Gaslighting

It’s Narcissist Friday!

Well, I finally watched the movie, Gaslight.  The 1944 version with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.  I have to admit that it was a little creepy.  Mostly because I know this actually happens.  I won’t spoil the movie for you (but watch for a young Angela Lansbury as the new maid), so I want to focus on the term and the process.

To “gaslight” someone is to make them believe they are losing their mind.  The gas lights represent the whole process of deception and manipulation used by the bad guy in the movie.  Little tricks are played on the victim; items are moved or taken away to make her think she lost them; and facts are denied.  She is constantly told that she is sick or wrong or forgetful.

Most of us are susceptible to this kind of manipulation.  We are very aware of the fact that we forget things or make mistakes.  We were raised to have a certain dread of errors.  So when we are told that we are mistaken or have forgotten something, we find it easy to doubt ourselves.  It doesn’t take much convincing for us to begin to think that we don’t feel well or that old problems are acting up again.

So imagine a conversation like this (it won’t be hard):

You have just given the narcissist the new iPhone cover he said he wanted.

N – Well this is really nice, but I wanted the blue one.

You – Oh, you said several times that you wanted the red one.

N – No, you are the one that likes red.  I always wanted the blue one.

You – But when we were at the store, they didn’t even have a blue one.  You said you wanted a red one.

N – No, you are forgetting that I asked about the blue one and said that was the one I really wanted.

You – But I am not forgetting. I heard you say that you preferred red.

N – Well, it doesn’t really matter.  You don’t have to get angry.

You – I am not angry.  I just wanted to do something to make you happy.

N – It’s okay.  I will be happy with the red one.  Maybe next time I will write it down for you.

By now you doubt what you remembered, even though he really did say that he wanted the red cover.  But, by the end of your conversation, you feel betrayed, angry, stupid, tricked, and insecure.

Now, imagine that happening almost every day.  Little things, big things, things that just add up more and more.  You feel so incompetent in the relationship, so weak and stupid.  Once you felt like you could handle life, but more and more you are afraid and vulnerable.

I would like to say that narcissists don’t do this on purpose, but I know some who do and I have heard too many stories of this kind of abuse.  In the movie, the bad guy had a specific purpose, but I think most narcissists do this simply for control in the relationship.  Little things to make others look bad.  Just to keep others intimidated and weak.

And I think that most narcissists do this so naturally, so easily, that it isn’t entirely purposeful in their minds.  At least it isn’t as planned as in the movie.  Some of it comes from the narcissist’s difficulty in making decisions.  Since everything has to be done for the appreciation and attention of others, narcissists often feel very insecure in their choices.  If they make a wrong one, guess whose fault it will be.  It may be as simple as the fact that he overheard a comment about a red phone cover and didn’t want to have one after that.  Instead of just telling the truth, the narcissist covers his change of mind by blaming you.

Some people find that narcissists are forgetful, particularly of relationship information.  To cover themselves, they will project their forgetfulness on others or quickly change the subject to something intimidating.  For example, he may forget your sister’s name.  When you correct him, he says, “Well, that’s what I said.”  If you challenge him, he might accuse you of being jealous of your sister, something that gets very close to your heart.  Not only has he insinuated that you are the one who is mistaken, but he has also triggered negative thoughts for you.  Any argument you make after that is weakened.

The narcissist does this so easily because his entire investment is in what he thinks of himself, not you.  Gaslighting is a particularly evil form of manipulation and deception because it causes the victims to doubt themselves.  Real anger comes out when the person realizes what has been happening.

So how do you handle this if you think it is happening?  First, believe your support people.  One of the reasons narcissists try to separate you from supportive people is because they can show you the truth about yourself.  If you find that you feel competent and strong with others, but weak and foolish around the narcissist, you may be a victim of gaslighting.  Not many people are competent out in the world and incompetent at home.

Second, write things down.  I am a strong proponent of good records and journals in these relationships.  When you have a disagreement, even something as simple as the conversation I related above, write down your thoughts about it.  Tell what you remember and why and how you felt when the conversation ended.  Write down his lie/excuse/challenge as well.  You don’t have to do anything with this, but you may find that a pattern emerges and you can see what is really happening.  And you may take your journal to a counselor you trust to learn even more someday.

Third, everyone should keep a “strokes” file.  If you receive a nice note of appreciation or recognition of a job well done, save it.  Keep it to remind yourself that you are not stupid or incompetent.  Read it once in a while to challenge the message you are getting in the relationship.

Finally, consider getting out of the relationship—especially if you are not married.  It won’t get better.  If you need to stay, find ways to stand strong in yourself.  You may not have to fight every issue.  Sometimes you can just walk away and let him be the deluded one.  The less you argue, the less he wins.

I know that I usually set my posts in marriage or intimate relationships where the man is the narcissist, but gaslighting is used by women as well as men and in a variety of relationships.  Parents can use these methods on children; bosses on employees; co-workers, church leaders, siblings, and others can use them as well.

By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie, the ending is great!  It’s a little hard to find, so here’s a link to watch it online.  You may want to click on the dailymotion link because this will only get you half the movie and you do want to watch the end. 😉

32 Comments

Filed under Narcissism

32 responses to “Gaslighting

  1. Carolyn

    My best example of this occurred during one of the many times that my marriage to my N was in trouble. I ended up hiding all of my good jewelry from him. I put it all in ONE spot – all of it together. A month or so later when things had calmed down, I went to get my jewelry, and the diamond earrings and diamond necklace that he had given to me as gifts were missing. I asked him if he had taken them. Of course, the answer was no…and by golly – I never knew at the time what a fabulous liar he was. I drove myself crazy looking for them. I doubted my sanity – asking myself what I could have possibly done with them? Well, after 2-3 months of them being gone and me literally tearing the house apart looking for them, I told him that I was going to call the police and file a report. He told me to wait and that he would help me look for them. One day I came home from work to find him burning up cardboard in our firepit…at 4:00 in the afternoon. He had NEVER done anything like this before. That night – I told him I was going to call the police about my missing jewelry. Within 5 minutes, he had miraculously “found” both the earrings and the necklace in a place that I would NEVER EVER put them. When he put them into my hand…he got close to my face and looked me in the eyes, and said “never hide anything from me again”.
    To this day, he denies having stolen them. I think he fears that he could go to jail.
    We are divorced now…for so many reasons including this one, but I will never forget how crazy he made me feel, doubting my own gut feelings, and then finally understanding that I had a world class liar on my hands.
    Words of advice to those of you still with your N…..is TRUST YOUR GUT!!!
    I remember praying to God to “keep my eyes wide open”. He answered those prayers…and let me see my ex_n for who he really is. They are masters of deceit and confusion, and will stop at nothing to protect themselves.

    • Portia Gray

      U knew something was not right burning cardboard at 4am. It was him, not u!! Great u found out and got out. U was smart saying u will report police. Narcs are afraid of jail!!! My ex narc bf threatened to slap me. I said come on and do it. I got into a boxing position to fight tell him i will put his ass in jail. He backed down? He’s 5’11 and I’m
      5’2.5″ tall. He was afraid of me. Good!

  2. I think you are correct in that this type of interaction becomes so “normal” for a narcissist, they don’t even realize they are doing it.

  3. Fellow Survivor

    My favorite gaslighting story was about a 401K/IRA account. I work in my own business and every, and I mean every penny I earn went into the marriage. One day the ex and I are talking and she says we should save some of my earnings and it would be easier to have her employers take it out of her paycheck automatically than me trying to save it directly. That is true. If you never see it “the cash” you never miss it. Anyway, about 3 years later we are talking about that “extra savings account” and she claims we never had the conversation about the extra money being taken out of her paycheck. Doesn’t know what I am talking about. I remember looking at her and thinking “what the heck is this all about?”

  4. Portia Gray

    I learned the new term, gas lighting. I learned deeper how narcs operated. I caught all his lies and challenged him it was him being the plm . I knew it was not me as a strong woman who talks or kicked him out every time I not like his bad mouth or insults – 20 times in 12 yrs. I felt good doing it. It was he who crawled back to me. I grew tired of him and finally booted him out. It’s soon 10 months; he’s running around with two other women who have money and low functioned ( weak n stupid). he was good to me and struggled between narc actions and know God exist. He to me on trips, restaurants, bought me jewelry, and seen him trying to love me for real and not living me by ignoring or loathing me. He will get his karma for wht he did to many women before me and after me. He lied to his adult sons making look as if I’m the bad person.

  5. Penny

    “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”. It’s quite unnerving to realize how easy it is to allow the N to gaslight. It is so important to discern between innocent, occasional events (like honestly forgetting) and patterns (always “forgetting” and then shifting blame). When a pattern emerges, it’s time to re-evaluate and face reality. Living in reality is the healthiest place to be, and sooner rather than later.

  6. Repol

    Too many examples to share, but one very recent one is still bitter in my mouth.
    Some months ago, our church leadership required of him to agree to go to counseling. First, in an email, one of the church staff asked him and me to explain why we stopped going to a (very bad) counselor for marriage counseling before. The staff member said it would help her find a better counselor for him if she knew what wasn’t good about the last one.
    The email was addressed to both of us. I was out of town on a trip alone at the time. I replied without copying him on my reply (I didn’t want him to know all the ways the counselor had actually ADDED to my injury, because she too was very manipulated by him). He never replied to the email at all.
    A few weeks went by, and the church staff member emailed again, saying that she had never heard from him and couldn’t help if he wouldn’t participate. He called me, angry that she was accusing him of not participating. He said he never got the original email.
    I went to his computer (which used to be our family computer, and which the kids do still use sometimes) and checked his email. I wanted to see if it really had come through to his account or maybe not. Maybe he was telling the truth. The message was there, marked read, but not replied to by him.
    When he came home, I asked him to go check again. Still, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. Go look. I even told him the date to look for it. He came back a few minutes later and said, “It’s not there. I never got it.” I was shocked! It WAS there. I saw it myself. So I said, “Can I look?” and he let me. And you know what? It was gone. Not only was it gone from his inbox, but he had also gone into his trash folder and selectively deleted it. He knew better than to empty his whole trash, but just deleted that one email. Then said he never got it.
    So I told him that I knew what he had done. I told him and the church staff member what he had done. He denies it still. He says I am crazy and that she never sent it to him. And there’s no way to prove what I know I saw.

    Many, many, many times. Many times. And no words are firm. Every utterance is rewritten with either “I never said that” or, “That’s what I’ve always said,” whichever one is most effective. I wish I had taken a screen shot of the inbox before I asked him to go check again. WHY am I not wise and cunning? WHY don’t I learn to be sneaky and suspicious?

    I don’t leave because I know he could take my kids. I know he could make a case for my craziness, even though he’s the one who keeps me crazy. I could regain my solid thinking, I think, over a great deal of time, if I could get away. But the children–I can’t bear to lose them. And for the sake of power, he would take them. He would insist.

    When he lied recently about getting a new personal loan (after wiping out our savings and promising not to do any more spending without it being a mutual agreement–which is a farce in itself), I told him that living with him was like living on a sand dune. There’s no firm reality, and he could cause me to have another breakdown. What then? I asked. Who would take care of the children? And he said, “I will. I can do it all on my own.” He sees me as expendable and he has no reason to care to protect my mental health. He believes he could do it all without me, so of course he doesn’t care about what he does to my head.

    • Portia Gray

      With narc ppl, U must make copies of everything, write down. tape whtever said, and witnesses to see or heard things the narc says . Narcs are willing to erase evidence or deny it. I busted ex bf cheating on person. I knew its over for good. I booted him out and he went back to woman he cheated with. She’s also a narc. One day, both being narcs, things will turn ugly – waiting game

  7. Fellow Survivor

    Repol, first I know there are many different opinions about whether to leave or stay when children are at stake. Me personally, if I could have figured out a way to stay “married” for 2 more years I would have. Being away from your kids is quite unbearable. I completely emphasize with your situation especially as it relates to the kids.

    Your other theme that “they can do it all” is one I faced too. My ex flat out told me she doesn’t need me and can do it all herself. Of course they can do it all. There are millions of single parents that do “do it all”. Its not easy but they manage so it is possible. We are not arguing that point. The main theme or complaint or problem we have with these people is that we simply want to be treated with dignity and respect. First and foremost we want to be treated with the respect that a “spouse” should be afforded. If that’s not possible, at least could they treat us with the respect a common human being should be afforded.

    We are with you Repol. Good luck!!!

  8. Maggie

    I think the cumulative effect of gaslighting is tragic. I appreciate Pastor Dave commenting that most of us are susceptible to this kind of manipulation. This is true and comforting. My personal experience with this behavior is closely related to the N’s need to remain looking, being perfect, not capable of human mistake. For example, if he forgot something at the store , which is human , he would have to tell me I did not ask for it. Being human myself, busy, raising children, running a home, naturally I considered perhaps I did not ask for it. Over time this worked beautifully for him on much bigger incongruencies in his behavior, specifically covering up a massive sexual addiction involving extensive use of his time and mind. If I questioned where he spent unaccounted time he gaslighted to distract attention from the truth. He might say, ” I was not gone that long” . Of course, I was not keeping records. I think it is an excellent idea to keep records of what is happening. Wished I would have. Ironically I used to ask him to please write things down so we did not have to do the dance around his recall and mine. He never did because he knew better. It was I that should have.

  9. Kate

    Wow, what an affirming post — and thank you for some practical tips on how to deal with these stunningly unnerving actions.

    I’m including a link to a piece that made me laugh in recognition. I can not vouch for the website itself — it’s neither Christ-centered nor about narcissism — but I found this piece so enraging, familiar, and funny. I think it really illustrates something we’ve all experienced, and how far a narcissist will go to serve oneself. (And I’ll understand, Pastor Dave, if this doesn’t make the cut!)

    “Excerpts from Lohanda Lake Cabin’s Guest Book”: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/excerpts-from-lohanda-lake-cabins-guest-book-2006-2011

  10. This is a very interesting and informative post. Thank you. I’ll look up the movie, too.

  11. Sunflower

    I’m just watching Dr. Phil. A statement was made: “If you’re documenting the damage, you’ve already stayed too long.” He was also talking about how the children will become like the abuser, so if the mother wants the abuse to stop, she HAS TO remove them. You think you are protecting them, but you are perpetuating the cycle.
    Also the daughters learn that they are not worth being treated respectfully. And believe me, it hurts to watch a talented, beautiful daughter marry an N, let herself get treated like you were/are, and defend him. It hurts bad!!!!
    My first N would say that I would never get the children, but when I finally left, he said, “She can have them. I never wanted all those kids anyway.” I’m not saying that will happen to others, but I did pray that God would remove me and He did. When God answers prayer it is often much different than we think, so we have to be watching for the opportunity.
    Another thing I want to mention is that going to counseling for the way he is treating you will go nowhere at all if he won’t deal with the bottom line, which is usually sexual addiction and porn. I recently spoke to a counselor at Pure Life Ministries and she was saying that if there isn’t full and ongoing repentance, humility, and accountability, there will be no lasting change. Pray for a good lawyer. It might take a few interviews.
    Gaslighting? “I forgot.” “I never said that!!!” “I would never say such a thing!”, often accompanied with either rage, or those big innocent puppy eyes!! “Who me? Why would I do/say that when I love you so much?” “I did it because I care about you.” gag. This post and the comments gave me flash-backs.

  12. L D

    David,   Another great post, as usual. My ex N gaslighted the whole ending of our relationship!!  Instead of admitting that he got angry when I asked him to stop calling me names and mocking me so he kicked me out while 3 months pregnant (and 8 months married) and told me to never come back because I could ruin his reputation because I said that what he was doing was verbally abusive so he wanted a legal separation (just because I said that!). Even though I emailed and begged him to go to therapy with me and told him repeatedly that I wanted to work on the marriage and NEVER ONCE changed my mind on my commitment while he was the one who said “It’s not worth it.” He now tells the story as I one day just up and said, “I think I’ll move to my Mom’s!” and that he was the victim of abandonment and HAD to divorce me in order to prevent HIS home from becoming a “revolving door” since I “changed my mind from day to day” as to whether or not I wanted to be committed!” WOW!!!   These guys don’t just rewrite one little iPhone cover event…they will rewrite your entire relationship – especially the ending – to make themselves look good! I could tell you more horrific detail but I’m sure my story is not unique — at that is the saddest part of all.   We need a National Narcissist Awareness Day – the world needs to be aware of this sickness so these jerks can’t get away with this behavior any longer!!   Thanks for what you do!!   LD

    ________________________________

    • Cecilia K

      Amen, LD! We have an awareness day for everything else. Narcissism should definitely get awareness, too. And I can just imagine how infuriating that was for you. It was infuriating enough for me when I would comment on my ex’s anger over something, and he would tell me he wasn’t angry.

      • Kathy

        Well — a NPD Awareness Day might backfire!!!
        Could you just picture it? N’s would want flowers from the boss, the day off, a cake in the lunchroom, breakfast in bed!!
        Hey — I’m a Narcissist! Be Aware of me every day – but especially TODAY!
        You get your turn 12:00 next summer!
        LOL!!

      • Cecilia K

        Ha ha, true, Kathy. I hadn’t thought of it like that. Still, though, I think we’re all aware of the major cancers, heart disease, etc., by now (not to make light of them), but what would it be like if more people were aware of what narcissism is like? For instance, would more people believe the victims when they describe the narcs’ behavior? Would fewer people stay in relationships and marry narcissists if they knew the behavior rarely, if ever, gets better? Maybe, maybe not. It’s definitely a subject that needs more light shed on it, though.

  13. Onward

    Let us remain mindful of who and what they are and pray for their very souls.
    Jon 2:8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
    Pro_11:29 He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.

  14. prairiemom

    I have observed a variety of crazy-making that my friend’s N does to her, which may or may not be gaslighting, I am not sure. He knows how to “innocently” push her buttons, a little neglect here, a little accusation there, a little denial of responsibility here, demeaning, controlling behavior there, … until she is so fed up and mentally stressed she cannot take the next little “innocent,” INTENTIONAL button-pushing and loses it. Under the constant mental strain, she eventually snaps and yells and acts a bit crazy. Then he can point and say, “Look how crazy you are. All I did was (fill in the blank). You are overreacting. You are mentally ill. See what I put up with?” I don’t know if this falls under the definition of gaslighting, but I do believe it is intentional and it certainly does make her question her sanity and whether or not she is actually the problem in the relationship. I am positive it has contributed to her terrible, unstable mental state. By the end of the movie, Ingrid Bergman sure seemed crazy, though she was not in the least unstable in the beginning.

    By the way, we LOVED that movie. Very creepy, but I loved the end. I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen it, but I will say it’s just too bad most narcs don’t come to such an end in the real, non-Hollywood world.

    • Cecilia K

      Yes, Prairie Mom, looking back, now that I have all the info I have on Narcs, I think my ex did the same thing – intentionally pushed my buttons until I snapped so he could point and accuse Me of having an anger problem and being the difficult, problematic one in the relationship. Crazy-making!

    • Look up Karpman Drama Triangle, it explains this behaviour very well. there are good videos on Youtube too, under the label TA Games.

  15. UnForsaken

    Grew up on movies like that, and they seamed quite real, even timelessly applicable–before I knew about Ns. Compared to most here, I have it Easy in a covert, subtle way…but even without gaslighting, I can Really identify. Perhaps it is the knowledge the they are Capable of anything? You have all been a great encouragement !

  16. Leslee

    I have 20 years of journals and calendars – my atty and the judge never even looked at or considered them. They helped me, though.

    • Thank you for this. I don’t want anyone to think that the journals will save the day in court. They might make a difference to your attorney and I certainly hope to your counselor, but they are probably not the kind of evidence that the court will find helpful. (Now, if you wrote in your journal that the evidence is in the receipt you hid behind the molding in the closet – that could be helpful.) Mostly, as you say, this will be just for you to remind you of the truth. Reading something like this helps to objectify what happened and can give you the strength to do what you need to do.

  17. Fellow Survivor

    I wonder how much “shame” plays a part in Gaslighting. When I think back all the events where “history was revised” included something where the ex did something that I would be ashamed of if I did what she did. Once, 13 years ago she did not come home until 3 AM and had turned her phone off. No apology, no anything to try to right the pain she had caused me worrying where she was or what had happened to her. She just said it wasn’t 3 AM it was only 2 AM. LIke 2 AM was OK or something.

    Then the last event between us that killed the marriage involved the same kind of stuff. She was raging at me, I raged back until I was able to objectively look at the big picture, meaning no problem was going to be solved yelling at each other, so I just zipped my lip and stopped talking. She kicked me in the “ouch” and threatened to call the cops on me. A little projection thrown in for good measure. The next week when we were calm I told her we need to talk about that fight. She said “what fight?” I was like, ” the one where you kicked me and threatened to call the cops ON ME” She says “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

    Both of these events should have invoked shame but apparently the N can not tolerate shame so they act like the shameful act never happened. That must be why they can never apologize. To apologize would mean to acknowledging the shameful act and showing remorse. But then they would have to process that shame internally first which they are incapable of doing, therefore Projection, Gas Lighting. Its either your fault or it didn’t happen.

    • Portia Gray

      I’m not surprised at tht. My ex narc wud say “it never happened, u are lying, stop making up stories, or ur fault”. I knew I had enough and got tired of him. It’s been 10 months since i kick him of my house ( kicked him out of my house 20 times or more for 12 yrs and he always crawled back ). This time, he did not come back.

    • Yep. When the narcissist isn’t manipulating you for a certain goal, he/she may just be projecting on you the shameful action or thought so he/she doesn’t have to deal with it. You are right on. Narcissists hate/fear/avoid/detest any feeling of shame. In fact, we could probably go so far as to say that shame factored heavily in the development of their narcissism.

    • Cecilia K

      How infuriating!

  18. Pingback: More support for keeping diaries and saving letters/e-mails: to defend against gaslighting from abusers and narcissists | Nyssa's Hobbit Hole

  19. Reblogged this on my life in pajamas and commented:
    This is an excellent blog post about gaslighting. I also found many of the comments to be extremely insightful and educational.

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