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Narcissist Gaslighting: Top Signs to Look For

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How to Spot a Gaslighting Narcissist: Top Characteristics and What to Do About It

It’s hard to recognize when you’re being gaslighted, and that’s the point. A gaslighting narcissist understands what they are doing, even if you don’t. Gaslighting is often depicted as something that happens in romantic contexts. While it can and does happen between partners, gaslighting can occur between family members, friends, co-workers, and any other relationship.

If you often feel confused by the dynamics of your relationship or like you need to apologize all the time, you might be dealing with a gaslighting narcissist. You can’t change another person’s behavior, but you can take steps to protect yourself and maintain the boundaries needed for a healthy relationship.

Understanding the Narcissist-Gaslighting Relationship

Not all gaslighters are narcissists, and not all narcissists practice gaslighting, but there is a strong connection between the two. Narcissists and people who engage in gaslighting have the same motive: to gain something for themselves. That “something” might be as simple as the power to manipulate another person or situation, or it can be even more devious.

To a narcissist, gaslighting may become second nature — a behavior they do out of habit without conscious awareness of a motive.

What Is a Narcissist?

Understanding narcissism is easier when you view it on a spectrum. Narcissism relates to an individual’s sense of self-importance. A healthy self-image and high self-esteem are essential to good mental health. Self-care and prioritizing your needs are also critical to good mental care. These characteristics and behaviors could be considered healthy narcissism.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is on the other end of the spectrum. NPD is a clinical, treatable mental health disorder characterized by the following:

  • Jealousy and envy
  • Self-aggrandizing
  • Shallow personality
  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of remorse
  • Unhappy when not given special privileges
  • Authoritarianism
  • Overly sensitive to the slightest criticism
  • An inability or unwillingness to consider the feelings and needs of others
  • Lying about achievements to make themselves look better
  • Excessive admiration of themselves
  • Arrogance and bragging
  • Treating others who don’t seem special with disdain
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even if they have not achieved
  • Becoming angry and even spiteful when things don’t go their way

If a person in your life regularly exhibits these characteristics and works to protect their ego above all else, they could meet the clinical description of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). People with NPD are willing to take advantage of others because they believe they are special and deserve better treatment than the average person.

True narcissists often have troubled relationships. They harbor secret feelings of shame, insecurity, and constant fear that someone will expose their failures. Like other mental health conditions, NPD causes intense mental discomfort.

Unfortunately, that psychological pain is often passed on to those around the narcissist. A narcissist’s need to protect their ego is partially responsible for their willingness to manipulate others through gaslighting.

What Is Gaslighting?

Psychology Today defines gaslighting as a form of psychological control and manipulation. Gaslighters systemically feed their false information to their victims, leading them to question what is true.

The term “gaslighting” originates from a play written in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton. It was adapted into a film titled “Gaslight” in 1944. In the story, a manipulative husband convinces his wife of many untruths. One of these lies is that she only imagines the gas lights in their home dimming.

His constant and purposeful lying eventually makes her doubt her own eyes and ears as well as her own actions. The ploy nearly drives her insane.

While the theatrical versions of gaslighting are entertaining, being gaslighted is anything but this. This manipulation can damage your self-confidence, make you question what is true, and even doubt your ability to see things clearly. To better understand gaslighting, consider some of these classic narcissistic gaslighting examples.

That Never Happened

No one is better at denial than a gaslighting narcissist.
Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, a gaslighter can look you straight in the eyes and tell you they weren’t there, they didn’t know, or that an event simply did not happen.

An experienced gaslighter knows the trick is to start with small, believable lies, such as “No, you didn’t ask me to pick up the dry cleaning.” Once you begin doubting yourself, it is only a matter of time before you believe the other person’s recollection of events more than you believe your own.

The Non-Apology

Narcissistic gaslighters are master manipulators, and there’s nothing more manipulative than the “I’m sorry you think that” type of apology. This non-apology is a way to deflect responsibility for a situation while subtly shifting the blame to the victim and their perception.

The technique causes the victim to doubt their judgment and question their reactions. The more the victim doubts themselves, the more they lean on the person manipulating them.

Other People Are Saying

A gaslighter may try to manipulate their victim by convincing them that others agree the victim is acting odd or has a poor memory. For example, a narcissistic co-worker might tell you how “everyone” at the office thinks you’re overreacting to a situation or that “no one else” shares your perspective on an issue.

This type of gaslighting is common when a man is manipulating a woman. It plays on the stereotypes of women being less rational and in control of their emotions than their male counterparts. The behavior can often look like a form of protection — as if the person is looking out for your best interests by warning you “everyone” sees a situation differently.

I’m Hurt/Outraged You Think That About Me

This is another form of deflection. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, a gaslighter will turn the situation around, feigning emotion over being “accused” of something negative.

For example, if a gaslighter gets confronted about a lie, they might convince their victim it was all a misunderstanding. Someone who engages in gaslighting may tell you they would never purposefully lie to you and that your “poor communication” caused the misunderstanding in the first place.

Characteristics of Narcissist Gaslighting

You might think it’s easy to recognize narcissistic personality disorder gaslighting and avoid being affected by it. That’s not always the case. However, it is easier to know the signs when you understand the answer to the question, “What is a gaslighting narcissist?”

Narcissists are often charming, dynamic people who at least maintain a reputation for success, even if it’s not true. Whether in a romantic, professional, familial, or friendly relationship, it is easy to be taken in by a gaslighting narcissist.

Consider these six characteristics of narcissist gaslighting.

1. Rarely admits to flaws

As previously noted, narcissists and gaslighters are hypersensitive to any behavior that looks like criticism because they are secretly insecure. They may feel profoundly wounded and out of control if their superiority is questioned. To counteract these feelings, they commonly react with the following manipulation techniques:

  • Denial
  • Blame
  • Deflection
  • Temper tantrum
  • Sulking, silence

A gaslighting narcissist is quick to end a relationship if they sense the other person can’t be easily manipulated and will pose a threat to their idea of being superior. When they are challenged, it is typical for a narcissistic gaslighter to become angry and aggressive.

2. Breaks rules and boundaries

The combination of narcissism and gaslighting fuels the person’s belief that rules don’t apply to them. They may not pay their bills or obey laws because they don’t think they should have to. Everyday behaviors like cutting in line or “borrowing” other people’s belongings without asking are integral to the narcissist gaslighting experience.

3. Lying and exaggerating

Almost everyone stretches the truth now and then. To a gaslighting narcissist, appearing to be better than others is a top priority. While a narcissistic gaslighter takes undeserved credit and engages in other forms of self-aggrandizing, they are also likely to distort the flaws and failures of others. The worse someone else appears to be, the better they look by comparison.

4. Emotional coercion

Narcissist gaslighters can be physically abusive but most often use emotional abuse and coercion to manipulate their victims. Gaslighting techniques create doubt in the victim. When a person is systematically invalidated and devalued, they can become emotionally dependent on the abuser and distrustful of outsiders. This dynamic makes it easier for a gaslighter to manipulate.

5. Projecting a false image

Being a narcissist and gaslighting others requires the building and maintenance of a specific type of image. The gaslighter must appear to be an authority of some type, not just to their victim but to others in their social circle. Projecting an idealized image is one way to hide inner insecurities.

The need to maintain a certain appearance also extends to the gaslighter’s spouse and children. Showing the world their stunning partner and perfect children helps to project the image of being “special.”

Narcissist Gaslighting Examples

Is there someone in your life who consistently makes you feel insecure or like every problem in the relationship is your fault? You might be dealing with a gaslighting narcissist. The following examples of gaslighting behavior will help you recognize the dynamics in your relationship so you can make changes that support your healthy relationship goals.

Example 1: “You need to lighten up”

A co-worker consistently criticizes Jane’s performance even though Jane appears to be excelling at her job by all other measures. Jane recently received a raise and was invited to the company retreat.

Despite this, Jane’s narcissistic gaslighting co-worker keeps telling Jane her job is in trouble. She says things like, “None of the managers like you,” and “everyone is saying you got invited to the retreat because of how you dress.”

When Jane confronts her co-worker with the facts, the co-worker responds with, “Geez, I’m only kidding. Can’t you take a joke? You better get a sense of humor if you’re going to join the big wigs at the retreat.” The gaslighting narcissist is likely trying to undermine Jane out of jealousy by manipulating Jane’s reaction to her “humor.”

Example 2: “You’re overreacting, you’re crazy”

A wife gets upset when her husband frequently stays out late with his friends. She notices concrete signs of infidelity, including X-rated texts from other women. When she confronts her husband, he says she’s overreacting, and it’s all in her head.

He might also play the victim with words like, “I can’t believe you would doubt me after all I’ve done for you.” His calm, cool denial is convincing, and she questions whether she can believe her own eyes.

Example 3: “I didn’t say/do that”

After years of therapy, a man confronts his parent about the abuse he received as a child. After all these years, the man hopes for an apology, wanting closure on this painful chapter of his life. When he shares this desire with his parent, instead of apologizing, the parent completely denies the abuse ever happened.

The parent may blame others and say, “I didn’t do that; Uncle Jim did that. You’re remembering it all wrong,” or they might flatly deny anything ever happened at all. Denial gives the gaslighter an open door to continue the manipulative behavior and escape accountability.

Regain Confidence after Experiencing a Gaslighting Narcissist

Recovering from the abuse of narcissist gaslighting is possible, but it may take time. Being victimized in this way can negatively impact your self-esteem, your ability to trust your judgment, and your ability to trust others.

Even after years of being in an unhealthy relationship, you may still wonder, “What is gaslighting for a narcissistic person?”

These are all common reactions, and you have the power to heal from gaslighting and regain your self-confidence.

Follow these steps to identify a manipulative gaslighter and trust your instincts again.

1. Learn the language

All gaslighters use similar tactics and terms to manipulate their victims. Be on the lookout for phrases like:

  • “I am just looking out for you.”
  • “You need to calm down.”
  • “Everyone is saying/thinking it.”
  • “I never did/said that.”
  • “You’re crazy.”
  • “You’re too sensitive.”
  • “You’re overreacting.”

If you frequently hear these and similar phrases in a relationship, someone is probably trying to manipulate you.

2. Respond truthfully

If you encounter manipulative language, respond calmly and truthfully. Let the person know you understand what they are saying, but you trust your feelings and observations. Reassure them and yourself that your responses are well-founded and legitimate.

3. Don’t try to compete

You might be able to outsmart a gaslighting narcissist, but there’s no point. They likely won’t change their behavior without professional help. Instead, remove yourself from the relationship. Let the other person know you will not engage in dishonest conversations or let yourself be manipulated, and walk away.

4. Keep the receipts

If the gaslighting attempts continue, you may begin to doubt your truth. Keeping records where possible, writing things down, and saving screenshots and texts will help you remind yourself that your perceptions are correct. If you ever need actual evidence to protect yourself against a gaslighter’s dishonesty, you’ll have it ready.

5. Take care of yourself

It is much easier to be manipulated when you’re tired, depressed, and feeling low. Self-care helps you to stay confident and emotionally strong. Fill your daily routine with healthy habits to counteract the stressful encounters with gaslighting.

6. Find support

Ending or healing a toxic relationship is difficult without support. Turn to a friend, family member, support group, or mental healthcare professional you can trust.

Narcissistic gaslighters are skilled at their craft. They can change, but not without therapy and a genuine commitment to growth. It’s up to you to take steps to create and maintain healthy boundaries no matter how the other person behaves.

Find a Supportive Community at The Mighty

Support groups bring together people with similar interests and needs. When you join The Mighty, you join a community of people who understand what you’re going through and can listen without judgment.

Accessing mental health support can be difficult. Finding a therapist or support group in your area that focuses on gaslighting narcissist relationships may not be possible. Even if it is, not everyone is interested or able to join an in-person group.

Whether seeking knowledge about narcissistic personality disorder or connection through a BPD (borderline personality disorder) support group, our online communities are friendly, focused, and convenient.

Sign up for your account today, and find the support you need.

Getty image by SanneBerg

Originally published: March 22, 2023
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