Narcissists work to convince others that they are overly sensitive when they refuse to accept episodes of abusive behavior. Learn the meaning of the phrase “gaslighting” and how to reject the bait.
Do you have family, friends, or loved ones who say you are too sensitive when you call them out for hurting you or someone else? Perhaps you have spent years feeling confused and ashamed about why you are easily triggered and emotionally wounded. You have good reason to be upset or angry. The most common form of gaslighting that narcissistic abusers and their enablers engage in is telling other people that they are overreacting when they are being victimized.
Abusers who frame their manipulation as gaslighting sidestep accountability and undermine their victim’s sense of reality in order to make them doubt themselves. It is possible for other family members and friends to accept and even participate in blaming the victim in order to avoid being targeted and win favor with the abuser.
“Experiencing gaslighting in a relationship can be invalidating and painful,” says Michelle Palu, Manager of Adult Clinical Programs at Diversus Health.
What is Gaslighting?
The Oxford Dictionary defines the term “gaslight” as a means of psychologically manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity. Gaslighting can happen between romantic partners, family relationships, friendships, and co-workers. In a way, gaslighting is “psychological brainwashing,” according to thehealthy.com. This manipulation tactic is a type of emotional or mental abuse to distract from or distort the truth and make a victim question their own memories and reality.
Gaslighting often develops gradually, which can make it difficult for the victim to detect. Over time, gaslighting can have significant consequences, including damaging the victim’s self-esteem and confidence, trapping them in a dysfunctional relationship, and causing them to feel helpless, unable to make decisions on their own, experience memory problems, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and feel conditioned to trust others’ perceptions more than their own.
Common Gaslighting Phrases Used by Narcissists & Abusers
- You need to toughen up.
- Can’t you take a joke?
- Why do you take everything so personally?
- You should learn to let things go.
- I never said that. You have a terrible memory.
- You’re too sensitive.
- You need to lose weight.
- Your friends are idiots.
- I’m not angry. What are you talking about?
- If you really loved me, you would…
- It’s your fault I cheated.
- You make me furious.
- No one else will ever love you.
- I remember you agreed to that.
- If you’re lucky, I’ll forgive you.
How to Recognize Gaslighting & How it Works
Narcissists will usually cloak the phrases intended to gaslight their victims by hiding their real intent so as to position themselves to be free of responsibility. Below are four common ways narcissistic abusers will operate under the gaslighting guise:
1. Reasonable Guise
By casting themselves as the reasonable party, narcissists will portray the victim, or scapegoat, as irrational, overly emotional, and hysterical. In reality, the narcissistic personality is by definition hypersensitive, emotionally dysregulated, and delusional. A classic form of narcissistic projection is telling someone that they are “too sensitive” when they react to being belittled, criticized, or attacked.
2. Joking Guise
This narcissist’s favorite game is to frame insults and ridicule as jokes. Cruel “teasing” is a common form of ongoing humiliation in narcissistic families and relationships. As long as the abuser is “just kidding,” they are merely a blameless comedian try to get others to laugh with them. In this case, the scapegoat becomes a humorless outsider who “can’t take a joke.”
3. Tough Realist Guise
Narcissists and their enablers find joy in telling others that they need to “toughen up.” This form of gaslighting often makes abusers feel superior to their victims, while giving them the opportunity to appear concerned about their victim, if they want to be. This method allows narcissists to deny their own oversensitivity and abusive behavior, framing this type of gaslighting strategy to their scapegoat as being “for your own good.”
4. Sympathetic Guise
The covert narcissist will sympathize with their scapegoat’s sensitivity and hurt feelings in order to appear caring while targeting the victim with negative attention. This is a passive-aggressive strategy to gaslighting. Narcissists in favor of this tactic will often privately target the scapegoat with an invalidating look, comment, or tone. Later, when others are present, the narcissist will express concern and bewilderment when their victim becomes upset. If called out by their scapegoat or others, the covert narcissist will operate within plausible deniability as an attempt to pivot away from accountability. It is common for children with covert narcissistic parents to go decades without fully understanding the abusive manipulation they are entangled in.
How to Respond to Gaslighting
Before you can know how to respond to gaslighting, it is important to know how to recognize it. Victims often need help from family, friends, and/or a therapist in order to detangle the lies and their twisted memories. In many cases, it is okay to say, “I don’t care who is right or wrong. The way you are talking to me is aggressive and abusive. If you keep talking to me this way, I will not continue this conversation.”
Unsurprisingly, narcissistic abusers do not respond well to their victims when they stand up for themselves. It revokes their ability to control their scapegoat. In some cases, the victim’s only choice is to walk away from the relationship.
Due to the significant impact gaslighting has on mental health, it is essential to make sure you look after yours. One way to protect yourself is to gather evidence that reminds you that you are not imagining things. Consider creating a safety plan that includes ways to protect yourself from physical and emotional abuse before, during, and after leaving a narcissistic abuser.
When to Seek Help
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), domestic relationships that involve acts of emotional abuse, such as gaslighting, tend to occur alongside other types of abuse. Long-term effects of gaslighting may lead to physical violence within a relationship. If you have been targeted with long-term gaslighting, you may likely be suffering from low self-esteem, confused boundaries, and other symptoms of complex trauma. Seek support and resources to educate yourself about narcissism, gaslighting, and the trauma that results from this type of abuse.
“It can be difficult to get out of a relationship which involves gaslighting, yet possible,” says Palu. “Focusing on building mindfulness skills and emotion regulation skills can increase your ability to check the facts, validate yourself, and communicate healthy boundaries.”
People who genuinely care about you and want the best for you will not dismiss your feelings, no matter how uncomfortable those feelings make them. If you believe you or someone you love is experiencing narcissistic abuse from a partner, family member, or friend, seek support from a professional. It may be helpful to talk confidentially to a therapist with experience helping individuals in abusive relationships. Request an appointment to speak to one of our mental health providers at Diversus Health and get started on your journey to healing today.
*If you need immediate assistance, call our crisis hotline at 844-493-8255, or text ‘TALK’ to 38255.