Narcissistic gaslighting is a form of gaslighting that is abusive and motivated by wanting to exert control and feel superior.
Gaslighting manipulates another person (or group of people) into doubting their own memory, perception, and potentially their sanity. It can take on various forms but commonly includes lying and denying, misdirecting, and contradicting.
People with high levels of narcissism (“narcissists”) use gaslighting as a way to control other people’s feelings, thoughts, and actions.
Narcissism is a type of personality characterized by a lack of empathy, an excessive need for admiration, and a sense of entitlement and superiority. Narcissists are therefore driven to gaslight as a way to protect their ego, stop others from challenging them, maintain control, and feel superior.
Their aim is to undermine the victim and strengthen their own belief and position. Narcissistic gaslighting can have an element of sadistic pleasure, which refers to deriving pleasure from being cruel to or hurting another person.
In This Article
Is gaslighting the same as narcissism?
Gaslighting and narcissism are not the same things; gaslighting is a strategy often used by narcissists.
Narcissism refers to a personality structure, or a pattern of personality traits, whereas gaslighting refers to behavior.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that weakens the victim and makes them more dependent on the perpetrator. That means gaslighting is not the same as narcissism but it is a strategy often used by narcissists.
The core traits of narcissism include selfishness, entitlement, hypersensitivity, and antagonism. The need to gaslight is born out of these characteristics and a need to preserve their inflated and grandiose image of themselves.
If someone else calls into question their beliefs or uncovers their lies, it will be met with abusive and/or defensive behavior, including gaslighting.
Do All Narcissists Use Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a common strategy used by narcissists to keep another person under their control. However, not all narcissists gaslight, and similarly, not all people who gaslight are narcissists.
In other words, if someone gaslights you, it does not necessarily mean they are narcissistic. It can happen unintentionally or from a place of wanting to be right, rather than wanting to control another person.
Narcissistic gaslighting checklist
Relationships with narcissistic individuals often go through a similar pattern; starting with idealization or “love bombing“, moving through the devaluation phase, and often ending in being discarded or rejected.
When a narcissist meets someone they believe will give them what they want (excessive admiration, attention, etc.), they employ a strategy called love bombing to reel that person in. This includes grand gestures, exaggerated affection, and lavish compliments and gifts.
It can be difficult to identify whether what is happening is love bombing as new relationships often feel exciting and passionate. Red flags can include demanding an excessive amount of your time or being jealous early on, or telling you they love you after a few days or weeks.
Once the narcissist has gained your trust through love bombing and other tactics, their true nature starts to show – marking the beginning of the devaluation phase. This is often also when gaslighting behavior starts.
Because of the initial idealization, you might try to do whatever you can to please them and return back to how things were. A narcissist will use this to their advantage as you are more likely to be vulnerable to gaslighting and stay under their control.
You may notice behaviors that are unusual, hurtful and confusing but feel unsure whether they are considered gaslighting. The behavior can be subtle, which means it is important to pay close attention to the words and actions of the other person and to your own feelings.
The Gaslight Effect
If you start to question what you know to be true, what kind of person you are, and your sanity, it can be a sign of gaslighting. Psychoanalyst, Robin Stern (2007) describes three phases of the “Gaslight Effect”:
- Disbelief: At this stage, you might find their behavior unusual. You might think “I must have misunderstood” and brush it off as a one-time occurrence.
- Defense: You defend what you know although you might start to question yourself.
- Depression: Constantly questioning yourself and accepting their version of reality is taking a toll on your self-esteem. You feel disconnected from reality, insecure, and become more dependent on the abuser.
Here Are Some Common Signs of Gaslighting:
- Ignoring and discounting what you say, including laughing at you
- Verbal abuse in the form of ‘jokes’ and name-calling
- Trivializing what matters to you, including your feelings, opinions, and hobbies
- Being loving initially or sometimes, alternating with cruel and hostile behavior (warm-cold behavior)
- Citing your past mistakes to question your credibility
- Questioning your memory, for example saying “that did not happen” when you are sure it did
- Denial of facts, for example, “you are imagining things”
- Portraying themselves as the victim and becoming angry (‘indignant outrage’) when you confront them, for example, “how dare you accuse me of such a thing”
Signs You Are Experiencing Gaslighting:
- Constantly doubting yourself and your feelings
- Losing your sense of reality
- Feeling nervous, anxious, and worrying about how the other person will respond to you
- Disconnecting from yourself, feeling ‘far away’ or like something is wrong without knowing exactly what
- Believing you are worthless and incapable
- Always blaming yourself and wanting to apologize
- Feeling like you no longer recognize yourself and your behavior
Phrases that narcissistic gaslighters use
Gaslighting and other types of psychological and emotional abuse can be significantly damaging to the victim. Thus, the key to identifying gaslighting is often in how you are made to feel.
Here are some examples of phrases narcissistic gaslighters use to feel in control and destabilize you:
“You’re too sensitive”
This disarms you and invalidates your feelings. You might question whether your feelings are real or whether you are overreacting.
“It was only a joke”
Abuse can be disguised as a joke. Certain types of jokes (such as name-calling or put-downs) are hurtful and abusive but will be portrayed as your inability to understand humor.
“I never said that”
This can make you question your memory.
“It’s your fault”
If the abuser has done something wrong, they often try to turn the tables and make you take responsibility.
“You’re emotionally unstable/ broken/crazy”
This is an attempt to put into question your stability and sanity and if you hear this often enough, you might start believing it.
“You’re so insecure/ jealous”
If you question their behavior or honesty, they purposefully turn the tables to mislead and create doubt in you, even in the face of clear evidence.
“If you really loved me then…”
By putting into question your feelings, they can convince you to do what they want. Even if you believe you love them, you might start questioning yourself.
Are narcissists aware that they gaslight?
Narcissists deliberately pursue their end goal and the benefit they receive from it but they might not be consciously thinking “I am going to gaslight this person”.
They are motivated to protect their ego, their beliefs, and their position of power. The motivation to do so and their lack of empathy drive a narcissist to deny, lie and contradict – to gaslight.
In some cases, narcissists and other people who gaslight have learned this behavior early in life, such as from their caregivers.
It becomes normalized and therefore these individuals are not necessarily aware of their behavior or do not see it as problematic. However, many narcissists are aware of what they are doing and understand the impact their actions and words have.
Some individuals have an innate understanding of people and how to control them. Some derive pleasure from cruel behaviors that give them power and control.
Others may have studied manipulation techniques and read books that describe how to persuade and control people, such as Robert Cialdini’s (2007) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
Narcissistic people find it difficult to acknowledge and accept when they have done something wrong as doing so would damage the image they have built of themselves.
This leads them to deny and ignore any contradictions and opposition, and that in itself is a form of gaslighting. Whether or not someone is aware that they are gaslighting, the consequences can be just as damaging.
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