Understanding the Narcissist
I don’t know about you, but I hear this word a lot more these days. I’m in a lot of different parenting groups on social media and quite often you’ll see mums posting frustrated rants about their partner who is driving them crazy. Usually, it’s a justified rant, she blows off steam, gets some friendly and compassionate advice, and manages to go away and sort things out with the partner. Sometimes her post is a big red flag and concerned mums reach out with words like abuse and gaslighting. But what does gaslighting mean?
Have you ever seen a comedy skit where one character puts a drink down, turns away for a moment and someone else moves the drink? When the character turns back, they reach for the drink and realise it’s not there. They blink away their confusion when they see it on the other side of the table and decide they must have made a mistake. Maybe it happens a few more times, the audience laughs but the character starts to get frustrated and confused because the reality in front of them is shifting and they can’t make sense of it.
Gaslighting is a bit like this, it is making someone question their own reality, their memory, or their perception. This can happen in any kind of relationship; it doesn’t have to be a romantic one. It can be parents, bosses, or friends, and usually stems from a power imbalance.
Let me give you an example of the way in which my ex would gaslight my children. He was big on playfighting – and I mean with everyone. Took it damn seriously as well and every single person who tussled with him would come away with some sort of hurt, and not because he was superior, but because he was savage. So, he would fight with the kids, and there really was no ‘letting them win’ at all, ever. And yes, they would always come away hurt. My, then, ten-year-old would walk past my ex, the ex would throw a pretend punch or grab his arm and swing him into a fight.
“Hey!” my ten-year-old says.
“Come on, fight me.” The ex replies.
“I don’t want to.” Ten-year-old moves to leave.
Ex swings out another arm and traps him, pretends to punch him, and makes sound effect noises of a cartoon fight. The kid retaliates with an elbow, suddenly he is drawn into the fight against his initial will. There is back and forth, the ten-year-old is really going for it, but unfortunately so is his dad.
A few minutes later I hear the shout and then the cry and the tears.
“Come on, that didn’t hurt,” Ex says, his tone is pinched but playful. Defensive.
“Yes, it did, owwwww my arm (insert any other appendage or body part, trust me it’s a wonder we never had broken bones after these episodes)”
“I didn’t hit you that hard,” Ex says next.
Kid comes running to me with a wet trail of tears down his cheek clutching the hurting arm, “Mummy, daddy hurt me!”
“I didn’t touch his arm,”
“He’s just a cry-baby,”
“He’s being dramatic,”
“That didn’t hurt,”
“I didn’t hurt you,”
And lots more variation on those, right. Notice how the ex is completely denying the poor kid’s reality here, the kid is hurt, even if it was just a shock rather than a real pain, the fact is that there was an effect for the ten-year-old and it was enough to spring tears. Notice also how there is no apology, there is no validation, there is no ownership of his own actions, only complete denial.
This is gaslighting. It is a major tool in the narcissist’s arsenal of manipulative tactics to use against you and those around you. I’m sure you can imagine the kinds of things he could use this for against a so-called partner.
Some common characteristics of gaslighting include flat-out denying something they have said or done – can you think of a time when you were standing opposite each other, arguing or talking heatedly because you were upset with a name, he had called you or an accusation he leveled your way, and suddenly he is denying all existence of it? He never called you that horrible name, he never says things like that, how could you even accuse him of such a thing? You must be losing the plot, going mad, hallucinating. He seems to genuinely believe every word he is saying, he doesn’t even blink, so you start to wonder if you really heard what you heard? Did you imagine it?
Maybe he doesn’t deny it, maybe he just refuses to validate your feelings. In a similar vein to outright denying the insult, maybe he tells you that you are too sensitive or stupid. Perhaps he laughs it off and says it was only a joke, that nasty name or phrase or belittlement. You don’t know how to take a joke, you must be on your period, you are making a big deal out of nothing. Your perception and your feelings are completely denied and minimized until you start to question if your feelings are valid, he must be right, you feel ridiculous for saying anything in the first place, you feel pathetic.
I can’t list some of the worst ways in which my ex would gaslight me right now, so I’ll have to give some slightly weaker examples.
I booked a week away, and as a side note, he never took initiative for this sort of thing and would gladly have never had a family holiday. I always discussed these things with him at length, he always had this weird anxiety about going on holiday and leaving the house unattended. Experience taught me not to be spontaneous so, of course, I discussed every outing or holiday with him before I even booked it. I paid for the holiday, when we were discussing it, we agreed that he would provide the spending money. I even clarified this with him in the months leading up to the date because he was notoriously bad with money and needed reminding to put some cash aside for the holiday.
I must have known in the back of my mind that there would be a problem, because I set some money aside myself, just in case. We got to the accommodation, nipped out to the local tesco to get supplies and headed for the checkout. True to his nature, he leaned in as we were unloading the trolley and muttered, “have you got your card?”
Whenever we went shopping or out for dinner or took the kids out, he would take my bank card off me before the point of payment so that he could be the one to whip out a card and take credit for paying, it made him look generous, manly, or whatever it was he was going for, but the fact was that he was using my card and my money the whole time.
So, we were in this queue, he asked for my card, and I looked up at him with my eyebrows drawn, “I thought you were providing all the spending money?”
He pulled that classic confused frown of his, “since when?”
“Since I paid for the holiday, remember we had an agreement because you couldn’t afford to pay half of the accommodation at the time that I booked it?”
He shook his head incredulously, “I would never have agreed to that, I don’t get paid until next week, I would have known I couldn’t do the spending money.”
“You’ve had months so save up, I’ve been reminding you?”
“You haven’t once told me I needed to save money for this holiday, you’re the one who wanted to go away, you said you would pay for it.”
“I said I would pay for the holiday because you didn’t have the money when we booked it, then we agreed you would pay the spending money, how can you not remember?”
“That conversation never happened. Once again, you have come up with a plan in your own head, failed to share it with me and now I look like the bad guy, well done Emma. Do you want to tell the kids we have to go home, or should I?”
The kids were literally standing right next to us and start whining and crying because they didn’t want to go home. The lady at the checkout was watching the whole exchange and I could feel heat flooding up my face, not wanting to draw attention to us or to him when he is on the edge of being awful to me.
“We don’t have to go home, don’t cry, don’t be sad, we’re on holiday remember, we’re going to have fun fun fun!” I beam at the children.
“Daddy’s mistaken, baby. It’s okay,” I handed him my card without meeting his eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the smugness there.
Gaslighting. We both knew that we had that conversation, every time I reminded him in the months leading up to the holiday, he would put cash in an envelope in the kitchen and then take it out again for something else a few days later. He continued to deny all of it for the years that followed if it ever came up, and I was so confused. Was he that stupid that he had forgotten? Was he stubbornly trying not to admit he made a mistake? Or was I insane? Was he right when he said I just make up things in my own head, never speak a word of it and then get upset when these things don’t happen?
He used to use that one a lot, telling me that I make up things in my own head. It gave me huge waves of anxiety if I ever had a problem that needed talking about, it made me a bit passive aggressive as well I think, because I would seethe in my own head that he didn’t wash up the kid’s dinner stuff while I was at work, for example, but the words would stick in my throat. I just knew his response would be that I didn’t ask him to do it, that he wasn’t a mind reader and that it wasn’t fair of me to get mad about it if I didn’t ask him before I went to work. But I always asked him to do it before I went to work. Getting mad was a valid response on my part, but he would so emphatically deny that I had asked, and it would cause so much nastiness and drama. Instead, I would come in and furiously and silently start cleaning before I went to bed, too afraid to say anything, but secretly hoping he would pick up on the vibe and do something helpful next time. Obviously that never happened, instead we would argue about how cold and distant I was, that I always seemed mad at him, I wasn’t affectionate or loving enough, I was just stiff and quiet all the time.
These are far from the worst examples that I could give you. And I will probably share my darkest experiences in time, I just can’t yet. I hope that this shows how even the most mundane of things like washing up and spending money can be twisted and used as mind games against you.
Gaslighting really messes with your head, significantly so over a long period of time. You question your own feelings, you question your own memory, your perception. You begin to exist inside another persons twisted, selfish reality and you aren’t a real person anymore. Gaslighting is dangerous. If you see the signs, run away. Trust me.
© Emma Stead
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