Gaslighting: What it is, and How to Recognize it

It wasn’t until after my first marriage that I first heard about the concept of “gaslighting,” and as soon as I understood what it meant, I thought, “Wow! I wish I’d known about that years ago. That perfectly describes my 6 years of marriage.” I’m hopeful that I can save you years of pain and frustration by sharing this information with you now.

The term comes from the 1944 black and white film, “Gaslight,” which I’ve actually taken the time to rent on Amazon and watch for myself. It’s dated, but still a wonderful psychological thriller, and I definitely recommend it. In the movie, the main character marries a man that seems perfect in every way. He’s charming, handsome, wealthy, and appears to be completely in love with her. After the wedding they move to his ancestral home where things slowly and insidiously start to unravel. The woman’s belongings keep going missing and appearing in strange places, and the gaslights (from which the movie gets its name) keep turning on and off at strange times.

When the woman tells her husband about these peculiar occurrences, he tells her that they aren’t actually happening and that she is losing her mind. He even goes so far as to get a psychiatrist to examine her and back up his claims of her insanity. His insistence on her mental instability is so pervasive that she actually starts to believe that she is going crazy until the big reveal in the end, when we find out what his devious plan was the whole time. I won’t spoil it for you.

“Gaslight” is a wonderful example of the slow, methodical and insidious nature of gaslighting. It’s a long game power play where the perpetrator slowly makes the victim question her/his own reality. The Psychology Today article, “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” by Stephanie A. Sarkis, PhD, describes gaslighting this way, “Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.” The slow and methodical nature of gaslighting is what gives it such power. Because of the steady and mounting message the victim receives that her/his senses can’t be trusted, it begins to feel like the truth.

11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting by Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.

According to Sarkis, there are 11 warning signs of gaslighting to watch out for, and I’d like to explore them here.

  1. They tell blatant lies
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
  3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
  4. They wear you down over time.
  5. Their actions do not match their words.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
  7. They know confusion weakens people.
  8. They project.
  9. They try to align people against you.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar.

Let’s explore these symptoms in more detail. I think that the first two make a good pairing. Gaslighters love to lie. They use it as a tool to confuse you. Even if you have a recording of them doing the thing that they’re lying about, they will continue to lie and tell you that it didn’t happen. They’ll do it with a straight face and belittle you for trying to stand up for yourself, truth and reality. Why do they do this? Well, because over time it makes you start to question the nature of truth and facts. It makes you think that maybe nothing in the world is certain, which is exactly what they want. When you no longer know the nature of truth, you are easily manipulated to believe whatever the gaslighter wants you to believe.

Number three, using what is near and dear to you as ammunition against you, is a potent tool. My ex-husband used to use my religion against me–attempting to control me based on religious beliefs about gender and relational power dynamics. I’ve worked with clients who intimidated their partners into staying with them by saying that they would take away their children if they left. Remember that this is a power and control tactic. It’s not based in reality, but because it touches on deep-seated fears, beliefs, or values it works to intimidate and control the victim.

Number four, “they wear you down over time,” is an important one. Gaslighters start out with a friendly and welcoming demeanor, and charm their victims into trusting them, and then over time begin to introduce their power and control tactics one subtle drop at a time. By slowly chipping away at the victim’s reality and relationship to truth, victims often don’t realize that their worlds have become more and more confusing until they don’t trust their own senses at all, which leaves them in the precarious position of looking to the gaslighter to tell them what to believe. This is exactly the outcome that the gaslighter wants.

Number 5 is probably the biggest give-away of a gaslighter. “Their actions don’t match their words.” They tell you that they are going to do something, and then they don’t do it. They tell you something was done, and you then find out that it wasn’t. They make promises that they don’t keep, and then they tell you that they never promised it in the first place. If you start to notice this trend, run!

Number 6, “They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you” works like this. The gaslighter has told you that you’re crazy and don’t know anything one too many times, and you’re starting to think this person is a bully and you need to get out of the relationship, leave the company, or even the country. Then, suddenly the gaslighter does something nice for you, gives you a gift or a compliment, a tax break, etc. You think, “well, maybe they’re not so bad. Maybe I was over-reacting,” and then the gaslighting resumes even stronger than before.

As the victim’s confusion deepens, number 7 comes into play, “They know confusion weakens people.” Our ability to trust our own senses and interpretation of reality gives us a rootedness in life. By eroding your ability to trust that you know what is true and not true, the gaslighter is literally cutting you off at the root, leaving you weakened and dependent on them for support. That is the entire point of the gaslighting process.

Number 8, “They project.” This one is super weird when you experience it. You confront the gaslighter about bad behavior, and instead of taking responsibility, they accuse you of doing whatever it was that they did instead. For instance, my ex-husband used to accuse me of being bad with money when I would talk to him about the fact that he had just emptied our bank account. Gaslighters do this because it distracts you from the reality of what happened and makes you start defending yourself instead.

Number 9, “They try to align people against you.” This tactic may or may not be reality.
Gaslighters tell their victims that others are against them, and that the only person that the victim can trust is the gaslighter. Remember that they lie, so they may be making it up, but they may actually go so far as to poison people against you. I had an ex-boyfriend who called me “psycho-bitch” to anyone who would listen. By making people believe that I was crazy, he isolated me from my support system in an attempt to make me more dependent on him. This tactic also served to make people question the validity of my statements, especially about him and the way that he treated me.

Number 10, “They tell you or others that you are crazy.” I touched on this earlier, but this one is super important and bears repeating. I find that the operative word tends to be “psycho.” If anyone ever calls you psycho, run. If they call their exes psycho, run. If they call their family members psycho, run. Don’t look back. This person is very likely a gaslighter.

Number 11, “They tell you that everyone else is a liar.” Your world is already on shaky ground. You don’t know what is real and what isn’t anymore. You’re not sure that you can trust your own senses or that you’re mentally sound. Then, the gaslighter tells you that your family, the media, your friends, other countries, or some group are always lying to you. Since you don’t know what’s true anymore anyway, this gives the gaslighter the power to shape reality to his/her own benefit.

Anyone can fall victim to these tactics. This isn’t something that only happens gullible people. It happens to smart, educated and powerful people all of the time. If you’re reading this and recognizing that there is a gaslighter in your life, don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Don’t try to change the gaslighter or reason with them. It won’t work. Just leave.

It will take time for the world to start to make sense again after being gaslit, and that’s OK. Give yourself the patience and gentleness that you were missing with the gaslighter while you heal and find your footing again. The important thing is to just be with yourself as long as it takes to get to the other side of healing.

Why Narcissists Are Attracted to Highly Sensitive People

Health has always been a struggle for me.  As a child, I have multiple memories of sleeping on the bathroom floor so that I could be near the toilet because I was too sick to be far away.  As a teen, I struggled with debilitating migraines.  Often, when I was at school, trying to study, I suddenly noticed a shimmering circle in my peripheral vision.  If I waited too long, the circle completely engulfed my sight and I was trapped at school in the throes of a migraine so severe that I couldn’t tolerate any light or sound.

As soon as I noticed the shimmering, known as an aura, I ran to the office and called my mother to pick me up so that she could pack me into bed, put a blanket over my bedroom window as make-shift blackout curtains, give me an ice pack for my pounding head, and shut the door so the room would be as quiet as possible, because any noise at all was like a nail being driven into my skull.

I had my last migraine at age 17, and thought that my struggles with my health might actually be over.  What I didn’t realize was that I was just at the beginning of struggling with the health of my romantic relationships.  I’ve discussed my early marriage in previous posts.  Suffice to say it was bad.  Since then there have been a string of bad relationships that looked great in the beginning.  The trauma of these events led me both into therapy, and to become a therapist in my own right.

However, I hadn’t realized what the true problem was until my current therapist, a wonderful woman who specializes in Highly Sensitive People, said, “You know.  I think every man you’ve ever dated was a narcissist.”  

Running through the criteria for narcissism in my head, I realized she was right.

As a Highly Sensitive Person, I possess a depth of empathy that is difficult to find.  When I meet new people who interest me, I invest in getting to know more about them, and I have an unfortunate tendency to notice the light in people and disregard their shadows.  For these reasons, I’m like catnip too narcissists.  They love being put on a pedestal.  They love a person wanting to know more about them and being interested in what they have to offer.

There is a lot of talk in the media about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but most people don’t understand what it truly means.  It sounds like someone who has high self esteem and is generally impressed with themselves.  These qualities don’t sound so awful.  We tend to like people who like themselves.  However, the truth about NPD is so much more insidious.  Here are the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following: 

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements) 

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love 

(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions) 

(4) requires excessive admiration 

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations 

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends 

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others 

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her 

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

**Author’s note: While there are women with NPD, 50 to 75% of people with NPD are men, so I’m going to use the pronoun he/him to refer to the NPD person.  Please know that I acknowledge that not all NPD people are male.  I am also going to refer to the person he is dating as her.  This works for my purposes, but know that I recognize that romantic relationships can be between people of the same sex, or people that identify as transgender or gender fluid.**

At first meeting, an NPD person will be excessively charming.  This isn’t to make the other person feel comfortable.  It’s a way to gain admiration.  Unfortunately, this charm takes people in, especially in dating situations. When the NPD person takes a date to a fancy restaurant, buys expensive gifts for her, and takes her on romantic vacations, it isn’t to show his date how much he loves and respects her.  It’s to make her believe he is as amazing as he believes he is.  The more that she believes he is wonderful, the better he feels about himself.

It’s a trap.

Once the NPD person has hooked his target into admiring, and possibly into loving him, things start to shift and the other criteria for NPD show up.

Here’s a real-life example that happened to me.  I had been dating Adam (not his real name) for about 3 years when he suddenly decided that we should move in together.  Instead of discussing this with me, he told all of his friends about his decision, and they brought it up in conversation with me, which is how I found out.  This should have been my first clue.  Then, without discussing it with me, he decided that I should move into his apartment building.  I told him that I would prefer that we look at other places, and choose a place that was new to both of us so that it would be our place instead of a place that belonged to him.

Instead of respecting this request, he informed me that he’d talked with the management of his complex and made an appointment for us to look at an available apartment (criteria 5 and 7).  When I said that I had no intention of looking at the apartment in his complex because I had already made my needs clear to him, he became very angry with me and chose to punish me by taking me on a hike that we had planned for the day and refusing to speak to me the whole time (criterion 9).  It was excruciating, and I eventually told him I wasn’t having a good time and was going back by myself.

Adam eventually caved and said that he would look at other places, but was still rigid about what he wanted in an apartment, and didn’t much care about what I wanted.  We ended up compromising on a place where we lived together for 2 years.  During that two years, we went on amazing trips, ate at fancy restaurants and he gave me beautiful and expensive gifts. He was a very fancy dresser and tended to talk too much about money and his expensive education (criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4).  However, living with him was excessively lonely.  He spent all of his time watching television that I hated, and I mostly hid in the bedroom with earphones in trying to get some peace (criterion 7).

When I finally realized that he was just keeping me around as a roommate and was never going to marry me (criterion 6), I moved out.  The day I left, he didn’t even say goodbye to me.  When I emailed him saying that it bothered me that he didn’t say goodbye, he told me that he had considered us broken up for the whole two years, so he didn’t feel he needed to say goodbye to me (criteria 6, 7 and 9).  I was devastated.  He had lied to me and wasted time that I could have spent trying to find someone who truly loved me and wasn’t an exploitative narcissist.

On their own, any one of these actions doesn’t look too terrible.  Perhaps he simply forgot to tell me that he thought we should move in together.  Maybe he really liked his building and wanted to stay.  Maybe he likes watching television a lot and is careless about making sure the other person enjoys the show that’s on.  However, taken together, they show a pattern of disregard for the rights and needs of others that is pervasive to his personality.  I should also say that Adam was probably the nicest of the narcissists I’ve dated and this is a fairly light example.

Many people wonder how kind and giving people end up with narcissists.  It seems to be a pattern.  When one person in the partnership is cruel and exploitative, the other person seems to be incredibly empathic and caring.  This is exactly because narcissists have an unending need to be loved, understood and cared for.  

In the article “Do Highly Sensitive People Attract Narcissists” Andre Solo writes, “[Narcissists] have very lofty dreams, nothing they do or achieve is ever good enough, so they’re frequently upset, disappointed, or even wildly angry. Isn’t there anyone who can treat them the way they deserve? Yes, unfortunately; and all too often it’s an HSP, the person who keenly feels the pain of others and takes a true sense of satisfaction from helping. HSPs are often the first to try to console and comfort someone in need, and that puts them at risk of getting pulled into a narcissist’s trap.”

What happens is that whenever the HSP gets exhausted by the NPD’s selfish and exploitative behavior, the narcissist reels the HSP back in by “love bombing.”  What is a love bomb?  It’s a super romantic date or trip, or an expensive gift out of nowhere.  The HSP thinks, “Oh.  I was overreacting.  He really does love me,” and then the narcissist goes right back to sucking the empathy and kindness out of the HSP.

If you’re recognizing yourself or your relationship here, please don’t blame yourself.  It’s not your fault.  It’s an insidious trap that unfolds over time and plays on your capacity for kindness and empathy.

However, I urge you to get out now.  It will not get better.  It will only get worse.  Leaving a narcissist can be incredibly painful.  He will blame you and make you question your decision.  He will punish you.  The intermittent reinforcement the narcissist gives, alternating between intense attention and then intense lack of attention is addictive, and leaving a narcissist can feel like detoxing from a drug.  

However, once you’re through the detox, it can feel like being freed from a long and arduous prison sentence.  The day I received my divorce paperwork after I left my NPD ex-husband, and I saw my name in print changed back to the one I’d been born with was one of the happiest days of my life.  I walked away from the courthouse holding my divorce papers with a smile on my face so radiant that several people stopped me as I walked back to my car and asked me why I was so happy.  All I could do was hold up the 1/4 inch-thick divorce decree and say, “I’m free!”