Two Seasons. Gaslighting and Narcissism, the Descent into Madness

Photograph by Lionel Kennaugh

When I say the word gaslighting, I’m pretty sure most people well versed on narcissism immediately have the association with the movie from which it was named. The phenomenon ‘gaslighting’ is a well-known topic to most people who have researched narcissism in great depth, and most of those people are the survivors of narcissistic abuse. But, how to explain this, when it is happening to you to someone else, who has never experienced this? How do you get over to a rational and mature person who would not engage in gaslighting, to begin with, what is happening, or what did happen to you?

By its very nature, it is one of the most insidious ways to emotionally and mentally abuse someone. By design gaslighting is made to make you ‘seem’ crazy to the average person around you, and should you try to defend yourself, you’re crazier still. As you are the target, you are also the only one picking up on the definitely intended innuendos, sly comments, sarcastic remarks and the more extensive gaslighting plays, that are set up to ‘show you up’.

I once had a boyfriend who used to say of a narcissist in our lives ‘Just remember, she can speak with great authority on things that she knows absolutely nothing about’. Therein lay one of the keys. Narcissists are ‘authorities’ on any number of topics and are entirely convincing in putting over their messages.

Remembering that everything about them is about their own projected image and the fact that they work incredibly hard to protect that image, false as it may be. It’s all about the optics and ‘seeming’ is what narcissists are particularly good at.

When presented with information about the narcissist that is contrary to what they have projected successfully to the rest of the world, the person you are trying to convince of your own sanity, rationality and plain humanity, is automatically going to have a sense of cognitive dissonance which is uncomfortable, and reject what you have to say, leaving you feeling more alone, rejected, and denigrated than before. Very few people can see through that projection until they have been on the receiving end of the narcissists’ direct abusive behaviour.

A healthy mature person wants proof that what you are trying to tell them exists, especially when it conflicts with what they believe to be the real face of the narcissists’ construct of themselves.

It is the lack of ‘evidence’ in itself that makes gaslighting such a powerfully vicious weapon in the narcissists’ arsenal. No visible bruises, or broken bones, no scars, and no outward sign that anything is really wrong. The narcissist is safe behind his mask, and you are the only one who gets to see the monster underneath. This beast cannot be transformed into a prince by any magic in this story, and there is no happy ending.

Gaslighting will lead to asking over and over again, am I really crazy? Did I really say/do that? Is there something wrong with my memory? Why am I not good enough? Will I ever live up to this or that expectation?

At its heart, gaslighting is pure evil, malicious and not ‘just a mistake’ it is deliberate and intended to cause maximum damage to the victim’s self-understanding, mental health, and emotional wellbeing.

By way of example: Many years ago, I lived with a man who was a sex addict and a class A manipulator. His good looks and charm oiled his way into many women’s beds, and even had him sleeping with my friends in our house, while I was asleep in our bed. I was told over and over again when I questioned his behaviour even when all the tell-tale signs of his cheating were there, that I was ‘crazy’, all our friends I was told, thought I was ‘just plain nuts, controlling, jealous and possessive’.

I believed him. If everyone close to me felt so, it must be true. Yet my own perceptions, clear evidence of philandering and my own innate knowing told me otherwise. I eventually ended the relationship, thus giving him the chance to become the reverse victim. When the relationship ended, he was the hurt and bruised party. All our friends rallied around him, and I was left genuinely alone, dazed, confused, and utterly denigrated.

The deliberate misconception of ‘them against you’ is what was set up to make me upset. Creating the belief within me that ‘everyone thinks this’ and that my behaviour within the context of getting upset over the philandering partner, was socially unacceptable is what hurt most, because it isolated me so terribly from people who I thought loved and cared for me. Yet, I questioned over and again, did I really publicly behave in that way? Jealously possessive and thoroughly out of control and controlling? I didn’t believe I had, so I was also unbelievably confused.

My belief that I was the one at fault with my ‘unacceptable behaviour’ in the relationship went on, until one evening, about three months after the relationship ended, I bumped into one of these friends. I went to greet her and give her a welcoming hello hug. She stopped me and said “before we go any further, I need to tell you something. Nobody else will tell you this, but I will.” She then said “I have had sex with your ex-boyfriend while you were with him, so have many of your friends. If you still want to talk to me now, I’m sorry for my part.” I collapsed into her arms in tears of relief. Someone had finally saved my own sanity. I was none of the things I had been accused of, and her revelation vindicated my decision to leave the relationship and to heal myself. Deliberately making me believe as did ‘everyone else’ that I was crazy, jealous and possessive to the point of being ‘just plain nuts’ was untrue. The real truth was that I had every reason to question the entire relationship, and my decision to leave had been valid.

The reverse victim and re-traumatisation of the real victim by professionals and others who are in an authoritative position.

When it comes to the truth and gaslighting, well, let’s just say that the facts are malleable, and the goalposts are mounted on bumper cars. The juicy part of gaslighting by a narcissist is that they also then get to play the reverse victim. Everything they have done to you is what you will be accused of doing, and more. It takes a genuinely skilled therapist to see through a narcissist, and one who is well-versed on the subject to be able to see through the projections and smokescreens put out by the narcissist. In my experience, I have only found one therapist able to do this.

I have had to deal with many professionals together with a narcissist, and for those unable to see through this, the damage done, by re-traumatisation, by way of couple’s therapy, for example, has been more harmful than helpful.

Be very satisfied if you are going to go the route of treatment with a narcissist that you are not going to end up being hurt all over again, as the narcissist reverses the victim role and you find yourself triangulated with the very person who is meant to be ‘seeing you’ and helping you. If you find yourself in therapy with a narcissist and you start to feel shamed and end up apologising for every little thing, it’s time to get out of both the treatment with the narcissist and as far away as possible from the narcissist.

I personally know of hundreds of people on various forums, friends, and associates who have been re-traumatised in this way. In fact, if you ask on most forums for survivors of narcissistic abuse, whether you should enter into therapy with the narcissist, you’ll be met with a resounding NO! As this reversal happens you as the real victim are no longer seen nor heard, and not taken seriously, and this can compound existing trauma in disastrous ways, for you.

Attend therapy by all means on your own, for your own emotional and mental well-being, with someone who absolutely understands what you are dealing with, this is immensely helpful to you. You may even find the courage to either leave the harmful situation or be armed with the tools to help you cope with a narcissist if you are not able to escape or completely cut ties.

I have often wondered if I am the only person in a particular narcissists’ life who has received the roughshod treatment that they hand out, in all, it’s forms, from love-bombing to denigration, to triangulation and the flying monkeys and then onto the ultimate discard.

The fact is nobody is exempt from the narcissist’s life from any of these behaviours. The patterns may play out in a long term game for someone else, but I’ve also seen the same person who has treated me in this way, just as easily discard and walk away from someone else the second they were no longer of use to him.

Other charming ways gaslighting is so dangerous and so devastating is how it is always implied, never direct, and it is insidiously relentless. Gaslighting is horribly sneaky and deliberate stealthy and well planned.

This is a crucial thing to remember. It is deliberately intended, cognitively directed and by design meant to throw you off balance. By way of any number of disturbing manipulations, triangulations, harassment, stalking (for example your social media accounts) coercive behaviour and carefully planned scenarios that are meant to ‘show you up’ to others as the ‘insert label her’ crazy, unstable, whatever the term they use, person they are telling everyone that you are, or at least that is how you are calculated to ‘seem’ to others.

The faster you react and take the bait, the better for the narcissist to say ‘see?’ to whomever, they have convinced that you are everything they say you are. Deliberately creating a constant state of fear and instability in you is the desired effect. It truly is the art of misdirection, and it can make you feel crazy even to yourself. The trick is not to fall for the misdirection in the first place, which is, yes, I know, easier said than done.

What you must remember is that to the narcissist you do not exist as a person in your own right. You are a toy to be played with and then dropped with disinterest the minute you no longer represent any source of malignant joy to the narcissist. Your pain is their pleasure and the more of your pain you give, the longer you will stay in play for the long game.

What to do?

Put down your stake into reality first. Use the universal law of verification to your own end. First asking the simple question ‘is it true?’ will immediately yield results that can help you to find your balance again. When scrutinised most of what the narcissist has said is a jumbled mix of lies and clever innuendos. Asking simply ‘is it true’ and sifting through what you KNOW to be true factually and of yourself is always the right place to start. This also allows your own cognitive dissonance to be dispelled.

Usually, we’re so thrown and flustered by the attack we forget to ask this simple little question and react immediately to the accusation or the deliberate provocation. Not fuelling this fire is the best way to go.

Pull yourself up short, give yourself time to sift through the nonsense, and it is non-sense, and then either respond or don’t give it any airtime at all. If you can get away from the situation and put literal physical distance between yourself and the narcissist so that you have a chance to think clearly without allowing them to further muddy your waters, the better you will feel. The more you engage, the more the real intellectual, cognitive thinking you, disengages, and emotional confusion takes over. The need to create time and space for yourself is vital.

Trust yourself. This is a hard one, I know. When you have been denigrated for so long, you no longer trust any aspect of your true self. You’ve bought into the lies, the deceit, the ever-lightning fast changes and disruptions to your self-identity, it is hard to find the real you in this.

At your core, you know who you are. Hold onto that first. Second, find a trusted friend whom you know has your back to help you sift through the circumstance and situation, to talk it out, and to sort out what is real from what is the narcissists’ fictional depiction. To do this, you must remove what all the other people think of you from the equation, and realistically, what you think, other people think about you from the equation too. I have (not often, but occasionally) been surprised and relieved to discover that someone else has seen through the narcissist and has held onto their own beliefs about me without being so easily swayed.

Act. At a time when you most likely feel paralysed with fear and doubt, you must act. I get that not all of us can just get out of a situation with a narcissist, however, to act, also means to act on changing the thought loops in your own head. Get those straight, even while in the thick of a gaslighting attack, this will help you regain your footing and be able to look the monster in the eye. You may not be able to physically change anything, yet. However, you can be in control of your own emotions, and how much you reveal to the narcissist is going to be the key to unlocking the freedom of your own mind, ultimately.

Stop giving the monster fodder. The less you give of your own emotions and thoughts, the easier it is to hold onto your personal centre. The less you reveal about your genuine feelings and doubts and fears, the less the narcissist has to work with. Likely, this will mean that they will redouble their efforts to get a rise out of you. Now is when you have to cling on to yourself, for grim death and present a calm exterior, no matter how fast you are paddling beneath the surface.

Acceptance is a hard one in the face of the distorted views of you, it’s like being in a hall of mirrors, set in a horror story. You have to accept that the way some of your family and friends see you has been inexorably altered by the narcissists’ lies and manipulations and you cannot control this. Even trying to do this will only make matters worse. Trust that time will tell – I know this is a platitude – but time does tell. I have on some occasions waited over 20 years to be vindicated in some way, long long after the original lies and deliberately set up circumstances have eventually unravelled to show the truth.

The fact is that being the targeted victim of any form of narcissistic or any other type of abuse is hard. What others can do to help as ultimately is minimal, it is only you who can free yourself, as an adult, this statement changes for children, obviously. Educate yourself, learn as much as you can about this form of abuse, see a therapist for help in disengaging from the situation or person, or to put as much distance between them and you as you possibly can, and remember, you did not choose to be punished or abused in this way. I wish you nothing but emotional wellness and mental stability on your journey. Be kind to yourself and do what you can with what you have where you are, it’s an excellent place to start.

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