If there was a mother of all manipulative behaviors, gaslighting would be it. Gaslighting is when someone doubts and/or denies your reality so frequently that you begin to doubt your ability to perceive reality correctly and question your own sanity.

The only way narcissistic abuse can continue for years or even decades is if the narcissist in your life is able to manipulate you into abandoning your version of reality by accepting theirs. 

A narcissist’s version of reality is designed to amplify all of your vulnerabilities, insecurities, fears and other negative emotions and add additional ones as well. 

By successfully distorting your reality, a narcissist is able to erode your emotional stability and project all of their negative emotions onto you. And as some of the most self-loathing individuals on the planet, there are a lot of them!

Gaslighting is the most dominant form of manipulation because it can manifest in so many different ways, six to be exact.

But what makes it so powerful is that once a narcissist has been able to project their distorted version of reality onto you, the whole world becomes one big gaslighting convention

Gaslighting is when your reality is contradicted very frequently, so when you’re in a pervasive environment of manipulation on a daily basis it corrupts your perception of reality and which can cause unintentional gaslighting.

Where unintentional gaslighting is the most dangerous is when someone who is suffering narcissistic abuse gaslights themselves into normalizing, rationalizing, and justifying narcissistic behavior.

But the question is, why does gaslighting work? How is someone able to manipulate you so severely that you’re living in a constant state of confusion. How could someone let this happen to themselves? 

“I was emptying the dishwasher and he was insulting me. It got to a point where I had enough so I turned around with a wooden spoon in my hand, pointed it at him and told him to stop. He took out his phone, started recording and told me to put the knife down. I honestly believed that I was holding a knife and had to rewatch the video he took to reassure myself that I wasn’t.” – Brie

For those of you who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse and are asking yourself the same questions, I hope it brings you peace to know that under the circumstances you’ve had to endure, just about anyone would be duped by gaslighting, but let’s dive into the reasons why.

Cognitive Dissonance Enables Gaslighting

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that suggests that when someone experiences an inconsistency among beliefs, knowledge, and behavior it causes an immense amount of psychological tension. 

To ease the psychological tension, we often change one or more of the inconsistencies to make everything consistent and narcissistic behavior patterns are designed to induce cognitive dissonance. 

The correlation cognitive dissonance has with gaslighting can be found in the beginning stages of a narcissistic relationship. There are many different ways a narcissistic relationship can begin but what always remains the same is the presence of red flags

There’s a lot going on in the beginning stages of the narcissistic abuse cycle but for now we’re going to focus on the mirroring aspect of it. 

Many people who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse, and haven’t been able to learn about what they experienced yet, return to their abuser because they feel that nobody else will know/understand them as well as the narcissist does. 

The reason for this is a narcissist’s ability to learn the ins and outs of your identity very fast through mirroring. 

In a healthy relationship, mirroring is really intimate because it is the ultimate form of acknowledgement. It means that you’ve seen your partner for who they are and allowed them to do the same. 

In a narcissistic relationship, mirroring is a collection of data that the narcissist can use to manipulate you in the future.

For example, if you were to try to leave the relationship, a narcissist would use the information they gathered about you to hoover or future fake you back into the relationship. 

How Does Cognitive Dissonance Enable Gaslighting?

Here you are in a relationship with someone you feel understands you better than anyone else in the world. It’s still the early stages of the relationship so the devaluation phase hasn’t begun. 

Meaning that depending on the type of narcissist you’re dealing with, they’re still swooping you off your feet with charm, making you feel secure, impressing you with their charitable actions, or making you feel responsible for their happiness. 

But then all of a sudden red flags begin to emerge, disrupting your reality and creating all of these different inconsistencies. 

  • “Why did he/she get so angry when I tried to help him/her make a better job resume?”
  • “Why does he/she treat the waiter so poorly?”
  • “Why does he/she constantly need to be updated about my whereabouts?” 
  • “Why is he/she constantly talking about how crazy his/her ex is?”
  • “Why did he/she get so distant when I told him/her about my promotion?”
  • “How can they get so rageful over the most trivial things?”

It is at this moment that cognitive dissonance takes over and forces you to make rationalizations and justifications to hide the red flags in an innocent attempt to protect your desire of having a perfect relationship with someone who knows/understands you better than anyone else.

The gaslighting lies within the rationalizations and justifications you make for the narcissist’s behavior and by no means is it your fault. 

In all honesty, narcissistic abuse is unbelievable. It’s why there is a specific way you need to learn how to explain narcissism to those who don’t understand it because if you blatantly describe the abuse you’re experiencing you’ll likely come off as crazy to someone who doesn’t understand narcissism. 

So, cognitive dissonance is one of the reasons that gaslighting works because instead of shattering your desire to have a happy life, it is much easier to make rationalizations and justifications for the narcissist’s behavior. 

It is completely understandable and does not make you responsible for the abuse you’re enduring. 

With that being said, if you are to escape the narcissistic abuse cycle or learn how to manage narcissistic abuse because leaving isn’t an option, you’ll have to acknowledge that what you’re experiencing is abuse.

Gaslighting Works Because Narcissistic Abuse is A Hidden Aspect of Domestic Violence

For narcissistic relationships to remain in place for extended periods of time, a narcissist needs to isolate you from those you’re likely to confide in. 

A narcissist’s ability to appear wholesome in public just long enough to trick the untrained eye into buying into their narrative is one of the most commonly seen ways that they isolate you. 

But their ability to deceive others has been enabled by a general lack of knowledge about narcissism in our society today

As I mentioned before, there is a specific way you have to explain narcissism to others if you’d like to find supporters instead of narcissist enablers.

While it is an incredibly helpful technique, it really magnifies how isolated victims of narcissistic abuse really are. 

The fact that those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse have to tiptoe around their pain in order to be believed/supported is absurd and it is one of the reasons why gaslighting works. 

The best depiction of this can be found in the hoovering phase, specifically when a narcissist hoovers through other people. If you aren’t familiar with the term hoovering, it is a manipulative technique that narcissists will use to drag you back into the relationship. 

Hoovering is such an effective technique because by the time you discard  the narcissist or vice versa, they know so much information about you that saying and doing the things you need to hear/see, to keep your sense of hope that things will get better alive, comes naturally to them.

Hoovering through others is when a narcissist will confide in mutual friends or family and essentially profess their undying love for you. They’ll say/do anything that manipulates them into believing their falsified narrative that portrays the narcissist in your life as innocent and you as the problem.

Depending on how the narcissist goes about hoovering through others, one of two things could happen but they both are reasons why gaslighting works.

Two Types of People Who Enable Gaslighting

The first way a narcissist can go about turning people against you is by enlisting flying monkeys. A flying monkey is a person that a narcissist manipulates into turning against you by spreading demeaning lies and/or gossip. 

They are by far one of the most malicious aspects of narcissistic abuse because narcissists purposely target those close to you when enlisting flying monkeys. 

If a narcissist is able to convince your closest friends and/or family members that you are the abuser and they are the victim, it protects them from their biggest fear which is being exposed and subsequently rejected from society because of their abusive behavior.

This allows gaslighting to work because at their core, flying monkeys are people who honestly believe that you are the problem and the narcissist is the victim.

This is problematic because oftentimes victims of narcissistic abuse don’t confide in others because they know that what they are experiencing is wrong, they confide in others because they need reassurance that what they are experiencing is wrong.

When you summon up the courage and strength it takes to acknowledge that what you’re experiencing is abuse but are met with disapproval, anger, disgust, and contempt from people who you trust most, it is a form of gaslighting and has the potential to push you back into the narcissistic abuse cycle.

The second type of people that allow gaslighting to work are narcissist enablers. Narcissist enablers are people who just don’t understand narcissism which causes them to make ignorant statements. 

They aren’t specifically targeted by the narcissist like flying monkeys are, it is more of a combination of the narcissist’s personality and their own ignorance that allows gaslighting to work.

While narcissist enablers don’t actively participate in abusive behavior like flying monkeys do, their ignorance is just as, if not more, damaging to the victims of narcissistic abuse who they come across.

Their lack of knowledge about narcissism often leads them into making comments that contradict your reality which could potentially push you back into the narcissistic abuse cycle.

Fear, Guilt, and Shame Allow Gaslighting to Work

The behavior patterns of a narcissist produce a lot of fear, guilt, and shame within the psyche of those who suffer narcissistic abuse. 

There’s terrifying tactics like narcissistic rage that can be triggered by something as insignificant as forgetting to return their call. 

Then there is baiting, which is when a narcissist will weaponize your vulnerabilities and insecurities which can make you feel really guilty and/or ashamed about yourself.  

But in this section we are going to focus on how fear, guilt, and shame make gaslighting work by focusing on two specific types of gaslighting: ultimatums and minimizations. 

Gaslighting With Ultimatums

One of the best defenses against narcissistic abuse is your ability/willingness to use your voice. This doesn’t mean you should get in the narcissist’s face and scream at them, it is referring to your ability to pick and choose what you say, when you say it, and how you say it. 

The reason being that narcissists have very fragile egos, are emotionally immature, and have an abundance of negative emotions suppressed within their psyche. 

Meaning that if you were to learn how to use your voice in a productive way, you could potentially exploit their weaknesses and get out of harm’s way.

On a subconscious level, a narcissist knows this and has many tactics designed to silence you, one of them being gaslighting with ultimatums. 

These types of threatening comments most often arise when you are trying to confront the narcissist in your life about your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and/or needs. What ends up happening is that their responses force you to associate using your voice with punishment. 

This is gaslighting because over time you’ll develop a belief that you don’t have the right to express your emotions, thoughts, needs, and/or feelings and subsequently rationalize, normalize, and justify the abuse in your life. 

Gaslighting Through Minimization 

Minimization of narcissistic abuse is a very common behavior pattern among both narcissists and the people suffering from their behavior. 

From a non-narcissistic perspective it circles back to the concept of cognitive dissonance, to cope with the psychological tension you just minimize the severity of their actions.

But from a narcissistic perspective, it is a very good tactic to create a pervasive environment of guilt and shame. 

Gaslighting through minimization can be both direct and indirect

What I mean by this is that a narcissist could compare your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and/or needs with those less fortunate like the first and second example in the picture. Or they could attack your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and concerns much more directly like the third and fourth example. 

Gaslighting through minimization is designed to make you feel guilty and/or ashamed for standing up for yourself and/or expressing your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and/or needs. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

There’s no doubt in my mind that gaslighting is the most dominant form of manipulation in the narcissistic realm. It incorporates so many different elements of narcissistic abuse and can manifest in just about every manipulative behavior pattern you can think of. 

The versatility and durability of gaslighting is precisely what makes it work. If a narcissist is unable to make you feel guilty or ashamed for standing up for yourself (gaslighting through minimization), they’ll just use fear instead (gaslighting with ultimatums). 

If you’re unsure whether or not what you’re experiencing is abuse but haven’t really made any justifications or rationalizations, gaslighting from someone with a lack of knowledge about narcissism could push you into the arms of the narcissist.

If you fall head over heels for the charming, charismatic, seductive, and intelligent narcissist in your life, you’ll likely gaslight yourself in pursuit of happiness. 

Gaslighting is a very sophisticated form of manipulation and you should read our article, How to Deal With Gaslighting so you can learn how 135 survivors of narcissistic abuse dealt with gaslighting in their relationships. 

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      This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care. Please consult a health care provider for guidance specific to your case.

      Suggested Readings:

      How to Beat Flying Monkeys

      What Are Narcissists’ Weaknesses?