Gaslighting has become a very popular word these days, understandably so.  It refers to a narcissist’s intent to create confusion in other people as a means of manipulating.  When narcissists cause you to question the validity of your reasoning, your perceptions, or your reactions, they have scored a victory.  Or at least that’s how they see it.

We know that gaslighting is common, but it’s important to ask why.  What drives narcissists to be this way?  The easy answer to our question lies in understanding their quest for power.  But let’s go further as we highlight what feeds that hunger for power in the first place.

Narcissism arises from a deep history of pain and a fear of pain’s ongoing presence.  The mind of a narcissist is competitively driven.

Knowing the world is judgmental and willing to pronounce shame at the drop of a hat, narcissists approach relationships as if it will be an ongoing battle for superiority.  The one who sets the rules and makes the judgments wins, at least in their minds.  Gaslighting is their way of trying to stay one-up.

Notice I mentioned fear.  Like anyone else, narcissists fear psychological suffering, but they are confused about eliminating their fears because they have not developed the necessary analytical thinking and its resulting psychological competence.  Even as adults, they are in a less-developed mindset of black and white thinking. They refuse to examine their hurt and pain because their binary thinking disallows the capacity for nuanced insights.  That refusal becomes their poison.

Narcissists consistently scour the world in front of them with questions like:  Are you friend or foe?  Sympathetic toward me or antagonistic?  Are you judging me right now, and if so, how am I doing?

Though they would be loath to admit it, their relationship style is fueled by paranoia.  Openness and vulnerability are anathema to them since it might result in rejection.  To them, being known leads to thoughts like:

  • If you know my flaws or just my differences, you’ll try to play me for a fool.
  • I know you’d love to bring me down, but I can’t let that happen.
  • You learning about me would drain me of my power.
  • You’d use my self-disclosures against me.
  • The world is not a safe place.
  • I will not discuss my weaknesses.  You won’t get to know me as fully as you might think.

The paranoid narcissist needs to feel dominant.  And even when they are not formally in the seat of power, they think of themselves as more enlightened.  They are perpetually committed to the plan of staving off their own feelings of inadequacy by diminishing others.  That’s where the gaslighting comes in.  Taking shots toward others and keeping them confused is a major tool in their box.

Their gaslighting tactics can include behaviors like:

  • Second-guessing your decisions 
  • Calling your memory of events into question 
  • Mocking your opinions 
  • Overriding your preferences with their better preferences
  •  Refusing to give you credit for smart thoughts 
  • Showing condescension with a smirk 
  • Giving a sarcastic rolling of the eyes
  • Asking loaded questions like: “Where did you come up with an idea like that?”

They portray a smugness that belies the inner pain they refuse to address.  That means two things: First, psychological chaos remains unresolved inside, and second, they try to solve that chaos by making you the problem.

Again, their paranoia hinders them from saying: “I’d like us to know each other honestly so we can have a safe and mutually helpful relationship.”  The pain associated with that notion is too much to bear.

Putting it into perspective, healthy people recognize that psychological pain can be restorative, in a similar fashion to physical pain that draws attention to an anomaly so that it can be properly tended to.  In contrast, narcissists see pain as punitive only.

Making matters worse, as a narcissist’s fear of facing pain turns into paranoia which then feeds gaslighting, narcissists also create (then cling to) anger.  That is part of paranoia’s natural progression.  They look for ways to justify their fear of vulnerability by finding fault, then criticizing.  Your predictable confusion generated by gaslighting allows them to proclaim: “See? You really are the cause of my problems.”

That pattern will continue until narcissists decide to stop the gamesmanship, devoting themselves to more dignified alternatives.  

What are the odds of that happening?

It would be wonderful if you could lead a narcissist away from the paranoia and its resulting gaslighting and anger, but predictably, paranoid people will eschew your initiative.  Instead, they’ll cling to the thought: “I’m not about to let you think I need assistance.”  Trust is not their strong suit.
Your greatest tool in the effort to unhook from a narcissist’s gaslighting is psychological insight.  Knowledge is power, and as you see what lies beneath their efforts to keep you confused, you can think: “Nice try, but I’m onto you.  Knowing you won’t honest about your internal turmoil, I’m not going to be sidetracked by your efforts to make me look like I’m the problem.”

~Les Carter, Ph.D.

To watch the video on this topic, click here.