The terms “narcissist” and “gaslighting” are widely used in our culture, but they are rarely understood. Narcissistic gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that is very destructive, more than many other forms of abuse. It is exceedingly difficult to discern and know how to respond.
In this article, we provide clarity about what narcissistic gaslighting is, its signs, and how it impacts the mental well-being of its victims. We will discuss ways to respond to gaslighting and take a look at some steps you can take to heal and reclaim your voice and identity.
Let’s get started.
What is Narcissistic Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a common emotional abuse tactic designed to make the victim question their own reality, thoughts, and sanity. The one experiencing gaslighting on a recurring basis often develops low self-esteem and compromised mental health and other negative effects.
Naricisstic gaslighting is similar to normal gaslighting, however, a narcissist uses gaslighting for different manipulative purposes.
First, what is a narcissist?
Narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder, is a recognized personality disorder in which a person displays at least 5 of the following common traits:
- Sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with power, beauty, or success
- Can only be around people who are important or special
- Interpersonally exploitative for their own gain or power
- Lack empathy
- Must be admired
- Envious of others or believe that others are envious of them
A specially trained professional is the only one who can diagnose people with narcissistic personality disorders. Few narcissists are diagnosed with NPD because they rarely agree they need professional help.
Admitting they need help would directly conflict with the extraordinary sense of superiority and excessive admiration they demand.
For what purpose do narcissists gaslight?
A person with NPD uses gaslighting to protect their fragile ego and inflated sense of self-importance, deflect confrontation by others regarding their own actions to avoid responsibility, and maintain control or dominance over another person. They resort to extreme measures to ensure their narcissistic needs are met.
Some narcissists also derive sadistic pleasure when they witness the impact gaslighting has on their victims and gaslighting becomes almost a sport for these narcissists.
It’s so important for the victim to recognize the signs of gaslighting so they may protect themselves and preserve their mental health.
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How can you tell if you are being gaslighted?
Signs A Narcissist is Gaslighting You
Dr. Ramani Durvasula provides relatable, common signs of you are being gaslighted:
If you have an almost uncontrollable need to record a conversation because you want to play it back for the person to make sure you heard it right, you are being gaslighted.
If that doesn’t convince you, play the recording back to them and see them become extremely angry, even raging because you are calling them out on their behavior and they do not like it.
Notice the gaslighter using the fact that you recorded them to gaslight you further by saying, “See, I told you you were crazy! That you would actually record your own spouse, you’re nuts!”
Some more telltale signs that you are being gaslighted are:
- You feel like you are imagining things or losing your mind
- You are unable to figure out what is going on in your relationship
- You are in an ongoing state of feeling confused
- You constantly second-guess yourself and question your own memory
- You lose trust in your own judgment or question reality
- It is difficult for you to make the simplest of decisions
- You often ask yourself if you’re being too sensitive
- You’re constantly apologizing and doing so repeatedly for the same “offense”
- You regularly defend your partner or lie to family and friends to avoid having to make excuses for your partner
- You feel hopeless, depressed, joyless, worthless, incompetent
- You are more and more uncomfortable in social or community settings
- You choose to isolate yourself when you never used to do so
- You feel like you are a shadow of your old self
- You may be at the stage where you are fighting to provide clarity to your abusive partner to no avail
Some narcissistic gaslighting examples are seen in what the abuser says to their victim, such as, “Don’t be so sensitive,” “That never happened.”
They’ll even feign compassion, “Are you sure you’re OK?” “I’m worried about you; you seem unwell.”
This makes you doubt your own feelings and sanity.
The Impact on Your Mental Health
Gaslighting develops gradually over time. It is subtle and hard to detect. The abuser may use various covert techniques such as countering, withholding, minimizing, and denial, to shift blame on the victim, dismissing, or scapegoating to gaslight their victims.
Meanwhile, the victim will do anything to return to the love bombing phase when they first fell in love.
The gaslighting narcissist will use any and all of these tactics to obtain the desired outcome from the gaslighting behavior where the victim questions their own sanity rather than correctly identifying that they are being emotionally abused.
Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor Christine Louis de Canonville from Ireland describes the various stages and escalation of gaslighting as follows:
The Idealization Stage
Also known as the “honeymoon” or love bombing phase, this is when a narcissist is on their best behavior and puts their finest qualities forward, showering their partner with attention, romance, compliments, and gifts. They are fun, engaging, and seemingly deeply interested and invested in the relationship.
During this phase, the victim gets swept up into the fantasy that is being portrayed believing that the euphoria, love, and bond they feel is reciprocal, but it isn’t. When the victim lets their guard down, the narcissist identifies the victim’s strengths and weaknesses helping them transition into the next phase when the gaslighting behavior truly begins.
The Devaluation Phase
This is when Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. Almost overnight, the narcissist changes from a romancer to a cold and uncaring person leaving the victim shocked and confused by the sudden change. To the victim, it’s as if they can do nothing right but in light of their recent past during the honeymoon phase, the victim is certain they can change their own behavior and gain back the narcissist’s attention and admiration.
Loving efforts by the victim are often met with harsh criticism or rejection, denial, the abuser playing the victim, or even cold silence making the victim feel confused, anxious, and devalued. The sudden shift in personality also devastates the victim leaving them highly stressed and depressed. They desperately try to manage and avoid the narcissist’s cruelty by “walking on eggshells” while trying to understand what they did wrong.
Victims will do anything to restore what they thought was a reciprocal love relationship. When they are unsuccessful, the victim blames themself. The narcissist uses this to validate a higher level of disdain and toxic devaluation of the victim’s self-worth through false accusations and other toxic behavior, which make the victim try harder to please them, thereby feeding their abuser with their required narcissistic supply and empowerment.
The push-pull of this abusive relationship has the abuser treating the victim hatefully, but because the victim is feeding their partner’s narcissism through their extraordinary efforts to please them, the narcissist also gets their own needs met and won’t allow the victim to leave.
The Discarding Phase
By this phase of narcissistic gaslighting, the victim is already dependent on their abuser who has complete disdain for their over-dependence. The onslaught of covert tools used to gaslight the victim during the “devaluation phase” has left the victim questioning their own sanity and experiencing significant self doubt causing them to forgo social or other community situations in exchange for isolation.
The narcissist remains indifferent to the victim’s needs or wishes as if they no longer exist, leaving the victim confused as they desperately try to understand what went wrong. The narcissist bullies the victim by shutting them down with silence resisting any attempt to resolve their conflict. The victim craves any remedy that might return the joy of the “idealization phase.”
Ways to Protect Yourself from Narcissistic Gaslighting
We find that many victims have trouble separating themself from a narcissistic gaslighter because they falsely believe the honeymoon phase was real and will return. This is known as “magical thinking” by the victim who depends on a future or change that will rarely come.
If you feel strong enough to endure your partner’s reactions, confront them on their distortions and lies. Tell them you know what really occurred and you will not be persuaded otherwise or gaslit.
But don’t wait for them to change or expect them to meet your emotional needs. Get help dealing with the harmful symptoms their gaslighting has caused.
How to Start Healing from the Trauma of Narcissistic Gaslighting
If you believe you are being gaslighted, now is the time to get the help you need.
Strengthen yourself by reading, researching and reviewing podcasts or videos regarding covert emotional abuse, narcissism, and gaslighting.
For example, this, How to Respond to Gaslighting article will give you five specific empowering steps to begin confronting and healing from the abuse.
Clarity is the first necessary step toward healing. The more you learn, the more clear you will become.
Additionally, scour through our website and utilize the resources we provide. Education will raise your awareness and bring you strength.
Importantly, identify a therapist specially trained in narcissistic or covert abuse and trauma and start counseling. A well-trained and experienced therapist can help you confirm your suspicions, set healthy boundaries, and overcome the trauma, anxiety and/or depression you are experiencing.
Reclaiming Your Identity and Voice in the Relationship
It is exceedingly difficult to stand firm in your identity and strong in your individual voice when you are in an intimate relationship with a narcissistic gaslighter. Often, it requires you to physically separate from them for a season during which you can reclaim both identity and voice.
Here are some tips to help you:
Remember, it’s not your fault.
It’s nearly impossible for a victim of narcissistic gaslighting to avoid internalizing the downgrading, criticisms, and attacks of the gaslighter which make the victim feel responsible for the narcissistic abuse itself. A victim’s strong inner critic and negative thought cycle are the intended results narcissists seek through gaslighting.
Gain control and start to reverse the self-blame by becoming conscious of the negative internal dialogue. Consciously refute it and stop defining yourself as the reason or cause for their behavior.
Knowing that it’s not your fault is a critical step in your restoration. Each of us deserves to experience empathy and be treated with respect. Whatever reason they might have for being abusive (bad childhood, extreme stress, addiction, etc.), they are solely responsible for abusing others. Purging your internal critic will empower you and help you to reconnect to your high self-worth.
Create Space from Your Abuser
This can happen in a couple of ways:
1. Stop reacting.
Easier said than done, right? Right. A victim’s reactions to abuse are often involuntary, impulsive ways their brain tries to protect them from recurring abuse. Many victims are surprised by their own reactions, which might be out of character for them. Professionals call this “reactive abuse”; MEND calls it “reactive defense.”
Although it can be hard to control your own reactions, it’s a possible and effective step to take if you can. Natural reactions are hard to control when you’re being repeatedly traumatized which is an indicator that you need to take a larger step of physically separating and removing yourself from the abuse in order to regulate your emotions.
It will become easier for you to create a psychological distance once you learn to recognize which gaslighting tactics are being used against you. When you recognize your partner is using a gaslighting tactic against you, stop and try to observe their behavior with a mental distance. Remind yourself it’s a tactic that is designed to make you react a certain way. Then, choose not to respond to those tactics.
If you refuse to react, it will help to break the trauma bond. To be successful in creating an emotional space from your abuser, disengage from the abusive cycle and adopt a more realistic view that you cannot expect an abusive partner to meet your emotional needs.
2. Take a physical separation from the abuse.
If stopping your reactions seems too difficult to do, that is okay. It’s not uncommon to find you may need a physical separation from the abusive environment before you are able to separate emotionally from the abuse.
As soon as you create a physical distance from abuse, the anxiety you feel will begin to dissipate and you will slowly gain a healthy emotional balance, which will allow you to regain your sense of self. This also will allow you to gain clarity. During the time of physical separation, focus on your own needs and emotions to help you heal. Creating a physical separation might create enough healthy pain for the abuser and cause a breakdown which could lead to a breakthrough, meaning a desire to work on themselves in therapy to save the relationship.
Find a Supportive Community
It’s important not to isolate yourself for too long. Take the brave step of reaching out to a safe friend or family member. Or join a support group at a local domestic violence agency where you can share your story and receive the support and validation you need. You only need one supportive friend with empathy to help you rebuild trust and belief in yourself. If you can, it would help you significantly to seek professional help from a licensed therapist trained in helping victims of covert abuse.
Remember your worth.
If you have been living with a narcissistic gaslighter for some time, they will likely criticize, minimize, and attack you for the strength you demonstrated. The narcissist needs you to see your strengths as weaknesses. Any strength you demonstrated became a trait the narcissist needed to shut down in order to exert control over you. Over time, it’s easy to forget the strong person you are and the gifts you hold.
Well, it’s time to increase your self-awareness, build your self-esteem, and remind yourself of the good person you are. As with these other steps, you might need some professional support (therapist, support group, counselor) to help you heal.
One way to do this on your own is through journaling. Write down all of the strengths you have known yourself to have in life (even if you don’t see those strengths manifesting so much right now). Remember the things friends and family shared with you about your worth. Write them down and look at them often.
Engage in activities that demonstrate your strengths. Social, physical, and artistic activities are helpful in curing situational depression. Perhaps you were a runner, painter, poet, pickleball champ, or sailor. If so, revisit these activities. Try to find time to reconnect yourself to your high self-worth.
Finally, continue to educate yourself. Check out our workshop where you will quickly learn, among other things, to recognize covert emotional abuse which is often the root of all abusive relationships here—“Finding Clarity and Healing in Difficult, Confusing, Stressful or Abusive Relationships.”
Set Healthy Boundaries.
It’s essential for you to keep healthy boundaries to protect you from abuse and criticism while you heal. This usually means you need to limit or completely cut off contact with your abuser. This is usually the most obvious step survivors know they need to take in order for them to heal.
It can become more challenging to maintain healthy boundaries with friends or family who do not treat you respectfully, who refuse to believe you, or otherwise minimize your trauma from your personal experience with abuse.
Remember that it is perfectly reasonable for you to create healthy boundaries, cease dialogue with them about your relationship, or maintain physical space from them should they refuse to respect you and your boundaries. To remain in relationship with people who don’t support you can be highly traumatizing. You are your own best advocate.