Effects & Warning Signs of Gaslighting and the Unfortunate Predicament of Targets/Victims:
This article focuses on gaslighting, its effects & warning signs. During the process of gaslighting, targets find themselves going through unfamiliar and uncomfortable emotional and psychological states of mind that are confusing causing a great deal of anxiety. If the only support system available to a target is the abuser, then psychological damage is a certainty. Robin Stern, Ph.D. speaks of three stages the target will go through in her book “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your LIfe”. She also goes on to list a number of warning flags to look for in determining whether you are being gaslighted. Her book is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn more about this evil and sadistic trait found in the narcopath. My article merely expands on her analysis.
The three stages a target experiences are:
Gaslighting is an extreme form of emotional abuse used by the narcissistic gaslighter to manipulate you, the innocent target (gaslightee). The effects of gaslighting are so insidious, that they can lead to you to losing all trust in your own judgment and reality. Indeed, your first reaction to what the narcopath is saying is one of utter disbelief; you can’t believe this sudden change in attitude toward you. Since I’s likely you’ve never heard the term gaslighting, you don’t believe you are being manipulated in the first place. All you know is that something terribly odd is happening in the relationship, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Of course, this is precisely what the narcopath wants, after all, it would not work if you knew what was happening. The methods used by the narcopath in the idealization stage of the relationship progresses in such a way that it virtually guarantees you are hooked utterly and completely to your narcopathic abuser. Blinded by love after been totally seduced, you naturally trust that the narcopath loves you equally, but of course, this is a false assumption. Where once the narcopath’s communication style with you was accessible and stayed within the boundaries of the relationship, it is now a twisted system of blocking and diverting. All you know is that where you once were held in “high esteem” by your partner or co-worker or family member, they have now become highly critical of you. The sympathy and support that had been available now turns to disdain and antagonism. Whenever you (the gaslightee) want to reasonably discuss what is happening in the relationship, you are met by a wall of silence, or worse, you are mocked and every issue you raise is twisted and/or trivialized.
It is important to realize that the gaslighting does not need to be severe to have severe consequences on the target; subtle remarks, such as being told that “you are so sensitive”, or “didn’t I ask you to do —, nevermind, I’ll do it myself”. Even though you rationalize in your own mind that these statements are untrue, gradually your confidence is eroding away to such an extent that find yourself doubting your own memory about the smallest of details, like your keys aren’t where you left them. The narcopath denies moving the keys, and when you finally find them, the negative comments reinforce these doubts, creating huge confusion in your mind. Another example is when he or she tells you something, then later denies ever saying such a thing. All of this psychological warfare has the effect of increasing your anxiety about your memory and perception of events. Desperate for the gaslighter’s approval and reassurance that you aren’t going crazy, you find yourself depending on your narcopathic abuser for a sense of reality.
At this stage you still have enough of yourself to fight and defend yourself against the gaslighting manipulation. However, the narcopath’s “gaslighting” is beginning to do what it is intended to do, that is, to throw you off-balance by creating self-doubt, angst, turmoil, and guilt. This emotional damage causes you, over time, to lose your sense of reality, and sense of self. Becoming lost, confused, and unable to trust your own instincts and memory, you tend to isolate yourself, even in your own home. Before long your psychic energy is depleted, and you are left unable to defend yourself from the horrendous gaslighting effect. At this stage your whole system may feel that it is in danger of annihilation.
From birth, nature builds in unconscious defense mechanisms and adaptive behaviors to protect the child from annihilation from early trauma, and these same defenses remain throughout life whenever we are vulnerable to highly stressful experiences that threaten us with annihilation. When the child starts life, they experience the world as a frightening place, so to reduce their fear they need to form an emotional bond with somebody in order to reduce their stress and anxiety. They identify and bond with their mother (usually the main caregiver), and of course, they are very likely, at some time in the future, to experience her as their first aggressor when she punishes them for wrongdoing. “Mother” can be experienced by the child as being both “threatening and kind”, and this seems to lead to the child turning to emotional bonding for survival. This psychological condition is known today as the “Stockholm Syndrome”. It is found universally in situations where people are held captive and in fear of their lives; as in kidnapping, hostage situations, and narcopathic abuse. This phenomenon of trauma bonding with the narcopathic aggressor can be found in Narcissistic Target Syndrome. In the Stockholm Syndrome, the target adapts to the traumatic situation by unconsciously going into a regressive mode, where they return to childish infantile patterns of behavior, and bond with their captor as they did with their mother earlier in life as a defense against annihilation. In order to cope with the discomfort of living within such madness, the targets motivational drive provides a way that they can rationalize to reduce the dissonance they are experiencing (Cognitive Dissonance). It is imperative to understand the dynamics of all these defense mechanisms, so you will be able to appreciate why you stayed in the abusive relationship as long as you did. You adapted by adopting an unconscious self-survival strategy.
By this stage you hardly recognize yourself. You are quickly becoming a shadow of your former self. Living under tyranny within a war zone where you are controlled, physically and emotionally battered, unable to make decisions, subjected to constant rages, sucked dry, stripped of dignity and safety, you just exist. You start feeling like you can’t do anything right any more, you don’t feel that you can trust your own mind, and you withdraw with a skewed reality of what is really happening around you. You escape into depression.
Many targets will also go on to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis of PDSD can be made based on certain symptoms being present, and these symptoms fall into three categories:
1. Reliving: (Flashbacks, intrusive imagery, nightmares, anxiety, etc.)
2. Avoidance: (Avoiding people, places or thoughts, emotional numbing, lack of interest, hopelessness, etc.)
3. Arousal: (Difficulty concentrating, irritability, outbursts of anger, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, etc.)
In my observation and research, I have noticed that targets are brought to self-annihilation and death on many levels while on the receiving end of gaslighting behavior. When you are on the journey to recovery, it’s extremely important to take care and time to educate yourself about what was happening to you. As difficult as it may be, you must look back on the abusive behavior as your story unfolds. You will likely experience an array of responses, from shock, disbelief, profound sadness, guilt, shame, anger, fear, reflection, loneliness and an array of physical symptoms (panic attacks, flashbacks, anxious negative thoughts, fatigue, eating disorders, dissociation, etc.), but the relief at finally knowing what was really going on in the relationship is well worth reliving the journey. This is a process that takes time and patience, and ideally should be done with an experienced therapist or counselor.
I think many of the stages of your recovery are very similar to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, which are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. It is amazing at how surprisingly resilient gaslighting targets are, and that they survived the torturous effects of the disorganized anti-social personality disordered person who entered their life. This is, in itself a miracle, and a testament to the human spirit.
What are the warning signs of Gaslighting?
• Second-guessing: Because a target has had their confidence eroded by the constant gaslighting, they live in fear of doing the wrong thing, and making their situation even more dangerous for themselves. They invariably find themselves asking “what if”, and always trying to second guess themselves. This often effects how they problem-solve, and make decisions in their life.
• Asking “Am I too sensitive?”: Projection and blame are the hallmarks of gaslighting, and the target become hyper-sensitive to the constant humiliation of their abuser. They hear countless times that they are “too sensitive”, that they soon begin to believe the lies. As a result, they look for approval before doing anything, fearful that they will make more mistakes that will end in more humiliation. This form of gaslighting makes the target doubt everything about themselves, so they constantly ask, “Am I being too sensitive”.
• Apologizing: Living with the narcissistic Dr. Jekyll and Mr/s Hyde, the target finds themselves always apologizing for “never doing things right”, they even apologize for their very existence; it is a way of avoiding more conflict with their aggressor. Apology is not just something the target does to be polite; it is a powerful strategy for staying safe while in the war zone, and a means to disarm the anger of the gaslighter. Most importantly, the power of apology is that it can take the shame off the narcissist and redirect it towards the target, therefore avoiding some of the narcissists rage.
• Lack joy and happiness in life (melancholy): If one lives under the constant tyranny of the gaslighting narcissist, they can expect extremes of lethal hostility. Many targets go through physical and mental torture that can cause them to suffer a personality change, leaving them feeling confused, lonely, frightened and unhappy. Often they continue to carry this melancholy even after they escape from the abuser.
• Withholding information from others: Targets experience great shame about their situation; they get tired of trying to cover up their abuse as they go along. When well-meaning friends and family members tell them they see the abuse, they avoid the subject, and soon they learn to withhold giving more information in order to avoid further conflict. The importance of shame in narcopathic abuse is a difficult issue, but I don’t think it is too difficult to accept that the crimes of the gaslighting narcopath stigmatized the target to their very core. Their shame is a normal response to the social failure they so often feel as a result of their abuse (i.e. the shame of being unable to protect themselves from their abuse). This shame can be seen as defensiveness and withdrawal by others. The relationship between shame and social support is a complex issue in and of itself, and too lengthy to discuss here.
• Knowing something is terribly wrong, but can’t figure out what: The goal of gaslighting is to control and influence the reality of the gaslightee. It only works when the target is unaware of what is really happening. The more the target doubts their own reality or competence, the more dependent they become of the abuser. It is a vicious circle of events that is totally confusing to the target, and that is exactly what the gaslighter wants.
• Difficulty making simple decisions: Caught in the narcissistic web of deception and illusion is the equivalent to a fly trapped in the spider’s web. When entering the web, does the target know that it is about to be bound up and eaten alive any more than the fly? The answer is “no”. However, the narcopathic web is akin to the disintegration of self. The target, under the threat of continual danger, forms a psychic bond with the abuser in order to avoid fragmentation of the self. In forming that bond they are compelled to organize themselves around their idealized abuser’s desires, and surrender their authentic potential: Having to ask permission to do anything, not being allowed to have their own opinion, never allowed to win the argument, constantly being chastised and humiliated, compromising their own thoughts, values, needs, and belief. Understandably, caught in this web they lose all autonomy, even their ability to make decisions for their own self.
• You have the sense that you used to be a very different person: more confident, more fun-loving, and more relaxed: In order to survive, the target enters into what is termed the “the narcissists dance”. This is an unconscious defense mechanism which helps to keep the target safe, but in so doing they almost lose themselves by placating, complying, and appeasing. This becomes part of their way of being, a great “pleaser” with everybody. Unless this unconscious dance is exposed in therapy, and the target educated about narcissistic behavior, they are actually left vulnerable to becoming Narcissistic Supply yet again. The reason is that they are conditioned (like Pavlov’s dogs) in a way that makes them a target for other hungry narcissists, who are always on the hunt for new supply, and are quick to spot those primed already.
• You feel hopeless and joyless: What had once seemed like heaven has now turned into a hell. There is no peace or joy in this place, just fear and suppression. Life loses all hope, as if the light has been turned off. All that remains is the deep black cloud of depression. And the target is forced to live in a state of acquiescence in order to survive.
Their perceptions of reality are continually undermined by the gaslighting sham, so they end up losing confidence in their intuition, memory, or reasoning powers. They are spun lies, lies that tell them that they are over-sensitive, imagining, unreasonable, irrational, over-reacting, and that they have no right to be upset. Hearing this time and again, their reality is turned inside out, and they begin to believe that this may all be true.
The narcopath’s form of psychological abuse has managed to instill in their target an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception or judgment. In this state they are truly a hostage. However, many manage to get the courage to break free, but this is usually after several painful attempts to do so. But when they do finally break free (escape is a more apt term), they will need lots of support, understanding, coaching, counseling and in some instances, professional therapy. I urge you to read “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your LIfe” by Robin Stern, Ph.D.
The first step in recovering from brainwashing by gaslighting is to find a therapist or counselor who has a firm grasp on this brainwashing technique, and with his/her guidance you familiarize yourself with the common narcopathic traits of gaslighting and how it affects you, even after the relationship has ended. This is a critical step that cannot be skipped, because you, the former target (survivor) must be able to recognize the narcopath at work. In this way you take back your reality and power. This part of your recovery equips you to guard against further gaslighting by the narcopath when he/she starts hoovering to reclaim their energy source. There is no time period on this recovery process. Recovery from narcopath abuse is in stages and can take months, even years for total recovery. However, never underestimate the power of humans to bounce back from anything. The fact that you survived such extreme abuse is testament to your strength and determination. The resilience of the human spirit is simply amazing.