The Origins of the Term
The term ‘gaslighting’ is taken from the film Gaslight released in 1944. The film concerns a married couple where the husband is abusive. There is a point in the movie when the gas lights in the house fluctuate and this leads the wife to become aware that her husband has been lying to her, playing with her perceptions of reality and has been trying to drive her mad. The husband appears to have a Cluster B Personality Disorder – Narcissistic, Anti-social or psychopathy (a subtype of anti-social PD).
What is Gaslighting?
The term gaslighting has subsequently entered popular speech to mean a type of abuse where the manipulator is successful in having the target question their sense of their own reality, memory or perceptions.
Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Gaslighters will use these techniques on romantic partners, family members and their children. Gaslighting involves a pattern of abusive behaviours with the intent not just to influence someone but to control them. Control and domination are the goals but for some there can also be an element of sadistic enjoyment.
People with NPD and Gaslighting
Lies and manipulation come easily to narcissists as they only value their own needs and tend to be dissociated from empathy and that, along with a sense of entitlement, means they will do whatever it takes to get what they want. Children of narcissists will grow up struggling to make sense of what reality is as their narcissistic parent has used this technique continually throughout their lives. Partners of narcissists will often have had a narcissistic parent and this behaviour has been normalised for them.
Denial of events
This is when an event has happened and the narcissist will outright deny that it ever took place. This is confusing and can either induce feelings of self-doubt in the gaslightee or make them feel they have to try to convince the narcissist that the event did happen. They may tell themselves that perhaps the narcissist is confused or misremembering.
Lying about dysfunctional behaviours
Narcissists often have addictions and are unfaithful and they will lie to cover up their affairs or drinking, drug use or gambling. This can make the gaslightee doubt their perception of reality. Narcissists will often create a conflict so that they can go to see their affair partner or create the space to take part in their addiction of choice.
If a gaslightee tries to confront a narcissist about their gaslighting behaviour the narcissists will frequently call them crazy and/or stupid. These can be painful put downs and induce doubts about sanity, perceptions of reality and intelligence and can lower feelings of self-worth.
Refusal to engage in conversation
Often a gaslightee may think that if they can just find the right way to explain their version of events to the narcissist then their conflicts could be resolved. Often the narcissist will refuse to talk or will dismiss what is said. This is frustrating for the gaslightee because they do not yet understand that these aspects of the relationship are not ‘misunderstandings’ but are deliberate techniques being used on them. This is because they are destabilising and help the narcissist to maintain a position of power.
When using this technique they will belittle, minimise and dismiss the gaslightee’s feelings. They may say the gaslightee is exaggerating or being dramatic. This can result in the gaslightee thinking that their feelings and opinions are invalid.
Everything is the gaslightee’s fault
The narcissist will often have the belief that everything would be fine if the gaslightee was different in some way. It is the gaslightee who is always causing trouble or being dramatic or is stupid or insane. They are constantly blamed for everything. Here, the gaslightee is devalued as a person and the narcissist idealises themselves because of their tendency towards black and white thinking. More on splitting/black and white thinking here.
What is the solution?
Due to the disordered thinking of the narcissist, this behaviour will not change unless they have extensive therapy.
The only realistic solutions are minimal contact with strong boundaries, going ‘grey rock’ or no contact.
Please see: Having a relationship with a narcissist.