13 Feb The Most Evil Game of All
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We all suffer from occasional lapses of memory and muddled thinking, whether it’s forgetting where we last put the car keys, turning up for an appointment on the wrong day or completely grasping the wrong end of the stick in an email exchange.
But imagine that these frustrating events started happening all of the time causing you to wonder if you were losing the plot. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist – whether a spouse, older child, parent or work colleague – there is a particularly cruel strategy that is sometimes used to gain control of the relationship: ‘gaslighting’.
The term originated from a play written in the 1930s which inspired the 1944 movie ‘Gaslight’. In the film, the character played by Charles Boyer wages a campaign against his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman, which involves convincing her she is losing her mind. Part of his campaign involves dimming the gas lighting and colluding with his staff to give his wife the impression she is imagining it.
Gaslighting has two elements. The first is that it must be deliberate; simply telling someone that they are overreacting or that they’ve misremembered an event is not of itself gaslighting. Second, the perpetrator has to construct a false reality to replace a real scenario. Obvious tactics such as moving objects so the victim believes they have lost them are clearly attempts at gaslighting, but the narcissist also works on a more subtle level, questioning the victim’s memory of events and the accuracy of what they have experienced or witnessed. For example, you and your partner may agree that he or she picks up the kids from school on a Monday but when the day arrives your partner insists you agreed on Tuesday, causing you to doubt your recollection of the discussion. The aim is to keep you constantly questioning your memories and perceptions and feeling anxious and insecure. After enduring this form of abuse for long enough, the victim tires of the fight, abandons their own sense of reality and turns to the narcissist to define it for them.
Just as brainwashing requires the victim to be isolated from alternative viewpoints, the narcissist increasingly isolates their victim, owning progressively more of their reality and then working to invalidate their perceptions and memories of that reality.
Gaslighting is one of a range of techniques used by the narcissist who, it must be remembered, is adept at the art of manipulation. Mixed with other forms of emotional control, such as invalidation and humiliation, the narcissist creates a living nightmare of shifting illusions with themselves in the centre of it, pulling all the strings.
Gaslighting is often a key factor in one of the most widely misunderstood characteristics of domestic abuse – the ‘decision’ to stay in the relationship. By the time the situation has progressed to the stage where outsiders are aware of the abuse, the outside world seems so uncertain and confusing to the victim, and the narcissist so sure and omnipotent, that the victim has no doubt that the narcissist can and will follow through on their promise to track them down, hurt or kill them/those they care about, or get them arrested or committed to an institution.
Not every form of invalidation is gaslighting, and not every instance of controlling behaviour is evidence of narcissism, but the depths to which a narcissist will go to maintain and increase their hold on their victim should not be underestimated.
If you or someone you know have been affected by gaslighting and have escaped, the sooner you access appropriate therapy the better as there is lots of work to be done. Therapy can help to restore your sense of reality, while strategies can be developed for managing any associated anxiety, depression and grief over the loss of a relationship.