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. 😉