal worries, at some point, they will be used against you in some manner. Again, this allows the narcissist to feel superior to you as a form of supply.
- Your narcissist wants you to think they know you better than you know yourself. Sometimes, they may say they know what you’re thinking, and if you tell them they’re wrong, they’ll believe you’re lying. They may roll their eyes at you or make a disgusted face, even state that you’re lying. Narcissists simply cannot allow themselves to be wrong.
- Your narcissist has you do things for them 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 know it isn’t, then you’re probably being gaslighted. For example, when I was a child, my mother frequently had me lie to adults on her behalf. Usually, the lie was that she had a headache, or that she didn’t feel well, or wasn’t at home. She just expected me to do this without question. Growing up this way, I believed this was normal. Later, in my teens, when I started to recognize that this wasn’t something all kids had to do, I refused to do it anymore. It felt wrong, and it felt like I was being used. I thought that she should, as the adult, speak to the other adult herself. She made it known that she was disgusted with me for expecting her to be honest or at the very least, to do her own lying. The ironic thing here is that my mother was very vocal about how much she detested liars. She took a strong stand against lying and stated that once someone lied to her, she could never trust them again. She touted herself as a truthful and honest, trustworthy person.
- Your narcissist “diagnoses” you and tells you what’s wrong with you. You’re informed that you’re mentally ill, that 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.
- Your narcissist rewrites history. They inform you that what you know to be accurate or real, is not accurate, real, correct or factual. Then will then tell you what is.
- Your narcissist tells you that your memory is faulty. Narcissists may recall or retell a 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 effects, especially if it’s ongoing. You may find yourself lying if it helps you avoid the stress of having your reality discarded and re-written. Or you may lie simply to avoid the inevitable arguments. You’ll do what needs to be done to prevent your narcissist from becoming triggered, angry, or abusive.
A significant symptom of gaslighting is the constant feeling of confusion or being off-balance. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of healing because we’ve learned to disregard our intuition and our sense of trust, indeed sometimes our whole perception of reality. Because we may have learned to trust our narcissist’s interpretation of the world and rely on it instead of our own, we begin to doubt our reality and we convince ourselves that our narcissist’s version of reality is correct.
How does being gaslighted feel?
There’s a feeling of things not “adding up,” and you get confused and disoriented easily when having arguments or conversations with them. You may possibly feel as if reality isn’t actually “real.” I came to think of these discrepancies as a flaw within myself, instead of in my mother. I had obsessive thoughts, trying to figure out and make sense of the disparity between what I observed myself, knowing what I saw or heard, and what I was told that I saw or heard (or didn’t see or hear.) The internal conflict this causes often leads to us accepting that our narcissist’s version of reality is correct. This is called cognitive dissonance. It’s a way of making sense of what’s happening, to feel less confused.
When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist who’s gaslighting you, you may get unexpected or inappropriate responses to common questions or actions, and your own reactions may be determined to be incorrect or unreasonable. You may start to wonder why your narcissist gives you strange looks that make you question yourself. Fearful for your mental health, you worry that you might be losing your mind. You might begin thinking that you’re the illogical one, or that you’re mentally ill. You likely feel confused all the time, but your observations are never validated.
You’ll even come to doubt your own 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 imagined it,” or “You dreamed it.” This was the attribute of gaslighting that harmed me the most. Continually being told that I perceived, and therefore remembered, events incorrectly had me in a continual state of self-doubt and confusion. It negatively impacted my ability to make decisions and to trust my own judgment and perceptions.
This form of abuse leads to feeling depressed, anxious, helpless, hopeless, or exhausted. You may feel surreal, like you’re invisible, or like you don’t exist. Your sense of reality may seem” fuzzy” around the edges, and you can’t think clearly. You probably have trouble problem-solving and making decisions because you doubt your judgment or your observations.
And while you’re struggling with all of this, your narcissist will continue to play the mind games, twisting your perception of reality.
Eventually, you may begin to depend on your narcissist to tell what’s real and what isn’t. You’ll rely on them to tell you what happened, how it happened and how you should remember it. If the gaslighting is constant, your reality will depend on their interpretation of it. You’ll begin to lose your sense of self. If this happens, you’ve likely started to dissociate and become the version of “you” that your narcissist already believes you are.
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
Learn about expectations
More resources to guide you in healing from childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (ebook, audiobook, hardcover, and paperback.)
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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, Diane Metcalf has developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those insights with others who want to learn.
Her books and articles are the result of her education, knowledge, personal growth, and insight regarding her childhood experiences and subsequent recovery work.
Diane holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She has worked in numerous fields including domestic violence and abuse and is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer about family dysfunction. Currently, she writes about recovery from narcissistic victim syndrome and symptoms of C-PTSD on The Toolbox and has authored three books in the “Lemon Moms” series. Visit her author’s website here.
She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager, or Advocate.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.