How Gaslighting Works to Erode the Victim’s Reality

Gaslighting is a game of Smoke and Mirrors so dive in to discover a clear explanation of how gaslighting works.

While the definition of gaslighting may appear clear-cut, the reality of how it is used in abusive relationships is complex and multifaceted.

If you need a refresher on what gaslighting is start here.

There are many ways in which malignant narcissists gaslight their victims, and when done chronically, gaslighting becomes an effective tool to manage down the victim’s expectations for decency, honesty and transparency over time.

After all, if someone cannot trust their own perceptions, it becomes that much easier to hand over the reins to the person who is shaping their reality in the first place.

It becomes that much more difficult to confront the gaslighter without the fear of being shamed and silenced.

Here is explanation of how gaslighting works and shows up in toxic relationships:

1. Denial and dismissal.

Perhaps the most popular form of gaslighting occurs in the art of the blatant denial.

A cheating wife refuses to admit that she had an affair, even when concrete evidence (such as explicit photos) surface.

A malignant parent denies ever abusing their children despite the fact that they still have the scars (whether emotional or physical) and memories to prove it.

A predator with a history of committing sexual assault simply says it did not happen, despite many victims coming forward.

By dismissing the evidence and holding steadfast to the “alternative facts,” the abuser is able to instill a sense of doubt – however tiny – and by planting that seed, they create a burgeoning ambivalence in their victims, law enforcement, society as a whole – that perhaps it really didn’t happen, or at least, it didn’t happen in the way the victim reported it did.

Much like reasonable doubt can sway a jury, continually denying a victim’s experiences can lead the victim to search for evidence that confirms the abuser’s reality rather than their own.

At most, it provides a counter narrative to the truth that enablers of the abuser can hold onto, and at worst, it creates so much distortion that the abuser is rarely held accountable for his or her actions.

Unfortunately, this form of gaslighting also preys on a sense of hope just as it does uncertainty.

Victims may have their own reasons for believing in the abuser, but they are also trauma bonded to their perpetrators through the intense experiences of abuse in an effort to survive.

As a result, victims of a trauma bond often protect their abusers and work even harder to depict their relationship as a happy, stable one.

As trauma and addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes (2015) writes in his book, The Betrayal Bond:

“Exploitive relationships create betrayal bonds. These occur when a victim bonds with someone who is destructive to him or her. Thus the hostage becomes the champion of the hostage taker, the incest victim covers for the parent, and the exploited employee fails to expose the wrongdoing of the boss…{this} is a mind-numbing, highly addictive attachment to the people who have hurt you. You may even try to explain and help them understand what they are doing – convert them into non-abusers. You may even blame yourself, your defects, your failed efforts…these attachments cause you to distrust your own judgment, distort your own realities and place you at even greater risk. The great irony? You are bracing yourself against further hurt. The result? A guarantee of more hurt.”

As Carnes notes, the emotional investment we have built in our relationship with the gaslighter is what keeps us hoping for a return on our investment.

Yet the more we invest, the more we inevitably risk.

An adult child of an abusive parent does not want to face the reality that their parent may have never loved them; a doting husband may prefer to believe that any evidence of his wife cheating was misconstrued; a sexual predator’s victims may wish to not move forward with legal charges because they hope they can move forward with their lives.

Denial – however simple it may seem – can be an effective strategy for an abuser to use precisely because it also works with a victim’s natural desire to avoid conflict, protect themselves from the trauma of the truth and maintain the false comfort of the abuser’s false mask.

2. Shaming and Emotional Invalidation.

When abusers are unable to convince you that your truth is a false reality, or when they feel they need to add an extra dose of emotional anesthesia to keep you quiet and compliant about their transgressions, they’ll add in subtle shaming or emotional invalidation.

This is when, not only are your claims dismissed and denied, the fact that you brought them up in the first place make you somehow defective, abnormal or incompetent.

“I can’t believe you would think that of me. You have serious trust issues, to even search through my phone like that,” the cheating wife might say, displacing the onus of her own infidelity onto her husband and diverting from the fact that her shady behavior caused trust issues in the first place.

“Why are you bringing up the past? You really can’t let go of things, can you? I am so angry you’re bringing this up,” cries the abusive parent hysterically, bringing the focus to her emotions rather than her child’s plight.

This effectively silences and shames the child for speaking up in the first place, discounting the impact of their traumatic childhood.

The sexual predator?

He or she is able to shift the focus back to the victim’s behavior instead – asking, why did he flirt with me? Or why did she come back to my place, if she didn’t want to have sex?

Shaming is powerful because it taps into the deepest core wounds of childhood.

To be shamed is to ‘regress’ back into the first time you were reprimanded, belittled, made to feel small. It reminds you when you were once voiceless – and it repeats the destructive cycle by regurgitating old belief systems of unworthiness.

When we feel unworthy, we are less likely to speak out or counter injustice in empowering ways by advocating for ourselves – which is why we tend to rationalize, minimize and deny gaslighting behavior and blame ourselves.

3. Pathologizing the Victim.

Malignant narcissists take it one step further when it comes to their victims; they engage in concrete actions that pathologize and discredit their partners.

They play the smirking “doctors” in their intimate relationships, diagnosing their victims like “unruly patients,” all while downplaying their own pathological behavior.

While they can also do this through a smear campaign, the most covert predators tend to use more underhanded methods to come out on top.

A victim whose credibility is weakened serves as ammunition for an abuser, because the abuser is able to evade accountability for his or her actions by claiming that the victim is unhinged, unstable, and pursuing some form of vendetta against the abuser.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline estimates that around 89% of their callers have experienced some form of mental health coercion and that 43% had experienced a substance abuse coercion from an abuser.

According to them:

“Most survivors who reported their abusive partners had actively contributed to mental health difficulties or their use of substances also said their partners threatened to use the difficulties or substance use against them with important authorities, such as legal or child custody professionals, to prevent them from obtaining custody or other things that they wanted or needed.”

– The National Center on Domestic Violence and the Domestic Violence Hotline

The most covert gaslighters manufacture scenarios that drive their victims over the edge while erasing any trace of their involvement.

They exploit existing vulnerabilities in the victims, such as past traumas, addictions and mental health issues.

They create chaos so that the victim reacts and they are able to use the reactions of their victims against them (sometimes even going so far as to videotaping their reactions while failing to provide the context of their abusive behavior).

“Narcissists magnify the gaslighting effect when they accuse their victims of requiring professional help, medication or a psychiatric evaluation when their victims begin to call out the abuse. They may even coerce their victims to take drugs or push them over the edge when their victims are feeling suicidal from the impact of the long-term psychological terrorism they have endured. This is all done with the dual purpose of gaslighting the victim into thinking he or she is the crazy one – and of gaslighting society into thinking that they, the abuser, is actually the victim instead,”

– Shahida Arabi, POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse.

They use the vulnerabilities their victims disclosed to them early in the relationship against them to retraumatize them and shame them into feeling that no one would believe them if they spoke out.

They accuse their victims of being “bitter” and “obsessed” with them, when in fact, they are the ones stalking their victims.

Not unlike the set-up in movies like Gaslight, the victim finds himself or herself being told that they are “crazy,” “losing it,” “imagining things,” or “delusional” even after they endure blow after blow.

Similarly, as victims of psychological violence get closer to the precipice of truth, the man (or woman) behind the curtain creates a great deal of noise to divert their victims from ever seeing what is beneath the surface of their façade and grandiose claims of authenticity.

The noise malignant narcissists create instead refocuses on attacking the credibility of the victim rather than addressing their own crimes.

This includes:

  • telling the victim to seek “help” for calling out their behavior, convincing the victim to obtain medication to help manage their “symptoms” (because getting close to the truth, apparently, requires extensive care)
  • encouraging the victim to abuse substances (in an effort to control them, as well as to make them a less credible ‘witness’ to their crimes) and
  • using their trauma history against them to make them believe that they have no case for accusing them of abuse.

An expert gaslighter will point to the fact that you were violated in the past, which must be why you’re acting out your trauma onto them in the present.

An expert gaslighter can even drive his or her victim to suicide.

Gaslighting in Conversations

What does gaslighting look like in day to day conversations? It usually involves some form of the following:

Malignant repetition of falsehoods.

As noted previously, repeating a lie frequently enough can become a way to reinforce and cement it as truth.

Whether these lies are seemingly innocuous or potentially damaging, they can overwrite existing perceptions.

  • “You flirted with that guy. I saw you.”
  • “I am such a nice guy/girl. I treat you so well.”
  • “I told you, I was at work. You need to stop with these baseless accusations.”
  • “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Minimizing the impact or severity of the abuse.

This is when the gaslighter has committed a serious offense against you and instead of acknowledging it, minimizes the impact the abuse had on you or the gravity of the abuse.

Tell-tale signs someone is minimizing verbal, emotional or even physical abuse may sound something like:

  • “That wasn’t even abusive. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
  • “I didn’t hurt you that badly. You’re just being a crybaby. There’s barely a scar.”
  • “I didn’t raise my voice. You’re just misinterpreting things.”
  • “So what if I cursed? Are you a child? Do I have to censor myself?”

Projection and generalization

The gaslighter diverts the claim back to the victim, claiming that he or she is the one who “always” creates trouble, when in fact, it is the gaslighter who is perpetually creating chaos and refusing to validate the victim’s claims. The gaslighter then generalizes all of the victim’s claims and assertions as ridiculous or characterizes them as attempts to create conflict, as if conflict did not already exist in the first place.

Common examples include:

  • “You’re just so sensitive.”
  • “You take everything so seriously!”
  • “You’re always causing trouble.”
  • “You just love drama.”

Withholding information and stonewalling

The abuser is unwilling to engage in the conversation at all and often shuts down the conversation any time a claim is made against him or her about their behavior.

This might look like:

  • “I am done discussing this.”
  • “I am not going to argue with you, this is pointless.”
  • “This conversation is not going anywhere.”
  • “That doesn’t even warrant a response.”
  • “The fact that you’re accusing me of that says a lot more about you than it does me.”

Questioning their memory, emotional stability and/or competence

The abuser avoids accusations and conversations by questioning the victim’s memory or ability to comprehend the situation in an unbiased way.

They may say things like, “I don’t remember that. Are you sure you’re remembering that correctly?” even if the event just happened a few moments ago. They may call into question a victim’s awareness, or, if they’ve engaged in substance abuse coercion with the victim, may use that against them to ensure that no one would believe them by asking things like, “Have you been drinking again?” or “Are you off your meds?”

Other common phrases include:

  • “You really have some issues.”
  • “You need to learn how to trust people.”
  • “God, you’re crazy.”
  • “You need to calm down and think about this.”
  • “You’re blowing everything out of proportion, as usual.”

Bringing in a third party/the triangulation maneuver.

Triangulation is the act of bringing in another person into the dynamic of a toxic interaction. While we usually talk about triangulation in the context of manufacturing love triangles, when it is used in gaslighting, it can manifest quite differently.

Triangulation (in the context of gaslighting) can be used to confirm the abuser’s version of reality and shame you into believing that you truly are alone in your beliefs and perceptions. It fuels a victim’s sense of alienation when another person (or a group of people – such as the narcissist’s harem) agrees with his or her distortions.

Malignant narcissists are prone to recruiting what the survivor community refers to as “flying monkeys” to agree with their perspective. They may bring these people in physically to confirm their point of view (“Hey Sandra, what do you think? Isn’t Laura being paranoid?”), or even mention them in passing (“Even Sandra agreed with me that you’re being a bit paranoid, Laura”).

For example, in the movie Gaslight (1944), the conniving husband is able to bring in his maids one by one to confirm that a small painting (which he deliberately misplaced) was not in fact, moved by them. This enables him to pretend that his wife has moved the portrait, though she has no recollection of doing so. These third-party “witnesses” or enablers convince her that she must be truly going insane, if she doesn’t at all remember doing what he accuses her of doing.

Diversions from the topic to assassinate the victim’s character or challenge the validity of the relationship.

The gaslighter diverts the focus from his or her behavior onto the perceived character traits of the victim or the stability of the relationship.

They may say things like, “We just don’t get along,” or “We’re just too different. We’re not right for one another,” drawing attention to the relationship as a whole instead of the specific issue at hand.

In a normal relationship where incompatibility is an issue, the idea that two people are simply “too different” may be true, but in the context of an abusive relationship, these are gaslighting phrases meant to divert you from the reality of the horrific abuse and onto the milder myth of incompatibility.

The truth is, no one is “compatible” with an abuser, and in a gaslighting power dynamic such as this, the problem is not the fact that you two don’t “get along.” It’s the fact that one partner is abusing his or her power to distort your reality.

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