Narcissistic gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that involves intentionally manipulating or distorting the truth to instill self-doubt in someone.1,2,3 Gaslighting is a form of narcissistic abuse that causes a person to question their sanity and doubt their perception of reality. The end goal of gaslighting is for the narcissist to gain control over a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.2,4
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional abuse that involves distorting the truth in order to make a person question themselves. Questioning someone’s credibility, minimizing or denying things that happened, or leaving out key facts are examples of gaslighting tactics.1,5 Gaslighting is just one of many abusive tactics people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) may use to protect their egos.6
What Is Narcissistic Gaslighting?
Narcissistic gaslighting doesn’t differ from normal gaslighting, but it may be used for slightly different manipulative purposes. For instance, a narcissist might use these tactics to preserve or protect their ego, keep others from challenging them, or maintain a sense of superiority over others.6
Relationships with a narcissist often go through specific stages. The first is a honeymoon phase designed to get the person to trust them before slowly starting to devalue the person through toxic and abusive behavior.5,7 Gaslighting typically begins in the devaluing stage of the relationship, after the narcissist has used love-bombing and other tactics to gain your trust.
“To understand why narcissists gaslight, it’s important to understand what narcissism is. What makes a narcissist tick? Narcissists come in two styles: Grandiose and Vulnerable. The grandiose narcissist is extroverted, confident, larger than life. She takes up all the energy in the room. The vulnerable narcissist is depressed, anxious, unsure of himself.
Both types of narcissists have the same inner core of deep insecurity, lack of self-awareness, and inability to know what they’re feeling and to handle their feelings in a healthy way. Gaslighting allows them to feel better about themselves by gaining control of others, by feeling ‘one up.'” – Dr. Stephanie Kriesberg, PsyD 7
20 Examples of Narcissistic Gaslighting
There are many different gaslighting tactics a narcissist may use, but all involve distorting, emotionally manipulating, or misrepresenting the facts.2,3,5 This is usually a deliberate action intended to cause a person to doubt and question themselves, and is common in people with NPD.
Here are 20 examples of gaslighting by a narcissist:
1. Citing Past Mistakes You’ve Made
A common gaslighting technique narcissists use involves undermining or questioning your credibility by pointing out past mistakes you’ve made. By always bringing up these mistakes, they undermine your confidence in your abilities while providing an excuse for why they can’t trust you. They are also known to select mistakes you feel especially ashamed of, since these are more likely to trigger you.5
2. Pulling the “You’re Crazy” Card
Accusing someone of being “crazy” or emotionally or mentally unstable is a common tactic narcissists use.8 They might directly accuse you of being crazy, psychotic, or mentally ill, or they may just suggest it by using gaslighting phrases like, “You might want to get your meds adjusted.” If you get upset or angry, they may use your reaction as further “proof” that you’re unstable.
3. Questioning Your Memory
Another gaslighting example is to call your memory into question and suggest you’re mixing up your facts or misremembering something. Narcissistic gaslighting examples of this tactic include suggesting you’re “confused,” “mixed up” or “misremembering.” Alternatively, they may take the opposite approach, saying something like, “I have no memory of that” or, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
4. Outright Denial of the Facts
Denial is another example of narcissistic gaslighting; it includes a blatant denial of facts.8 For example, gaslighting narcissists may use phrases like, “That never happened” or, “You’re imagining things.” They may outright deny any wrongdoing by saying things like, “I would never do something like that.”
5. Playing the Good Guy
Narcissistic gaslighters often want to play the “good guy” in every situation, painting themselves as the hero of every story. One tactic involves pretending they’re the only ones who really love and care about you, while pointing out ways others have let you down or betrayed you.5,8
6. Shifting Blame to Avoid Accountability
A narcissist rarely takes responsibility for their mistakes and is more likely to change the facts and shift blame onto others. For example, they might swear that a malicious act of revenge was “accidental” or “purely coincidental.” They may also shift the blame by accusing you or someone else of doing something wrong or “provoking” them, instead of owning up to their actions.
7. Projecting Their Faults Onto You
Projecting personal faults is a classic form of gaslighting designed to prevent people from being able to call them out for their shortcomings.8 An example of narcissistic projection is accusing you of being narcissistic or self-centered, or saying you care too much about what others think of you. This kind of projection is a common way that narcissists respond to an ego threat.6
8. Pretending to Have Allies
Narcissists often form alliances with others to attack and discredit a person, or just pretend that others agree with them even when they don’t. This narcissistic triangulation tactic is designed to make you feel more isolated, while also causing you to question yourself.5 Examples of how narcissists use pretend alliances to gaslight others are claiming that “everyone” or certain people have said negative things behind your back.
9. Using Indignant Outrage
Narcissistic rage or indignant anger is triggered when a narcissist’s ego is threatened or challenged.6 This defensive form of anger aims to shut down anyone who is challenging the narcissist. They also want to portray themselves as the victim.6 Examples are phrases like, “How dare you accuse me of something like that!” or, “I won’t stand for this kind of treatment!”
10. Comparing You to Others
Another tactic narcissistic gaslighters use is to compare you to other people in ways that make you feel inadequate. This tactic is designed to undermine your confidence and self-esteem while pitting you against others.5,8 Examples include gaslighting phrases like “You should ask ____ for help since they’re a lot better at it than you” or, “I wish you were more like ____.”
11. Accusing You of Being Too Sensitive
Another common form of narcissistic gaslighting is accusing someone of being overly emotional or sensitive.5 By doing so, the narcissist suggests the person’s emotions prevent them from being able to see a situation clearly. By saying things like, “You’re too emotional” or “You take things too personally,” they can avoid being held accountable for hurtful things they say or do.
12. Using Doublespeak to Remain Intentionally Vague
Doublespeak is a way of using language to disguise the truth or present something in a more acceptable or politically correct manner. Doublespeak also includes language and words that are intentionally vague or having two meanings. An example would be a boss who announces that some employees are “moving on” from the company when they were actually fired.
13. Feigning Concern for Your Wellbeing
Another form of gaslighting narcissists use is pretending to care or be concerned about someone as a back-handed way of suggesting they’re irrational, crazy, or unstable. Feigned concern is a passive aggressive tactic that appears to be kind, but is designed to undermine someone’s credibility. Examples include asking repeatedly if you’re feeling OK or if you’ve been sleeping enough.
14. Using Your Own Words Against You
Another gaslighting trick used by narcissists is to use your own words against you, often by taking them out of context or twisting their meaning. Weaponizing things you’ve said in the past is a way to suggest you’re contradicting yourself or being hypocritical. Gaslighting phrases like, “Like you always say…,” “I thought you said….” or, “You were the one who suggested…” are examples of this.
15. Inverting the Truth
Inverting (or reversing) the truth is another form of gaslighting. Inversion states the opposite of the truth, like accusing someone else of saying or doing the things they said or did. They may also refer to abusive or controlling behavior as acts of love. Because it’s so blatant, inverting the truth can make people doubt and question themselves more than subtler forms of gaslighting.8
16. Trivializing What Matters to You
Narcissists often trivialize things that are really important or significant to someone else. For example, they may undermine a person’s passion or career by referring to it as a “hobby.” They may also trivialize painful past experiences by comparing them to other, more serious or traumatic experiences.5,8
17. Saying Your Opinions Don’t Count
Invalidation is a form of gaslighting that directly discredits what someone else thinks or feels. Saying that your opinion doesn’t “count” because you don’t know enough about a subject is a form of gaslighting designed to silence your opinions. Narcissists are most likely to use this tactic when your opinion differs from their own, which they see as a direct threat, insult, or challenge.
18. Using Circumstantial Evidence
Narcissists often use circumstantial evidence to support their claims or refute someone else’s. This kind of evidence can’t really be “proven” because it isn’t objective; it relies on weak correlations or someone’s opinion. For example, they might accuse you of having bad intentions without having proof, or cite things that happened a long time ago to suggest a pattern of behavior.
19. Playing Devil’s Advocate
Another narcissistic gaslighting example is playing the devil’s advocate to challenge your opinions, actions, or beliefs. This tactic allows the narcissist to challenge you indirectly and claim they’re “just playing devil’s advocate” if you get upset. This narcissistic gaslighting phrase undermines your views without making them accountable for the things they say or tactics they use during the debate.
20. Stonewalling to End a Conversation They Can’t Win
When a narcissist is “losing” in a conversation, they often stonewall and shut down, refusing to continue the conversation. This is a frustrating pattern that keeps the other person from ever being able to be right, make a point, or resolve a misunderstanding. Examples of stonewalling are declaring “This conversation is over,” or saying, “I won’t discuss this with you anymore.”
Recognizing Narcissistic Gaslighting
Sometimes, gaslighting can be hard to pinpoint. According to Dr. Kriesberg, following certain steps can help you determine whether or not you’re being gaslit. Start by paying attention to your emotions. How is the narcissist making you feel? Be sure to take these feelings and perceptions seriously. Gaslighting works because the narcissist makes you doubt yourself, your sense of reality, your rights, and even your own feelings.7
If you notice this behavior in a relationship, it’s a red flag for gaslighting. It’s easy to overlook or justify this experience, especially when we feel vulnerable, such as with a new romantic interest, boss, parent, neighbor, or friend (really any relationship). However, upon recognizing it, you can be better prepared if and when a narcissist is gaslighting you.
How to Deal With a Gaslighting Narcissist
Dealing with a narcissist can be frustrating, difficult, and exhausting. Most therapists actually advise against forming a close relationship with someone who has NPD. Gaslighting is known to have many negative effects, including lowered self-esteem and confidence and increased risk for anxiety and depression.1,3,5 When it isn’t possible to leave or distance yourself from a gaslighting narcissist, you may need to develop strategies to cope.
Here are some ways to cope with a gaslighting narcissist:
- Strengthen your support system: Abusers often try to isolate people and cut them off from friends, family, and outside support.2,5 Reconnecting with this support system (or developing a new one) can help to guard against some of the negative impacts of toxic stress caused by a gaslighting narcissist.
- Stand your ground: Standing up for yourself and setting boundaries is often important when dealing with people who have personality disorders like NPD.5 This involves speaking your truth, not letting others bully or disrespect you, and learning to say “No” or pull away from people who don’t treat you well.
- Use journaling to keep records of the truth: Journaling for your mental health is helpful, and it offers a way to fight against gaslighting by providing a record of events. Write down dates, everything that happened, and what you and the other person said. Looking back at this record can help you stay grounded in your version of the truth, instead of letting the narcissist revise the story later on.7
- Keep your guard up: While most self-help articles encourage you to open up and be more vulnerable, this advice doesn’t apply to narcissistic gaslighting relationships. In toxic and abusive relationships, it’s a good idea to share less in order to avoid giving the abusive person information they can leverage against you.
- Seek out alternative perspectives: Another way to fight against gaslighting is to seek out different ideas, opinions, and viewpoints. For example, opening up to someone you trust (like a friend, family member, or therapist) can help you get an objective opinion. Doing research or looking for information from trusted sources can help you stay grounded in the truth.
- Learn more about narcissism and gaslighting: Read and learn more about NPD signs and symptoms, warning signs of gaslighting, and other forms of narcissistic abuse. This information can help you recognize gaslighting and other abusive behavior in the moment, lessening its impact.5
- Remain independent and make your own choices: One of the primary goals of narcissistic gaslighting is to undermine your trust in yourself.2,3 This makes it harder for you to make decisions and be independent. By remaining independent, making your own decisions, and avoiding input from others (especially the narcissist), you can maintain your confidence and independence.
- Refuse to argue with the narcissist. Refusing to engage in debates, arguments, or conversations with the narcissist makes it much harder for them to gaslight you. One of the best phrases to disarm a narcissist is “Let’s agree to disagree” or “I guess we just see things differently.” This bypasses the debate by refusing to engage in an argument.
When to Seek Professional Help
Recovering from narcissistic abuse (including gaslighting) takes time, especially when the abuse has occurred over a long period of time. Signs that it’s time to seek professional help include self-doubt, difficulty making decisions, and low self-confidence.2,3,5 Don’t wait until it gets worse or until you develop anxiety, depression, or begin to question your sanity.1,5 Finding the right therapist who specializes in narcissistic abuse, relationship trauma, or NPD is a good first step towards recovery. Many people begin their search for a therapist by using an online therapist directory, which allows them to narrow their search to therapists with certain specialties.
While it may be possible to improve a relationship with a narcissist, most of the research suggests that this is unlikely to occur. People with NPD rarely seek treatment and when they do, it’s unlikely that the narcissist will change.9 Still, a highly trained couples therapist or family therapist can sometimes help people learn better methods of communicating and resolving conflicts
When you recognize the early signs of gaslighting, you can distance yourself from people who use this kind of abusive, controlling, and toxic behavior. While many people want to know how to deal with gaslighting, it’s often part of a larger pattern of abuse. In these instances, setting boundaries and even ending the relationship may be the best course of action.5