Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. It is perhaps the most insidious tactic of manipulation because of it’s intent to disturb the sense of self and agency, safety and reality of another, to make it easier to interfere and control their thought and communication patterns.
This overarching goal of gaslighting to intentionally traumatize another into submission is what makes it insidious. What could be more inhumane?
Not surprisingly, its methodical use is linked to persons that meet the criteria for narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders (NPD and APD, respectively). A key identifying characteristic of APDs and NPDs is that they derive pleasure from conning and subverting other’s will to exploit them for own gain, as part of displaying what they deem is “proof” of one’s superiority.
There are other toxic communication patterns, such as stonewalling discussed in Part 1; none compare to gaslighting, however. Whereas the intent of stonewalling is to avoid conversation out of dread or fear of conflict or overwhelm, etc., the intent shifts when it’s part of a narcissist’s gaslighting scheme.
The effects of gaslighting can be traumatizing, and should be taken seriously. Some researchers have identified a cluster of PTSD-type symptoms that they have labeled narcissistic abuse syndrome, to propose its inclusion in the next edition of the DSM.
A pathological use of gaslighting has at least 7 goals in mind, as follows:
1. To make a partner feel undeserving and thus their wants, needs, dreams, wishes, etc., as irrelevant or invisible.
Gaslighting shows up a lot in our culture. In authoritarian parent-child relations, it’s used to teach children to take their place, and to serve and obey without questioning. Children are instilled with the belief that authority figures “know what is best” for them, that they must fear and prove their adequacy in pleasing parents, to avoid rejection or abandonment, and so on. A similar yet far more intense dynamic occurs in couple relationships, where narcissists use gaslighting to train their significant other to stay her place, and regard herself like an object or possession that serves at his pleasure.
When gaslighting appears, there is no reasoning, no sense of normalcy in the exchange. The narcissist is ready 24/7 to derail any attempt of their partner to talk about her concerns, interests, pain, needs, wants, etc. It feels like a conversation from hell. He gaslights her, in the short term, to put her on the defensive, in order to derail the topic she wanted to discuss — and instead, shift to talking about his needs, pain, frustration with her, in other words, his favorite topic of “what’s wrong with her.” Unbeknownst to her, when she defends herself, and lists all the ways she’s been good to him, i.e., loyal, trustworthy, etc., and all the ways he’s failed or hurt her, this fills him with pride. He’s proud that he’s failed her, and even prouder that he feels no remorse! To him, listening to her complaints is like marketing research that tells him “he’s on the right track to his goal,” and to keep doing what he’s doing! He also derives pleasure from watching her spin her wheels, anxiously trying to prove her loyalty, etc.! In the long term, this works to train her brain to automatically silence herself, at some point, to feel her concerns and needs are irrelevant, and that it is normal to feel her feelings are invisible in relation to his. It’s not normal! It’s a serious pathology that puts others at risk of harm.
2. To disable the otherwise amazing capacity of the human brain to speak truth to power in order to address any abuse or mistreatment they experience.
A narcissist uses gaslighting to intentionally activate the stress response of another and thus turn off their brain’s ability to think clearly by activating the body’s survival-stress response. Repeatedly interfering with a person’s attempt to communicate with another — which is key human endeavor by the way — naturally tends to frustrate them, and does so to such as extent, that their brain automatically activates their body’s survival system. Research shows that, when the body’s survival reaction is activated, the areas of the brain for reflecting thinking, the frontal cortex, is put off line and temporarily disabled.
This derails the capacity of a person, in the moment, to think clearly, make sense or question what’s happening, get their point across, and so on. When such action is repetitive, this conditions or trains another person with an adaptive response known as “helplessness,” that is, the person finds it to painful to hope and believe in any other possibility, and thus gets in a comfort zone, of sorts, where they do not even “want” to think about the emotional, sexual, physical abuse, or mistreatment that is occurring, much less to stand up for themselves, or try to stop it, etc.
In this case, gaslighting is used to intentionally block another’s capacity to reflect and stand in their truth, to care for themselves, to engage in healthy feedback with another, etc., all of which are healthy, core human endeavors, by activating high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in their bloodstream. By doing so, the narcissist or psychopath achieves their goals which are to hide their abusive and wrongful actions, and to blame-shift even acts of sexual, emotional and, or physical assault to get the victim to, instead automatically questions her self, sanity and reality, and direct her focus to desperate attempts to protect herself by trying to address a narcissist’s complaints, unhappiness, real or imagined concerns. It’s not normal; it’s seriously pathological.
3. To normalize the use of abuse (emotional, sexual and, or physical) as an “entitlement” of those deemed superior to mistreat those deemed “weak” with impunity.
Socially, gaslighting has legitimacy in all major institutions. It starts in how we socialize children to behave, according to gendered roles, and to associate their self-worth with “proof” of meeting external standards for being “real” men or “good” women. Children are socialized overall to expect those with higher status are entitled to train those with lower status to take their place, and that any means is justified, to teach them to obey without questioning, to serve at the pleasure of their superiors, and so on. Those with lower status are also expected to learn to forego asking for what they want, to be seen and not heard, and thus, it’s taboo for them to complain, regardless of mistreatment, abuse or deprivation.
In effect, this might-makes-right value system legitimizes all forms of abuse on the most vulnerable populations. This makes it “easier” for those with a supremacist ideology, to deceive themselves into thinking that they’re in the “superior” group, thus entitled to do what they please, to those they can dupe with gaslighting lies, illusions and con artistry — and that such categories even exist biologically on the basis that scientific methods of crippling the human brain work! Supremacists are so obsessed with seeking evidence of “superiority,” that they’ve worked diligently throughout history to eliminate, destroy or discredit evidence that indicates otherwise. In fact, most of our mainstream science and history schoolbooks continue to not include hard scientific evidence, that — all human beings, male and female, white and nonwhite, have amazing capacity to create and achieve great things, are hardwired to self-govern and collaborate to create enriching, life sustaining communities — given that is opportunities and enriching environments in which they are free to pursue happiness and realize their dreams. While not all NPDs and APDs turn into criminals that pose a danger to society, it’s safe to say, that all domestic violence perpetrators, and mass shooters, hold a supremacist ideology. (NPDs and APDs live by this ideology.)
4. To normalize the use of “fear tactics” by portraying those deemed inferior (i.e., women, children, other groups) as both “emotionally crazy” and “dangerous.”
Persons in authority positions are expected to use gaslighting, and to control those they rule over with fear-tactics, lies and illusions, reward and punish accordingly. Gaslighting is a continuous stream of lies, so to speak, with just enough truth, to keep the other confused. Trying to make heads and tails of nonsense an NPD or APD spews is a waste of time. Most of us have been raised to be unsuspecting. The last thing we want to believe is that someone is telling lies to intentionally keep others confused, so that they can more easily control them at every level (their thinking, beliefs, choices, feelings etc.)!
This shows up in couple relationship, where men are socialized to prove they wear the pants, by blocking the attempts of the woman in their lives to influence, express her wants and needs, make requests, collaborate, etc. Many men regard sex as the only “love need,” and thus, they reject their partner’s attempts to get empathically connect, to seek closeness and romance, viewing this as a ploy to for women to emasculate, then dominate men. In a sense, this socialization dehumanizes men, teaches them from boyhood to mistrust and associate their inner promptings with the “love stuff” that only “girls” or “sissies” like or want. It’s no wonder that narcissism can be described as a love deficit, a condition in which a person’s ability to feel love and express empathy has been numbed by an aversion to anything associated with being female! Usually by middle school, men learn to equate “sex with love.” Meanwhile, many women turn away from sex when the relationship with their partner is void of human affection, empathic communication, closeness, and other human connection experiences. Men fake the “love stuff” to lure females into sex; women fake orgasms to get men’s love. The rules for being “real” men and “good women” are a set up for toxic relationships, unhealthy for both men and women.
5. To reinforce social norm that only female partners, never male, are responsible if a couple relationship fails.
In the same way that children are socialized to keep their place, men are raised to think of women, as children that never grow up because of their focus on emotional connection, closeness and the like. From early childhood, men and women are instilled with fear to prove their adequacy in order to avoid rejection or abandonment, so that they work harder to obey and please authority figures. Men are expected to keep the woman in their life in her place, and thus, are expected to use gaslighting and other dominance tactics, to train a woman to mistrust their own thoughts, to hold themselves responsible for other’s happiness, and the success or failure of their relationships. Simultaneously, women are socialized to prop up, and remain sensitive to not threaten men’s masculinity, i.e., by denying or disguising their common sense, wisdom, memory, perception, and so on. This inhumane social order conditions men and women from childhood to accept that “the means justify the ends,” yet to what end? To maintain inhumane social structures that objectify and dehumanize both men and women as human beings?
6. To prove dominance by subverting a partner’s will and exploiting them to serve own interests.
It is used by bullies to control another’s thoughts, will, beliefs about self and the other. In effect, it’s a method of asserting dominance, by intimidating the other into giving up trying to have influence or a voice in the relationship. Gaslighting seeks to break a person’s will, and does so by instilling the other with doubts about themselves, their sanity, their worth, their mental ability to think or make decisions, their ability to love and be loved by others. In other words, it’s a form of treating another person to act like a slave, an object, and to do without their knowledge! As a thought control tactic, the narcissist’s goal is to break another’s will, to derail the other’s thought, self-talk and communication patterns, in such a way, that leads them to, eventually give up their right to express themselves, make reasonable requests or bring up any issues.
7. To derail partner’s attempts to form an empathically connected relationship.
It is a form of brainwashing which includes interrogation and emotional torture used in psychological warfare and law enforcement. It targets other’s sense of confidence, self-esteem, value, ability to make decisions, resiliency, and so on. It reinforces might-makes right ideals, a topsy-turvy world in which cruelty, sex-normed love, and rejecting empathy and true-self full range emotions as weak. In the same way children are expected to learn to obey without questioning, and to think of respect and benefits are one-sided entitlements in relationships, men learn they are expected to enforce their entitled status, and use gaslighting to see that their needs for sex are prioritized, while her needs for emotional closeness are discredited as “emotional craziness” and “emasculating.”