Narcissist Gaslighting Tactics
In a recent post I introduced the concept of gaslighting. The term was born out of a 1940’s movie titled “Gaslight”. The movie is about a newly married couple and without going into lots of detail the husband is extremely manipulative. He slowly but surely makes his wife feel like she is going crazy by telling her things that aren’t true, moving furniture, and even dimming the flame on a gas lamp and telling her she imagined it. Eventually he cuts her off from friends and family so he can exert even more control over her. He employs many narcissist gaslighting tactics.
The film did a great job effectively showing what gaslighting is and how controlling and manipulative it is. It was actually because of this movie that therapists and psychologists began labeling gaslighting as emotionally abusive behavior. It’s such an intriguing behavior that I felt a round 2 post taking a deeper dive into gaslighting tactics was in order.
Narcissists are often associated with gaslighting and it’s not hard to see why. When someone is manipulating another person to get what they want, it’s all about them. Typical narcissistic behavior. But it’s bigger than that. A common theme in people who employ gaslighting tactics is the need to control things, especially other people. Where that comes from can be a variety of areas – their childhood, the way they learned to survive in the world, etc. While gaslighting is most often associated with narcissists (and these seem to go hand in hand) the main theme to keep in mind here is CONTROL. So now let’s look at some narcissist gaslighting tactics.
Below is a list and brief explanation of some of the most common gaslighting tactics. See if you recognize any of these in your relationships.
Lying – This is a cornerstone of gaslighting behavior. People who gaslight are habitual liars. The lie to cover their tracks of course but they also blatantly lie to your face. When you catch them in a lie they then change their story or tell you that’s not what they said. A very typical situation is when you tell them that they told you something and they say “You must have heard wrong” or “No that’s not what I said”. And when someone you trust tells you that you heard wrong you start to consider the possibility that you did hear wrong. I mean, after all, you trust them so why would they lie? Insidious. Over time if you notice that you “heard wrong” quite a bit, it can certainly be a red flag.
Blame Shift – Another common behavior of gaslighters is blame shifting. This is where almost any topic being discussed gets turned around to somehow be your fault. They wouldn’t have done XYZ if you hadn’t done ABC. Even when you are talking to them about how you feel about something they will figure out a way to blame you. They are masters at passing the buck with blame. In their world blame rarely if ever sits on their shoulders, it’s typically gets shifted onto you.
Minimize You – A gaslighter is able to gain control over you by minimizing your thoughts and feelings. When you bring a topic up to talk about that’s been bothering you lately you might be called “sensitive”. When you try to point out something they’ve done that you don’t agree with you might be “making a mountain out of a molehill”. If you get upset there’s a good chance you’ll be told to “calm down, it’s not that big a deal” or “nobody else thinks like that”. All of these examples make you feel like your thoughts and feelings are unwarranted, that you are the one with the problem.
Tangents and Spinning – many times someone who gaslights won’t let you actually talk about something all the way through. They take the conversation down many different roads and paths until you aren’t sure what you just talked about. It’s like you started talking about how they stayed at a party a lot longer than they said they were going to and you wound up talking about why you didn’t cut the lawn yesterday. This works alongside the blame shift. Taking conversations off onto all sorts of tangents is a way for them to spin the conversation back around to your failings. If you often feel like you have long conversations that don’t result in any resolution this one is for you.
Projection – This is a term most people are familiar with. It’s when one person accuses another person of something that they are in fact doing. It’s a defense mechanism in some people that allows them to blame other people for things without having to answer for it themselves. Kind of like when someone is cheating and they will accuse their partner of cheating. Or if someone tells another person they complain about something all the time when in reality it’s the accuser that is the one complaining all the time. Another tactic that the gaslighter uses, it takes the focus off of them and places it back on you.
Smear Campaign – The gaslighter is good at telling people lies about you behind your back. This one is tough to spot because most of the time it doesn’t happen in front of you. Since you don’t see it or never hear about it nothing happened, right? Many times the gaslighter will tell people that you are crazy or controlling or manipulating. They are very good at suggesting things as well without actually specifically saying it. Leading someone to think bad things about you by implying things in a certain way. It’s all a way to get more people on their side and cast you in a bad light without you ever knowing about it.
Triangulation – This one is kind of like the smear campaign but comes with a twist. It’s a way for the gaslighter to take the attention off of themselves by creating another threat of sorts. Many times what will happen here is that the person doing the gaslighting will tell you that someone has said something not nice about you. Or that so and so thinks that you are mean or selfish or whatever. What they are accomplishing here is twofold. One, they get you thinking about someone else instead of them so it removes the spotlight from the person gaslighting. It also serves as a way to isolate you more.
I Was Joking – People who gaslight sometimes make malicious comments about you and disguise it as them “joking”. If you hear someone have to tell you they are joking when they say mean or insulting things all the time, chances are they aren’t really joking. They are knocking you down and pretending it’s a joke. But be careful how you handle it because if you complain you might be “too sensitive”. And yes, that really was a joke.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Something to remember is that sometimes people are consciously aware they are doing it and others times they aren’t. Some people are more or less immune to being gaslighted but it can affect most people to one degree or another. It’s one of those things that happens so slowly and over time that you don’t notice it until you’re neck deep in it. You don’t think that someone you trust would do these type things to you which makes it even harder to believe. It’s good to stay aware of narcissist gaslighting tactics.
In order to keep a watching eye out for it I have a few suggested readings below. It’s a fascinating topic and one worth knowing about. If you are interested in learning more about the very intriguing world of gaslighting I’d suggest picking up one or two of these books. You might find it as fascinating as I did.
The Gaslight Effect – Dr. Robin Stern – A great book released in 2018 that encapsulates the Gaslighting Effect brilliantly.
The Covert Narcissist – Audrey Davies – Interesting read with a bit of a different take. Raw and real.
The Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist – Debbie Mirza – Written by a life coach with experience working with people who’ve had longstanding relationships with narcissists.
As always I look forward to any thoughts you’d like to share.
In good mental health,