Gaslighting: The Artistry of a Narcissist
Alisa Stamps, MSS, LCSW
The Oxford Dictionary defines gaslighting as a “form of psychological manipulation where a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual” (Oxford Dictionary). This is done to make that individual question their own perception, memory, and sanity in order to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s beliefs, using such methods as denial, contradiction, lying, and misdirection. The term originates from the 1938 play entitled Gaslight, in which a “husband attempts to convince his wife that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their home environment, including slowly dimming the gaslights in their house while pretending nothing has changed, thus making his wife doubt her own perceptions” (Angel Street).
How does a narcissist utilize this skill to their target’s detriment? And how does this circle back to questions raised in my previous blog posts? Remember in my first blog when I asked who you see when you look in the mirror? Through gaslighting a narcissist is making sure that you see them—their thoughts, their perceptions, their beliefs. The trick is the make their targets think they are not capable of functioning without the narcissist, and thus the target will rely on the narcissist to give the “correct” version of reality. If we are “taught” that we can’t trust ourselves then we will inevitably be drawn to the person that has ensured their version of truth is the only option.
Another tactic of gaslighting is known as “splitting” and one that the narcissist may use frequently. Splitting is when you are pitted against others by the narcissist, the purpose of which is to isolate you from the important people in your life. This can even happen in a clinical setting. In my previous job working as a therapist in an inpatient drug and alcohol facility, I would often have a patient that would tell me one thing and then go to another therapist to tell them something completely different or only a small version of the truth. In these instances, I would usually have to tell staff members to direct this patient back to me in order to put an end to the splitting. When the narcissist is challenged in this way and the splitting is disrupted, this tactic can usually be stopped or at least lessened. This type of behavioral monitoring is definitely not fun, but can be, if they are open and willing to take it in, a beneficial learning experience for the narcissist.
But now back to the target. What can we do to help ourselves when gaslighting is present? Most importantly, make sure that you seek out your own support system: a therapist, a trusted friend or family member, a support group, etc. Second, hold on to what you know to be the truth. Try and stay grounded in your authentic self, and understand what it is that the narcissist is trying to do to you. Lastly, don’t be afraid to stop and pause before reacting. One of the best pieces of advice I heard early on in my career is that just because you were invited to the crisis does not mean that you have to go. Not reacting is a reaction and probably not one that the narcissist is used dealing with. Remember the shame/grandiosity continuum chart from my last blog post? Gaslighting is a tactic to inflict shame on the target and if we don’t bite, the narcissist can’t be successful.
I thought it might be interesting to research TV or movie characters who have been crafted to use a gaslighting technique. One that was surprising to me, though I can totally see it now, was Ross Geller from Friends. Ross lies to Rachel about still being married after their ceremony in Vegas and convinces her that they are no longer married when in fact they are; he puts ideas in her head that just because he is the father of their baby she should be with him; and of course who could forget about the whole “We were on a break!” thing? Gaslighting at its finest.
Until next time my friends (no pun intended), be like a tree and remain grounded. And please check out posted information for our new outpatient group “Shattering the Mirror: Support and Recovery for Adult Children of Narcissists” starting this next week.