What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting in relationships can be hard to spot. Yet it is one of the most dangerous forms of emotional abuse, if not the most dangerous. It’s a favorite tactic of narcissists, who use it in their everyday lives. Those close to them, however, may end up with the most psychological damage.
Gaslighting is designed to convince you of three things:
- You are wrong.
- The discrepancy that lies between the truth and falsehood is harmless.
- If you fight for the truth, something is wrong with you and/or something bad will happen.
This is a tri-fold attack on the basic foundation of negotiating a shared narrative for how daily life unfolds.
Over a long period of time, if you have any emotional investment at all in a person who frequently gaslights, it can create an almost insurmountable threat to your own ability to hang onto reality.
What is Gaslighting?
The narcissistic abuse dictionary defines gaslighting as:
“A form of manipulation where the narcissist denies, provides conflicting information or outright lies over and over again in direct contradiction to what another person can blatantly perceive using his or her own five senses. The other person begins to doubt his or her perception of reality.”
The term comes from a 1944 movie in which a man purposely tries to drive his wife insane by making the gaslights flicker, then tells her that she is imagining it when she points it out.
Gaslighting can be used by a narcissist in a variety of situations to:
- tell you that you didn’t see or hear what you thought you did;
- insist that you didn’t say what you know you said;
- claim your reactions and/or emotions are inappropriate for a situation;
- get you to distrust your gut feelings;
- encourage you to believe unreasonable explanations for their outrageous behavior by claiming that behavior never happened or wasn’t what you thought it was;
- confuse you about their true motives; or
- cause a commotion and blame it on you.
Making Sense of Gaslighting
Gaslighting as a concept seems straightforward, but there are two important things about it that seem highly illogical in relationships with narcissists.
One of the things that can be difficult for outsiders to understand is why people accept the gaslighter’s version of reality, even when they know it isn’t true.
Why would anyone deny their own experience and accept something they know didn’t happen? How do narcissists get people to go along with a version of events that isn’t real?
A second thing that is difficult to understand is why narcissists gaslight in situations where there seems to be no benefit to doing it, even when telling the truth would seem to be easier or more convenient. Why would a narcissist go to all that trouble? What’s the point?
Let’s take a look at how this can play out in real situations.
Gaslighting in Relationships: Examples
Relationships with narcissists typically cycle through four stages: idealization, devalution, discard, and hoovering. In each one, the narcissists treat their partners differently.’
Gaslighting is present in each, although it looks very differently in each stage.
In the examples below, I will show how the narcissist uses gaslighting tactics both within each stage and across the relationship cycle as a whole to establish and maintain control.
Gaslighting Example #1. Stage 1: Idealization
The idealization stage is characterized by the narcissist’s love-bombing. This can consist of praise and declarations of love, elaborate gifts and future promises, and domination over the partner’s time in a way that at first seems loving and concerned.
Allie: Have you talked to your sister lately?
Kevin: Yeah, last night when I was at the gym she texted me.
Allie: I thought you said you haven’t been to the gym since last week?
Kevin: No, I said I didn’t get to go to the gym last week.
Allie: Oh… okay.
In this scenario, Allie’s memory is correct. Because it is early in the relationship, she is willing to give Kevin the benefit of the doubt and believe she may have heard incorrectly.
She accepts his version of reality because she has no reason not to. Any lingering doubts she decides to just chalk up to a misunderstanding. After all, why would someone lie about something like that?
Gaslighting Example #2. Stage 2: Devaluation
The devaluation stage occurs when the narcissist’s partner has started to fall off the pedestal.
The narcissist starts to engage in a variety of abusive tactics that become increasingly worse and the partner has no idea why. During this stage, the narcissist will still sometimes behave in a loving way toward the partner.
Kevin: I didn’t see your text until I got home. I was out with my friends.
Allie: You said your boss kept you working late.
Kevin: What the hell are you talking about? No, I didn’t.
Allie: But you did. You just told me yesterday…
Kevin: You’re hearing things. Why do you always have to start an argument?
Allie: I’m not. You said you were working late, so why didn’t you tell me you went out with your friends?
Kevin: I did. What more do you want? You’re always trying to catch me doing something wrong, aren’t you?
Allie is no longer giving Kevin the benefit of the doubt. This is because she now has many memories of Kevin gaslighting her in the past.
Yet, as in the idealization stage, many of the things he lies to her about still do not make sense. He has started to punish her for asking about them by blowing up at her. He makes it sound as if she has done something wrong by asking about his lie.
It is during this stage that she begins to fear how he will react if she asks questions.
Gaslighting Example #3. Stage 3: Discard
During the discard stage, the narcissist has turned on the partner completely. By now, he or she is displaying only hostility just before abandoning the relationship with little empathy for the partner.
Kevin: My ex-girlfriend is in town and has asked me to go to have a drink with her after work.
Allie: What? You told me she cheated on you with your best friend and you never wanted to talk to her again. I thought you said you blocked her from even contacting you? I don’t understand.
Kevin: Where did you get that idea? I never said I had her blocked. At least she never got jealous like this.
Allie: No… but that’s what you… I have the text messages you sent me where you said–
Kevin: Wow. You would do anything to prove me wrong.
Allie: But why would you say–
Kevin: That’s it. I’m done with you. All you do is pick at me. Nothing I do is every good enough for you. I’m sick of this. You just can’t be happy, can you? [He walks out and ignores all of her text messages and calls]
There is a battle inside Allie now between holding onto her own reality and trying to avoid Kevin’s wrath. Kevin will not allow her to do both. She is so confused that she has begun collecting evidence and looking up for herself the times when she knows he was wrong just to prove to herself that he really did say something else.
Yet instead of viewing this act as her need to preserve her own sanity, Kevin views it as a challenge to his dominance. He expects her to choose him and the current view he is presenting her over her own needs. When she won’t, he rejects her.
Gaslighting Example #4. Stage 4: Hoovering
When the narcissist comes back to the partner to try to entice him or her back into the relationship, this is called the hoovering stage.
The narcissist will often engage with the partner as if none of the abuse happened and sometimes return to the loving persona the partner remembers from the beginning of the relationship.
Kevin: I’ve missed you so much. I’ve been so upset while we weren’t talking that I was drinking every single night.
Allie: Earlier, you said that you haven’t had a drink in a month.
Kevin: Are you trying to say I haven’t been upset?
Allie: No… I just… thought that when I asked you how you’d been doing that you said you were trying to clean up and you hadn’t been drinking.
Kevin: Why are you bringing that up right now? Who cares? That’s not even what I said.
Kevin: Forget it. I was trying to tell you how much I love you and miss you, and you obviously don’t feel the same way.
Allie: No, no, no. I do. Nevermind.
Allie is suffering from cognitive dissonance and has developed a trauma bond to Kevin, not only due to the gaslighting but to the variety of manipulation tactics he has used to establish control. His absence has created anxiety and sense of loss in her that is extremely painful, and his contact is the beginning of the end of the pain.
He has conditioned her to give up her version of reality before he will rescue her from the suffering she feels.
Why Do Narcissists Gaslight?
With these examples, it’s easy to see that gaslighting is so dangerous because it enables narcissists to gain control of the partner’s mind.
Each individual moment when a narcissist gaslights about something petty seems so inconsequential. Why force a scene or a breakup over whether someone said they ate pork or chicken at dinner? Or whether they got home at seven or nine?
It begins to get more serious when they start to gaslight partners over their relationships to exes or other people.
Even then, however, the punishments they inflict for doubting them become the distractions that overtake the discussion.
Over time, the buildup of dozens or hundreds of incidents of gaslighting over a period of months or years changes the way someone’s mind operates. It also conditions the partner to accept the narcissist’s version of reality through a system of rewards and punishments.
H.G. Tudor, a self-aware narcissist, has a well-written article in which he describes the various levels of “defense” narcissists will employ when they are confronted with a challenge to their control.1
He argues that narcissists will first resort to denial and then if confronted with evidence, they will distract and deflect. No matter how they do it–whether through anger, charm, blameshifting, stonewalling, or some other method, it always comes down to maintaining control. By forcing the partner to accept the narrative that the narcissist has laid out at any given time, he or she maintains control.
Even when the partner fights back and insists that the narcissist is lying, the narcissist maintains control by receiving narcissistic supply–because the narcissist will never admit to being wrong.
It’s too ingrained in narcissists to lie. And, as you can see from each example above, it benefits them too much to do it. In every scenario, they have nothing to lose to try to get others to accept a different version of reality, whether we let it go or challenge them.
When you’re with a narcissist, accepting that they will try to gaslight you is a way of life.
How to Deal with Gaslighting in Relationships
Even though you may not be able to stop it, there are a few things you can do to try to counter or defend yourself. Here’s how to deal with gaslighting.
1. Continue to collect “evidence” that it’s happening–for yourself.
If you see contradictory texts, go ahead and keep them. You don’t necessarily need to say anything but every time you do this, you’re reaffirming to yourself that it actually happened and helping yourself stay grounded.
2. Trust your gut.
Everyone has a miscommunication in relationships sometimes. Yet if this happens frequently and you’ve caught the narcissist actually gaslighting you, but there are times when you’re not sure or you don’t actually have evidence, go with your gut.
Don’t give in to the doubt. Those times in the beginning when you let things go because it didn’t seem worth it have made it so much easier to stop trusting your gut.
Start listening to it. It’s telling you that you remember something differently for a reason.
3. Each time this happens, write it down as soon as you can.
Something about the act of writing something down and getting it out of your mind actually makes something more real.
If you can write down what was said or what happened the first time and then how the narcissist tried to get you to believe something differently later, you can help to make that line feel less blurry in your mind later.
In the moments when they are gaslighting you, you have been making choices whether you know it or not, about whether to believe them or not. Often what probably happened was that you told yourself they were wrong, but you had doubts about yourself.
Imagine yourself walking around with constant doubts about your ability to remember things.
If that’s what you’ve been doing and you start to write these instances down, you will start to see how often it actually happens. You may start to realize that you can’t possibly be wrong all of those times.
4. Respond with “Hmm… that’s not what I remember” and then let it go.
This is something you will have to review for yourself to determine whether it’s a good idea or not. If you think it’s dangerous, please don’t do it.
Saying this, if you feel able to do so, is for your benefit not for the benefit of the narcissist or the conversation. Remember, nothing you say is likely going to change the outcome of the conversation. The reason why saying this can be effective is it can create conviction in your mind that something different did actually happen.
This is an “I” statement and phrased in about the least challenging thing way possible. Say it in the least confrontational tone of voice possible, and no matter what the narcissist says back, don’t challenge again. Instead respond with something benign such as, “Oh okay.”
The narcissist may say, “You heard wrong. I said…” The response could be, “Oh okay.”
The narcissist may say, “Why do you have to argue?” The response could be, “I wasn’t trying to. I’m sorry.”
Do not let the narcissist persuade you that you are wrong. You do not have to let the narcissist know that they have not convinced you.
5. If the narcissist walks out, use the time to empower yourself.
You will be unable to control what the narcissist does. In any conversation where gaslighting occurs, there is always a possibility that the narcissist will leave at some point in an attempt to control you or get you to accept his or her version of reality.
Whether he or she leaves for an hour, two weeks, six months or indefinitely, it is important that you use the time instead to focus on your version of reality.
This is the time to read over the list of gaslighting incidents that you have written down, read about gaslighting on the Internet, and detach emotionally as much as possible from the impact of the narcissist’s words you’ve already heard so that when you hear new ones, they won’t draw you in.
You can’t keep a gaslighter from trying to gaslight you. The only way to beat a gaslighter is to hang onto your version of reality and don’t let it go.
Don’t forget to check out these resources:
- Taking Your Life Back After a Relationship With a Narcissist – Free Recovery Toolkit
- Comprehensive Narcissistic Abuse Dictionary
- Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Playlist
- The Best Resources for Narcissistic Abuse Recovery
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1 Tudor, H.G. (2017) “The Narcissist’s Twin Lines of Defence.” Located at: https://narcsite.com/2017/07/23/the-narcissists-twin-lines-of-defence/