What Is Narcissistic Gaslighting? 7 Signs It's Happening To You, From Therapists
Relationships can be difficult even with the best of partners. But a relationship with a partner who makes you doubt yourself, controls your opinions, or criticizes your feelings can take a toll on your emotional and mental health.
When your partner is a narcissist, this behavior—also known as gaslighting—is just one of many manipulation tactics that you may experience over the course of your relationship.
Ahead, therapists explain the signs that this narcissist gaslighting is happening in your relationship and how to handle it.
What is narcissist gaslighting?
Narcissism is a pattern of behavior characterized by excessive self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a constant need for admiration and attention, and an inability to handle criticism in a healthy way. Narcissists can be easy to fall in love with because they don't initially display their worst traits. Over time, though, narcissistic abuse can become more commonplace. One common warning sign is repetitive gaslighting.
"Gaslighting is when someone tries to convince you that their reality is real and yours is not," psychotherapist Cynthia LaForte, LCSW, tells mbg. "It can feel like control and manipulation because it is, but it's in service of the person doing the gaslighting." She adds that it can feel like one person is always right and the other is always wrong.
A gaslighter needs to exert their own reality onto others because acknowledging that someone else could be having an experience that is different from theirs is too threatening. They may attempt to "sow seeds of doubt within the victim, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity," says licensed counselor Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP.
Narcissist gaslighting involves a narcissistic person using gaslighting tactics to bolster their ego or sense of superiority over others. "Gaslighting is a way to gain a narcissistic supply from someone," LaForte explains. A narcissistic supply is attention—negative or positive—that a narcissist thrives upon for validation and self-importance.
Moreover, narcissists need their reality to be true—and true for everyone—because their sense of self is too fragile to invite even the possibility of a different experience than their own, explains LaForte.
Narcissist gaslighting in relationships
According to Kotkin-De Carvalho, narcissist gaslighting in relationships is a common tactic to maintain control over their partners and create an environment of fear and confusion. Subtle methods, like lying, making false accusations, or withholding information, can pair with more overt tactics, such as using intimidation or invalidating a partner's emotions, to manipulate their partner into doing what they want.
Narcissists use gaslighting to distort or undermine their partner's sense of reality, which may prevent them from speaking out against the narcissist's behavior or ending the relationship altogether. It may take an outsider's observation or repeated cycles of narcissistic gaslighting before you catch on that you're on the receiving end of a narcissistic relationship pattern.
It may be easiest to see that you're dealing with narcissist gaslighting when you try to break up with a narcissist. It can be extremely hard to do, as they want to play mind games or undermine your support systems well after you've told them it's over.
7 signs of narcissist gaslighting:
Kotkin-De Carvalho says narcissists may tell conflicting stories or make false accusations that can cause immense distress for their partners. They may deny something happened or pretend it didn't happen at all. It is hard to hold narcissists accountable because they often find ways to deny the events or deflect blame.
Adding insult to injury, after a narcissist causes their partner to question aspects of their own life that they know to be true, the narcissist may invalidate the feelings this brings up in the partner. A narcissist might tell their partner that their emotions are irrational or exaggerated. The narcissist might say things like, "You're overreacting" or "You're too sensitive" after saying very hurtful, demeaning, or contradictory things to their partner. (Here are some other examples of gaslighting phrases.)
If you're in a relationship where you're always feeling as if you are bad or wrong no matter what, that relationship likely isn't healthy. But if you notice that your partner is never wrong and never takes accountability for their actions, you're likely experiencing narcissistic gaslighting.
Blaming the victim
LaForte says a gaslighter needs to be right as a way to validate and maintain their narcissistic sense of self. They may blame a partner for being too sensitive or insinuate that the victim actually forced them to behave or communicate in negative ways. Again, narcissists do not take accountability for their actions, so partners can expect to be blamed and culpable for the negative aspects of the relationship. On the other hand, the narcissist largely takes credit for the positive aspects of the relationship.
Twisting the truth
It's a sign that you're experiencing narcissistic gaslighting "if you're constantly deferring to someone else's way of thinking as opposed to your own," says LaForte. "An inner struggle might be having to actively convince yourself that someone else's reality is right and yours is wrong. Or you may simply default to thinking that you can't trust yourself to know what your experience is and you need to rely on someone else to tell you.
If a narcissistic partner repeatedly says things like "You're remembering it wrong" or "That's not what I said," then they might be twisting the truth.
Using hurtful language
Narcissists are not the best listeners. They are most known for dismissing their partners with hurtful language, like "You're crazy" or "You're being paranoid" rather than listening with an empathetic ear.
In fact, people associated with dark personalities—sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists—may use empathy as a weapon. They may deliberately say hurtful things that they know already play upon the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of their partner. Don't expect a narcissistic gaslighter to reassure or validate your emotions.
Withholding affection or love
A narcissist might threaten to withhold affection or love if their victim does not comply with their demands or agree with their version of events. For example, female narcissists are said to use neglect or guilt as a form of control, not just against romantic partners but also against their children or other loved ones.
Often, narcissists target codependent people as relationship partners because they know that this kind of emotional manipulation is highly effective in people who would do anything for their partner's approval.
Isolating the victim
Narcissists like control. One way to ensure that they always get their way is to isolate their partner from friends and family, who might disagree with the relationship or cast doubts on the narcissist's behaviors. It is common to see a narcissist discourage spending time with friends or family or to try to move with their partner to a new location far away from people that know the couple. In this way, whenever narcissistic gaslighting happens, it is harder for the victim to anchor to a reality different from the one the narcissist portrays.
How to deal with narcissist gaslighting:
"Having a strong support system is a good way to start when dealing with narcissist gaslighting," Kotkin-De Carvalho says. It is important to have people around who can help validate your feelings and provide you with reassurance that your perspective is valid. They can also help you recognize the signs and patterns of gaslighting so that you can spot it when it occurs, she says. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member, or consider seeing a therapist who specializes in narcissistic abuse.
Although narcissists are hard to communicate with, one of the things you must clearly get across is your own boundaries. Some people go as far as cutting off all contact with the narcissist, but others might find that smaller milestones are important before this stage. Boundaries like preserving time with family and friends, regardless of the narcissist's protests, are very useful. Even asking that they do not interfere with activities that matter most to you could also be a boundary.
Also, be mindful of controlling and manipulative tendencies on social media or with your contacts. Many people find blocking their accounts and locking their phone's tracking capabilities as necessary to establish boundaries with a narcissist.
"If a situation becomes too overwhelming or dangerous, remove yourself from the situation and seek help from someone you trust," Kotkin-De Carvalho says. If you're in a relationship with a narcissist, remember that you are not responsible for their behavior. Remember, no one deserves emotional abuse.
Reconnect with your own reality.
Work on rebuilding your sense of self and your confidence in your own perceptions. Stick with therapy, try mindful meditation, or practice other activities that help you reconnect with your inner voice. Keep a journal and write down your experiences and feelings.
These tactics help you process what happened and validate your feelings about what you experienced. Rereading your journal or listening to the patterns your therapist identifies can also help you to recognize patterns of abuse and learn how to avoid manipulation in the future.
The struggles of dealing with a gaslighting narcissist are real. You may feel depressed or unmotivated on a regular basis. Kotkin-De Carvalho suggests making time for yourself, focusing on activities that make you feel good, and reconnecting with people who offer support and reassurance. Self-care might include exercising, eating a balanced diet, and sleeping well too.
Be gentle with yourself and acknowledge the harm. Give yourself time to heal, and don't blame yourself for what has happened.
Is gaslighting a sign of narcissism?
According to LaForte, gaslighting is not always a sign of narcissism, but it can be one. Narcissists have an inflated sense of self-importance and a need for admiration, which can lead them to manipulate people in order to get what they want from them.
"Not all people who gaslight are narcissists," she explains, "but if someone is engaging in manipulative behavior on a regular basis and causing distress or confusion to their target, it may be an indication of narcissistic tendencies." Only a professional can diagnose someone with narcissistic tendencies.
How do you know that you are being gaslighted by a narcissist?
Gaslighting by a narcissist can be difficult to identify, as it often involves subtle, gradual manipulation. But some telltale signs are that your partner dismisses your feelings and denies your reality, and you feel like you're constantly deferring to their way of thinking and convincing yourself that yours is wrong. Or you may simply find yourself defaulting to thinking that you can't trust yourself. These are all signs that you're experiencing gaslighting.
Do narcissists know when they are gaslighting you?
This is hard to say. Gaslighting is a deliberate tactic, but most narcissists can rationalize their behaviors as being caused by the victim, and they may not see their own actions as harmful or abusive.
LaForte says this varies based on the degree of self-awareness of the narcissist. "Generally speaking, however, most narcissists don't understand the consequences of their behavior or the long-term impact that gaslighting can have on their victims," she adds. This is why it's very difficult to have a meaningful conversation with them about the issue and have them recognize or correct their behavior.
It is important to recognize narcissist gaslighting as a form of emotional abuse that can have serious negative effects on your mental health and well-being. Kotkin-De Carvalho says that you know what you're dealing with is truly problematic when your partner can't accept your own experience as true for you.
Most people can understand that we may have our own experience and someone may have their own. We don't need to change the other person's mind about something they experienced; we can accept the differences and move forward—without letting their experience invalidate our own.
If you're in a relationship where your account of events is the one that's always questioned or corrected, you might be experiencing gaslighting. If your partner blames you for your own feelings or lacks empathy when you share how hurt their responses make you feel, then you may be dealing with a partner with narcissistic tendencies.
If you think you are experiencing narcissistic gaslighting, set boundaries and seek support from your loved ones and possibly from a mental health provider. With the right support and tools, you can break free from the cycle of abuse and reclaim your sense of self.
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.