What is Narcissistic Gaslighting?

Published on: 07 Feb 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
woman yelling at man over table

To understand what narcissistic gaslighting is, you must have a basic and clear understanding of what both narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and gaslighting are individually. Not all people with NPD gaslight, but many do.

In this article, we’ll define both NPD and gaslighting, describe what gaslighting is not, and list some signs that someone might be gaslighting you. Beyond that, we’ll also help you identify when a gaslighting situation or toxic relationship requires professional help.

It’s important to remember that not all people with narcissistic personality disorder are gaslighters, just like not everyone who gaslights has NPD. Let’s look at each concept individually for a moment. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder Defined

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition marked by a grand level of self-importance, an intense need for excessive admiration and attention from others, and a general lack of empathy for others.

People with NPD display extreme confidence while also being unable to gracefully accept even small criticisms or complaints.

Gaslighting Defined

Gaslighting is the use of a patterned, repetitive set of manipulation tactics that makes someone question reality. It’s often used by people with narcissistic personality disorder, abusive individuals, cult leaders, criminals, and dictators.

It’s important to point out that gaslighting is a “patterned” behavior. It’s intentional and designed to make you question your memories and experiences.

Toxic people who gaslight instill confusion intended to make others rely on them. Convincing someone to question their reality gives a gaslighter a sense of power and superiority. 

Despite all this, gaslighting often isn’t so obvious. Many gaslighters may not realize they’re gaslighting, and many people who are being gaslighted also fail to recognize it at first. 

What gaslighting is not:

Gaslighting is not a single incident. When attempting to identify gaslighting, look for a pattern of behavior that appears to be both malicious and intentional. There are various instances when behavior may seem to be gaslighting but it’s actually not. Consider the following statements:

  • “You’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. That’s not what I meant.”
  • “That’s not the way I remember things happening that day.”
  • “Ah, c’mon. What I did wasn’t that bad.”
  • “I didn’t intend for that to happen.”

Many people will say things like this, but they’re not gaslighters in the true sense. If you want to spot gaslighting, look for a distinct, repetitive pattern of intentional malice or denial.

What gaslighting can involve, but is not:

Most people have experienced one or more behaviors commonly used as gaslighting tactics. Some of these forms of manipulation include:

  • Bullying
  • Shaming
  • Intimidation
  • Name-calling
  • Emotional blackmail

Signs That You’re Being Gaslighted by Someone with NPD

It’s common for people to fail to recognize manipulative tactics like narcissistic gaslighting. Someone with NPD might be gaslighting you if:

  • You’re second-guessing your decisions more and more
  • You keep wondering if you’re being overly sensitive
  • You feel unstable or like you’re losing your mind
  • You unnecessarily apologize, often
  • You find you’re increasingly unhappy  

Narcissistic gaslighting can make you feel like something is wrong, but you’re unable to put your finger on just what it is.

Common traits of gaslighters

A toxic person who gaslights might:

  • Refuse to consider your thoughts or concerns
  • Restructure past events to shift blame to you
  • Insist you did things that you know you didn’t do
  • Scoff when you share your side of the story
  • Tell others about your state of mind, behavior, or feelings

A person with narcissistic personality disorder who’s gaslighting you might say you’re crazy, insensitive, or otherwise just flat out wrong when you try to express your needs or wants. 

Examples of “Narcissistic Gaslighting”

Narcissistic gaslighting examples can be subtle and difficult to recognize. It’s not the same thing as telling one lie, having a unique opinion, or accusing someone else of being wrong about something. It’s also important to note that someone who gaslights doesn’t necessarily have to know you personally.

At work

Sometimes coworkers can try to gaslight out of jealousy or anger about their (or your) position. For example, maybe you received a promotion and a coworker or your boss is angry about it. They may try to sabotage you in your new role, not giving you important information or messages. Maybe they move files you need or take documents you’re looking for. When you confront them, they might accuse you of being too stressed to be able to handle the position, or become angry in response, asking why you’d accuse them of such things. 

Maybe at this point you start to really question your own capability in your new role. In some cases, you might even be dealing with a “narcissistic boss.”

People in positions of power

People in power, like politicians, have been known to regularly gaslight the masses when they deny obvious recorded truths, such as authentic video recordings or testimony from multiple unbiased witnesses.

Sometimes these tactics can convince people that the politician did no wrong or that their behavior wasn’t really “that bad.”

Medical care

Some unethical doctors try to gaslight their patients by suggesting that health complaints are imagined or that pain is not as bad as they claim. They might go so far as to recommend counseling instead of other forms of medical treatment.

You might start to wonder if you truly do have the symptoms you’ve been explaining to your doctor. After all, doctors are the experts, the ones who went to school for years. You may think of course they know more about it than you do. 

In a relationship

You’re convinced your abusive partner may have been unfaithful, but when you ask them about the physical or emotional cheating, they either flat out lie, tell you you’re crazy, or become enraged at the accusation. 

You have evidence and you vehemently disagree with their reaction, but you still find that you’re second guessing yourself. You question your belief that they aren’t being true and honest in the relationship. Getting out of a relationship with someone who has uses gaslighting can be challenging, but it is possible. 

Why Someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder Gaslights

People might gaslight others because of negative childhood experiences, a need to be in control, or due to a personality disorder like NPD. Regardless of the cause, all people who gaslight (not only those who show narcissistic behavior or with NPD) do so in effort to gain power. When narcissistic abusers or a gaslighter feels threatened, they feel a strong need for acceptance and support. They want others to believe their retelling of events to restore their sense of control.

Gaslighting can also be the result of someone believing that their account is more accurate than yours. By convincing you to question your memory of events, they can regain that sense of superior intellect.

“Gaslighting, historically, is used to establish dominance. This is a key feature of someone who struggles with narcissistic personality disorder because the security of their lens depends on the other party being wrong.”

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC

Are gaslighters aware that they’re gaslighting?

Some gaslighters are aware of their behavior, and they may even work to improve their gaslighting skills. They might enjoy the sense of superiority they feel from making others doubt their sanity and correctness.

Others who gaslight might not be aware that they’re doing it. Yet, unknowingly, they may continue to gaslight because of the payoff they get: a boost to life, confidence, and superiority.

How to Deal with Gaslighting from Someone with NPD

If you believe or know you’re being gaslighted, there are steps you can take to regain emotional control. For instance, you can:

  • Talk about the situation with trusted loved ones
  • Find an online therapist to help you navigate your situation
  • Take notes directly after an argument or heated conversation
  • Learn how to set boundaries with a “narcissist” (this includes physical/emotional space)

Over time and unaddressed, narcissistic gaslighting can wear you down and make you numb. It can cause you to be agitated and feel out of touch with yourself and your goals.

It’s important that you make time to take care of yourself and be intentional about reclaiming the energy that narcissistic gaslighting has depleted. Hold on to your sense of self and your belief system.

When to Seek Help

Gaslighting for extended periods can decrease your sense of self-worth, cause anxiety and depression, and leave you unsure about the decisions you make. It can also cause a lot of loneliness if the gaslighter is your spouse or friend.

“When we start to question our safety or our livelihood, that is the time to get help from a licensed professional. For example, staying isolated from friends or family, workplaces, and/or schools out of fear for how the person with narcissistic personality disorder might react – that jeopardizes our safety and is a “red flag” to look out for.”

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC

Healing from narcissistic abuse can be challenging, but getting support from a therapist or someone else can help you recognize and effectively deal with the situation and begin taking steps to improve it. A therapist can help you address any doubts about your self-worth, deal with painful emotions, understand that you did nothing to deserve the gaslighting, and discover healthy new ways of coping with and escaping the situation.

Of course, a therapist can also work with couples who want to improve their lives together and completely eliminate any gaslighting that’s happening.

Dealing with narcissistic gaslighting can be daunting and confusing, but you can successfully survive an abusive relationship, set up boundaries, and protect yourself from the narcissistic abuse you’ve experienced. Use the narcissistic gaslighting checklist here to figure out if you’re being gaslighted by someone with NPD or show narcissistic behavior. Rely on the support you have in your life so you can get rid of the toxicity you’ve been dealing with if you’re being gaslighted by someone with NPD. 

Sources:

1. Narcissistic personality disorder. Medlineplus.gov. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000934.htm. Published 2020. Accessed January 2, 2021.

2. Stinson F, Dawson D, Goldstein R et al. Prevalence, Correlates, Disability, and Comorbidity of DSM-IV Narcissistic Personality Disorder. J Clin Psychiatry. 2008;69(7):1033-1045. doi:10.4088/jcp.v69n0701. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18557663/. Accessed January 2, 2021.

3. Mitra P, Fluyau D. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556001/. Published 2021. Accessed January 2, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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