“You took that wrong.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You have it all wrong – again.”
Do these statements sound familiar? If so you are part of a large group of women (and men) who have experienced what psychologists call, gaslighting. It happens to be one of the primary techniques that a narcissist uses to manipulate and control those around him.
Psychologist coined the term after a 1944 movie, Gaslight. In the movie, Ingrid Bergman stars as a woman who, as a child, witnessed the murder of her aunt. She meets a man, played by Charles Boyer, who wines, dines, and charms her until she falls madly in love with him. They are married soon after. The husband begins to isolate his wife from other, allowing her no visitors and not letting her go out in public. He says that he is protecting her, taking care of her, since she is so sensitive and easily stressed. He begins to do things deceptively that make her believe things about herself that are not true.
Is this starting to sound familiar at all?
In one scene he takes his wife out to a friend’s house and shows her that his watch has disappeared from its chain. He then “finds it” in her purse, convincing her that she really is not mentally healthy and cannot be trusted. He then steps up his plan to make her think she is crazy. When she hears his footsteps in the attic he tells her that she is hearing things and when the gaslights flicker he doesn’t admit that he has caused it. He is, as you may have guessed, the murderer of her aunt and is using his wife to give him access to her aunt’s jewels.
Like Charles Boyer the narcissist is a genius when it comes to twisting reality for their own purposes. It doesn’t matter what the truth actually is – he has a way of ultimately showing you that it really is your own fault and that you aren’t seeing things clearly. Before long you learn to accept that you are so mentally off that you can’t trust your own perceptions.
A Classic Example of Gaslighting
After I had been married for about seven years I picked up a paintbrush for the first time in nearly a decade. My father paid for me to attend art classes with a local artist and I was thrilled to be painting again. I was a stay at home mom with two preschoolers and getting out once a week was heaven.
I suppose I was concentrating on getting reacquainted with oil paint and turpentine a bit too much, I don’t know. I do know that for the first time in seven years I was doing something that did not revolve around my husband and I used some of my free time pursuing my muse. Dinner was on time, the house was clean, and the kids were cared for but I often pulled out a canvas after I had tucked my children into bed.
One evening he came home an hour late from work. It was late, the kids were already in bed, and I had lost track of time while I worked on a new painting. My husband walked in, slammed the door, and when I looked up from my canvas he snarled, “I don’t appreciate you questioning me about where I have been. I am an adult, after all.”
He then strode into the bedroom to change clothes.
Was my first response the thought that he had done something and felt guilty? Was it that he had lost his mind?
No. I felt immediately guilty for having a distrustful look on my face. I put my work away and rushed in to try to smooth things over. I apologized and offered to fix him a snack. He graciously forgave me and I put my painting away for a couple of weeks so that he wouldn’t have to be bothered with my messes and my lack of attentiveness.
Image Courtesy of Mitya Ku
I found out about a month later that he had been seeing another women. His snappiness was caused by guilt not by what I had done. Even then he somehow was able to convince me that he was the victim. My concentration on painting made him feel left out and unloved and so he sought solace with someone else.
I felt terrible and gave up painting so that he wasn’t inconvenienced. That was in 1987 and I have not painted since.
The narcissist uses the gaslighting technique with a special skill. It allows him to control his environment, as well as to control your emotions, responses, and behavior. Over time he continuously plants seeds of doubt in your mind about the validity of your own feelings and perceptions. Eventually you stop believing your own opinions and begin accepting whatever he says is truth. You become compliant, confused, and needy. After all, you can’t take care of yourself, can you? Look at how wrong you are about nearly everything!
Getting Your Confidence Back
If you have been living with a narcissist for a long time you may feel that you have lost all ability to function as an intelligent human being. By the time I divorced I no longer felt confident about my looks, my ability to use technology, driving ability, or the reliability of my thoughts and emotions. It’s not an easy thing to come back from but you can do it.
One: Recognize that You’ve Been Deceived
The first step it to recognize that you have been deceived. Your thoughts and opinions are valid and your emotions are not silly, overly dramatic, or wrong. It’s important to begin to own your emotions even if it means writing out your feelings in a journal.
Use phrases like –
- I am angry because ______.
- When he does that I feel _____.
- I have a right to my emotions.
Two: List Your Strengths
If you have been hearing for years how you can’t do this or that very well, or you are impossible with math, or you don’t handle money responsibly then you’ll need to reprogram your perception of yourself. That’s not always an easy thing to do.
Think about what you used to be good at. Maybe you got straight A’s in English or history. Perhaps you are an excellent singer or musician. Whatever it is make a list of as many things that you can think of that you do well. If you have trouble thinking of things ask your close friends to help you.
You’re making a list so that you can refer to it daily. If it’s written down you can see it and remind yourself of who you are as often as you need to.
Three: Begin to Try
Usually those of us who have been subjected to gaslighting stop trying new things. There’s really no point since we can’t do it well anyway. We become afraid to step out and try to do things on our own – especially things that we don’t feel confident about.
The only way to get around this is to push yourself to try new things. Challenge yourself to do something or learn something new each day no matter how silly it seems.
Four: Call Him on It
When he says something that isn’t true you don’t have to agree! Look him in the eye and tell him he is wrong. If you are in a public place and he says something that is not true don’t just laugh nervously and agree. Don’t assume that he is right and your memory is faulty.
Just tell him that his version is not the way your remember it.
Five: Seek Professional Help
There’s not a thing wrong with seeking professional counseling to help you crawl out of that hole. You have been brainwashed for years and it will take some time to get healing. A counselor can lead you in such a way that you see the lies that you have been believing and show you how to put them to rest and embrace the truth.
Recognize that It Really Isn’t You
When you are first in love with someone it is easy to cover their bad habits in a variety of ways. If you blame yourself for an argument, for example, then you can control it so that it doesn’t happen again. Only it does – over and over again.
You are constantly told that if you were more this or less that then there wouldn’t be so many problems in your relationship. That is a lie that you need to recognize. You are who you are, and while you may not be perfect, you are as close to it as anyone else.
When I first began writing I landed a nice cookbook deal that paid enough to pay off a lot of the debt that had accrued. When I got the email with the contract and the go ahead I was, as you might expect, very excited. I rushed into the room my ex was in at the time and announced gleefully, “I got a cookbook deal!”
He looked up at me briefly, shrugged, and nodded before going back to what he had been doing. I immediately “realized” that a cookbook deal really wasn’t that big of a thing and my pride was heavily clipped.
I look back on that now and know that even if it had been a contract to do a series on Food Network he would have reacted exactly the same. Nothing I could do would ever be more impressive to him than himself.
The gaslighting technique is a powerful way to manipulate someone but it only works if you accept that someone else’s feelings and perceptions are more valid than yours.
Which is, of course, just silly.
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