Gas lighting is a term that describes manipulative techniques done by emotional abusers. The term was coined by Psychiatrists after a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman. In the movie, Bergman’s husband has murdered his aunt in an attempt to steal her jewels–and once his wife has stumbled onto his plan, he spends the rest of the movie trying to drive her insane. He spends his evenings searching the attic of the aunt’s home (which they now live in) for the jewels. Everytime he is up there, and turns the gas lights on, it makes the lights downstairs flicker. She notices that they are flickering, and he tells her that they look fine to him. Throughout the movie he continues to slowly erode her sanity by telling her small lies and making her question reality. (Click here to watch gas lighting.)
So What is Gas Lighting?
Gas lighting is a conditioning/grooming behavior done to get victims to doubt themselves and their perceptions of what is really going on. Narcissists will “gas light” by spinning information, omitting facts and details and telling the victim that they “heard wrong,” “must be crazy,” “that never happened,” “didn’t happen that way.” Over time, victims become conditioned to doubt their perceptions of reality, and in turn, are conditioned to rely heavily on their abuser to define their reality.
Gas lighting often occurs after the Narcissist has had some sort of bad behavior (cheating, lying, stealing). He then denies or deflects his actions, to which the victim finally sets aside her version of reality and accepts his. When this happens, the Narcissist is doing what’s called “managing down of expectations.” This is where absurb and ridiculous behavior has become to be expected, and is no longer that shocking or upsetting.
the victim is often likely to overlook these times of (outrageous) bad behavior, especially if they are in a relationship with a “covert” Narcissist. Covert Narcissists are often charming, likable, and often involved in activities that present them to be a great person (church, volunteering, working with kids/animals, being a great neighbor, helpful, etc.) They are often described by most people as “the best husband/neighbor/father ever”. (Think Bill Cosby or Scott Peterson.) The Narcissist often keeps their victim on the line with a relationship that is a roller coaster of emotions: when times are good, they are really good; when times are bad, they are really bad. The victim knows this, but stays in the relationship holding onto hope that this will be the last instance of bad behavior by the Narcissist.
Some examples of gas lighting:
Example #1 (intentionally planting seeds of doubt in the victims mind so that she questions her memory at further points down the road.):
Victim: Did you lock the front door?
(Thirty minutes later the victim gets up to go to the kitchen and notices the front door is unlocked.)
Victim: I thought you said you locked the front door?
Narcissist: I never said that.
Victim: Yeah you did. I just asked you about 30 minutes if you locked the door, and you said yes.
Narcissist: You must be imagining things. Stress can really do that to a person. Here, let me give you a backrub.
Example #2 (deflecting and denying):
The Narcissist begins to carry his phone everywhere he goes, changes the password on the phone, and refuses to let the victim have access to it at anytime. (Behavior that is inappropriate and sketchy, and would make any sane person jealous and suspicious–and behavior that any normal person would or could easily clear up by letting their significant other have access to their phone right then and there to put an end to unnecessary jealousy or mistrust.)
Victim: I don’t see why you need to take your phone everywhere. That’s just really weird and sketchy. It seems like you are hiding something.
Narcissist: I am not hiding anything! Jesus! What is your problem?! I can’t handle all of your trust issues. I swear one of these days if you don’t get counseling, I’m going to have to leave. I just can’t put up with it anymore. I mean, if you don’t know I love you, then I don’t know what else to tell you.
Victim: I’m sorry, I’m sorry…it’s just…well…okay…I’m sorry. I do trust you, it’s just that...
Narcissist: I’m not cheating on you and there’s nothing suspicious about my behavior. You are paranoid. You really need to get help.
Over time, gas lighting creates a sense of paranoia, mistrust and insecurity in victims, often times to where they don’t trust anyone or anything–even friends, family, their judgment, or their perception of reality. Those that have been subjected to gas lighting often require therapists who are familiar with working with victims of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and abuse.
On a personal note, the first Narcissist I dated (as an adult) didn’t gas light me in the more traditional sense of the term, although I do feel what I went through was very much like gas lighting. I guess it was more like reverse gas lighting. Instead of getting me to question my reality, he got me to have total faith in it–although he had manufactured a reality that wasn’t real at all. He pretended to be in love with me, as well as a good friend. We had created a wonderful life together. I really thought we’d get married and start the business that we’d been planning. In fact, he was Prince Charming, and my biggest support during our whole relationship. I never doubted him for even a moment…until I accidentally stumbled upon his double life. As it turned out, he was on pretty much every dating site out there, and was having sex with dozens, if not hundreds, of strangers he was meeting online. I also came to realize that he had been introducing me to some of these people under the guise that they were friends or co-workers of his. He was even using my pet name for him as his screen name for these different dating sites. I didn’t understand why he was so malicious about his cheating. Everything he had been doing behind my back was so cruel, and unnecessary. I hadn’t even wanted a serious relationship with him at first–he was the one who kept pushing me, and he asked me to move in with him!
Thankfully, I found out about so much of what he was up to during a two day period, that there was no time for him to justify it. I immediately broke up with him, at which point he began yelling at me, demanding to know where “all the money was.” Apparently, he didn’t believe that I wasn’t getting a huge divorce settlement, or a ton of money from the sale of some rental properties. We had been planning on starting a business together, and after I found out what he’d been up to, it became very obvious that he was nothing more than an emotional (and financial) con artist.
I was stunned. I’d felt like I’d been shoved into ice water and couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t sure which rattled me more: his level of deception, or that I had fallen for it. I also couldn’t figure out why he seemed to hate me so much, and why he had no empathy or remorse. My brain had a hard time processing how I could think he was one of my best friends, when he was really one of my worst enemies. I began having night terrors, where I’d wake up screaming or crying. I didn’t trust anyone–not even friends or family. I had no faith in my perception of reality, judgment or decision-making abilities, and for the next year, would call my mom and run any important decision I had to make past her. I had panic attacks on a regular basis, and bouts of crying that would come on unexpectedly. Even though I went “No Contact,” I moved two hours away, anytime that I did have to return to that town, I would break out into a cold sweat, and could barely function or think straight. Hindsight being what it is, I believe I had PTSD–which I’ve come to learn is very common with victims of Narcissists, and goes hand-in-hand with gas lighting.
If you are in a relationship with a Narcissist, please understand that it isn’t your fault; you aren’t crazy, and they don’t change. Please keep educating yourself about Narcissistic personality disorder, and ideally, how to minimize contact with them if you can’t go no contact.
I have found the most healing through joining several support groups online. Here is a link to mine, but I suggest that you join more than one, and find one that fits you the best.
Take care, and (((hugs))) to you.
My goal is to educate, empower, and inspire other abuse victims in understanding more about what happened to them (and how to prevent it from happening again), as well as how to go on and rebuild an amazing life.
Even though I have had a lot of "in the trenches" experience with highly manipulative people of all kinds, I consider myself to be a student of Narcissism, mindset, motivation, healing, and life in general, and am by no means an expert on any of these topics.
It's for these reasons, that when you are reading my information that I encourage you to hold to what helps, and let the rest go.
Latest posts by Dana (see all)
- Episode 55: How Do I Stop My Addiction to the Narcissist? - August 23, 2017
- Episode 53: Strategies to Help Prevent Your Child from Being Manipulated by a Narcissistic Parent - August 21, 2017
- Episode 54: How can we handle victim blaming and revictimization? - August 18, 2017