Gaslighting is one of the most dangerous types of emotional abuse, yet gaslighting examples can be difficult to spot in everyday life.
It’s a covert form of abuse. It only works because it’s invisible.
No one comes out and says they’re gaslighting you and, unlike more blatant forms of abuse, such as verbal abuse, the abuser can deny they’re doing something harmful to you.
This is why gaslighting is so effective. If we have any emotional investment at all in a person who frequently gaslights us, their manipulative gaslighting can create an almost insurmountable threat to our own ability to hang onto reality.
What is Gaslighting?
According to Preston Ni, author of How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Bullying, the term gaslighting is defined as, “a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and to ultimately lose their own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth.”
The abuser tries to cause confusion in the victim’s mind and convince him or her that they have a distorted view of something and haven’t perceived it accurately.
The victim understandably becomes confused. The abuser then tries to convince the victim to adopt a different reality because it benefits the abuser in some way.
The term gaslighting comes from a 1944 play turned film, Gaslight, 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.
Examples of gaslighting in real life may go as far as incidents that are reminiscent of the actual “gaslight” trick in the film, such as when an abuser purposely hides items belonging to the victim and tells the victim that he or she misplaced them.
However, more frequent examples of gaslighting occur when gaslighters try to convince their victims that something didn’t actually happen or that the victim’s emotions are not appropriate. Someone may also gaslight to try to convince others that they are the true victims in a situation or in any other way that minimizes the victim’s thoughts or feelings.
Gaslighting in Relationships with Narcissists
Robin Stern, Ph.D., who wrote the book The Gaslight Effect, characterizes gaslighting as a “dance” that the gaslighter and the victim of gaslighting do.
To Stern, the gaslighter presents an option for an alternate reality, and the victim allows this alternative reality to become his or her replacement version of events. She frames the victim’s willingness to take on the abuser’s version of events as “giving over their power.”
This implies there was a conscious choice on the part of the victim. This model for explaining how gaslighting takes place may be sufficient in some situations.
However, there are many other situations where it falls short of explaining the dynamic. It gives the victim more agency than they actually have in some situations. It doesn’t take into account power imbalances between the gaslighter and victim. When powerful social dynamics are affecting the victim, there may be a degree of coercion involved, or the gaslighting may be used with other forms of abuse, or the victim may not even be aware he or she is being gaslighted.
For example, Stern’s model can’t explain gaslighting by an authoritarian leader over a larger group or a cult. It certainly doesn’t explain parent-child gaslighting abuse.
It doesn’t explain adequately workplace gaslighting between a supervisor and employee, or gaslighting in relationships with narcissists, where the narcissist is has deceived the partner about his or her exploitative nature.
In relationships with narcissists, the narcissists who gaslight may deny, provide conflicting information, or lie repeatedly, all in direct contradiction to what someone can perceive with their own eyes or ears. [Read: The Ultimate Narcissistic Abuse Dictionary]
The gaslighting is almost always combined with other methods of coercion and control to manipulate the partner into accepting the narcissist’s reality.
H.G. Tudor, a self-aware narcissist, has a well-written article in which he explains that there are two levels of “defense” narcissists will employ when they are confronted with a challenge to their control.
He argues that narcissists will first resort to denial and then if confronted with evidence, they will distract and deflect. This defense on the narcissist’s part results in gaslighting to the partners.
No matter how they gaslight us–whether through anger, charm, blameshifting, stonewalling, or some other method, it always comes down to maintaining control. [See the The Ultimate Narcissistic Abuse Dictionary to review unfamiliar terms]
The narcissist maintains control at all times by forcing the partner to accept the narrative that he or she has laid out. Even when the partner fights back and insists that the narcissist is lying, the narcissist still maintains control by receiving narcissistic supply. The narcissist will never admit to being wrong.
Gaslighting, when used by narcissists and combined with other emotionally abusive tactics, is designed to convince us of three things:
- Our own perceptions are wrong.
- Letting go of our perceptions and adopting theirs is harmless or even a good thing.
- Fighting to hold onto our perceptions indicates that something is wrong with us and will bring negative consequences.
Ni states that there is a spectrum of harm when it comes to the effects of gaslighting. On one end of the spectrum, a power imbalance increases. On the other end, the gaslighter has used gaslighting as a form of mind control and the victim no longer has much ability to think for himself or herself.
Narcissist Gaslighting Examples in Romantic Relationships
Gaslighting is a favorite tactic of individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It is arguably a core feature of narcissistic abuse, characterized under a broader heading of “Deception,” and has special significance in our relationships with them. [Read: Narcissistic Abuse is a Dangerous Cocktail of Three Types of Emotional Abuse]
Relationships with narcissists typically cycle through four stages: idealization, devalution, discard, and hoovering, described more in detail below. [Read: How the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle Keeps Us from Leaving]
In each stage, narcissists treat their partners differently. Partners of narcissists are exposed to different forms of gaslighting in each stage, and the effects of gaslighting will be different as well.
Review the gaslighting examples below to learn how narcissists use it to gain and maintain control at different stages of narcissistic abuse cycle.
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. [Read: Why Love-Bombing is the Most Dangerous Stage of Narcissistic Abuse]
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.
Assume that in this scenario, Allie’s memory is correct. She is willing to give Kevin the benefit of the doubt, however.
She considers that she may have heard him wrong the first time he brought up the gym. It’s early in the relationship and she has no reason to doubt him. And, after all, why would someone lie about 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 increasingly worsen and the partner has no idea why.
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: She did, but then I went with my friends after.
Allie: Why didn’t you tell me you were going out with your friends?
Kevin: I did. When I told you about my boss keeping me late, I told you I would be going with my friends when I got off work.
Allie: You said you were working late, so why didn’t you just 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?
In this stage, Allie is no longer giving Kevin the benefit of the doubt. This is because she now has many memories of Kevin’s words not matching up over time. When his initial lie doesn’t immediately work and she continues to question him, he escalates his attempts to gaslight her.
His “how dare you question me” response to her questions is a form of contempt that characterizes the devaluation stage. By accusing her of trying to find fault with him, he shifts the focus from his lie to her actions, making her attempts to reconcile reality seem as if something is wrong with her.
These attempts to punish her for not accepting his version of events is designed to condition her into not speaking up.
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, I’m not jealous about it…it’s just that’s what you said… 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]
Kevin has now escalated the gaslighting to the point to where he has made himself the victim of Allie’s actions. Just by asking Kevin about the discrepancy between his actions and his words, she has challenged his dominance in his eyes.
Allie now must make a choice between holding onto her own reality and trying to avoid Kevin’s wrath. Kevin will not allow her to do both. By walking out, he has given her a stark choice: accept this horribly blatant discrepancy in what he has said or be attacked, rejected, and treated as if she doesn’t exist.
Kevin’s actions, in combination with one another, are very effective, and Allie begins to absorb the idea that she is to blame for all of the issues in the relationship. What Kevin said and what’s really going on never get addressed.
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. [Read: Why Narcissists Hoover]
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 in this conversation, 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. He has flipped the script and used gaslighting to sow doubt about her judgment and sanity. It is easier this time to accept his gaslighting because his absence has created anxiety and sense of loss in her that is extremely painful.
We often take for granted that everyone agrees that basic facts are true, by definition.
We assume that others with whom we share our lives will also share a collaborative story with us about events that happen that affect us both, even if we don’t agree on how those events made us feel.
Victims of gaslighting, however, have their reality erased.
They may feel confused, but they eventually accept a different version of events, giving the gaslighter control over the their perception of reality and, over time, a lot more.
Learning how to recognize examples of gaslighting in our own lives requires us to observe and compare someone’s words and actions across multiple situations when something doesn’t seem right.
We then find ourselves mentally wrestling with what to believe. When we weigh those factors consciously, we may think about things such as the person’s intent, the strength of our own memories, and even whether the time spent thinking about it is worth it.
The first step to keep from becoming a victim of gaslighting yourself (or to remove a narcissist from your life who is using gaslighting as a tool to controlling you) is to clearly understand gaslighting examples to understand how gaslighting works.
Ni, Preston. (2017). 8 Signs That Someone is in a Relationship with a Gaslighter. Psychology Today. Located at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201702/8-signs-someone-is-in-relationship-gaslighter
Stern, Robin. (2007). The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life. New York: Harmony.
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/
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