According to Wikipedia, “Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a targeted group making them question their own memory, perception and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief.” Not all narcissists are gaslighters, and not all gaslighters are narcissists. But the correlation is often very close.
Gaslighting happens in many different personal relationships; parents, spouses, manipulative bosses, competitive co-workers and even public figures. Many authoritarian dictators have been obvious gaslighters, preying on the fears of their constituents and denying or minimizing the reality of their everyday lives.
Parental gaslighting can be severe or subtle. A subtle example of parental gaslighting is the highly critical mother. Eventually the daughter questions her own decisions if she thinks mom won’t agree. Mom may not actually want to control her daughter’s decisions, but by being overly critical, she is doing so. If you are being gaslighted by someone you love or care about, you may want to believe them and change your opinions about your own reality to avoid conflict with a spouse or parent. I’ve heard extreme examples of parental gaslighting in my practice when a client tells me they were physically or sexually abused by a parent, and the parent denies this reality in no uncertain terms. Of course the victim feels abused a second time; first the assault, then the denial of the assault.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline fact sheet, the techniques a gaslighter may use to manipulate someone include:
- Withholding (meaning he or she refuses to listen or says they don’t understand)
- Countering (when the abuser questions the gaslighters memory of an event)
- Blocking (when the abuser changes the subject or questions the victim’s thinking)
- Trivializing (making victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant)
- Forgetting/Denial (when the manipulator pretends to have forgotten what actually happened or denies something he or she previously agreed to)
Gaslighters tell blatant lies and wear you down over time by telling those lies over and over. They deny they ever said something even though you have proof that they did. Their actions don’t always match their words which causes confusion. They know that confusion weakens people. They tell you others are liars and try to align others against you and you against others. They tell you and everyone else that you are crazy.
What are the solutions to this horrifying situation?
Identify the problem. Speak the truth to yourself and others.
Give yourself permission to feel what you feel.
Start with small decisions. Don’t engage in power struggles.
Give yourself permission to leave the relationship even if you care about the abuser. No number of wonderful things in a relationship compensates for someone denying your reality.
Get second opinions from friends and family. Ask them if they think your feelings and thoughts are as off base as the abuser claims.
Seek therapy from a therapist who understands narcissism and gaslighting to help you break the cycle.