Gaslighting is a strange-sounding term which refers to the way in which abusers such as Narcissistic Mothers lie to you, by word or deed, intentionally or not intentionally, to convince you that your version of reality is not right.
The phrase comes from the 1940’s film Gaslight, in which an abusive husband deliberately dims the gaslights in the house, but when his wife comments on it he tells her she’s imagining it, that the lights never dimmed at all.
Gaslighting is insiduous
Gaslighting is one of the most insiduous, vicious, nasty and effective forms of emotional and psychological abuse.
It can make the victim feel as if she’s going crazy. If your perceptions of reality are constantly denied, and above all, denied by your mother of all people, the person you look up to and who you think knows everything, it is very, very head-wrecking and crazy-making. (This is why I called my book You’re Not Crazy, because that’s so essential to know, i.e. that you're not crazy when you were made to think you were).
This gaslighting can be done deliberately, as in the example from the film above, in order to make you go crazy. Malignant Narcissists would be prone to doing this.
Or the crazy-making can just be a side-effect and the gaslighting is done in order to preserve the Narcissistic Mother’s vision of herself as perfect, without her actually having to do any of the hard stuff that would make her perfect. Far less effort to change your perception than her behaviour, right?
I was so sad that on my wedding day my mother didn't see fit to tell me even once that I looked well. I had waited so many years to hear this, and thought that day of all days, it would happen. But it did not, not once that whole day.
But when I shared this hurt with her afterwards she literally yelled at me (not at first, but when I tried to insist otherwise), that she HAD SO TOLD ME I LOOKED WELL!!!
So, she was too self-absorbed and self-centred (i.e. too narcissistic) to say anything nice to me AND she was too convinced of her own wonderful motherness to even entertain the possibility that she wouldn't have said anything nice to me, so she re-wrote history to make it that she did compliment me.
It’s impossible for non-narcissists to get into the mind of narcissists, so I have no idea if this is right: But my best guess is that in her mind it’s a case of: “A wonderful mother would have told her daughter she looked lovely, and I am of course a wonderful mother, therefore I would have/must have said it, and if Danu says differently she must be mistaken”. I am pretty certain that she convinces herself it’s so; that she lies to herself as well as to others. That is why she sounds so convincing and absolute when she tells her version of reality.
Gaslighting is also insidious because so many of a Narcissistic Mother’s cruelties are small ones. Any particular example of them can be dismissed as just a thoughtless word, and we’re all thoughtless sometimes. Or the small incident can be easily passed off as us being confused.
But her cruelties add up to death by a thousand cuts, and if you’re trying to reason with her (which, don’t bother doing – but until you realise this …) and you’re using previous examples of the same cruelty in an attempt to show a pattern – well, it won’t work because she will simply deny that the previous examples happened.
Another form of gaslighting is the denial of your right to be upset. In this case the Narcissist might accept that the situation happened, but will invalidate you by vehemently denying that there was anything untoward about it, or any valid reason to get upset. “It was just a joke! God you’re so over-sensitive. Being with you is like walking on eggshells. You take everything the wrong way. You’re always looking for reasons to be upset.”
You might like to check out our Narcissistic Mother-English Dictionary for (a sometimes funny) look at what Narcissistic Mothers actually mean when they say things.
One of the biggest challenges you’ll face on this recovery journey is to learn to trust your own perceptions. One problem with it is that all humans can have flawed perceptions and can be wrong about lots of things. As a species, we’re very easily fooled and confused. That’s why eye-witness testimony is so unreliable, for example. And we know that people can even be convinced they murdered someone in their past even though they were fully innocent in reality.
So you certainly don’t want to go to the other extreme and think you’re 100% right all the time (that’s what narcissists do). But you need to learn to trust your perceptions more than you have been. Those perceptions are not always right, but they’re surely not wrong nearly as often as your narcissistic mother would have you believe.
I don’t have any magic button solutions for this; I wish I did. It’s something I still struggle with myself, big time. How do I know I’m right about something that feels 100% right. I could be right, but I could also be wrong. And how do I know which is which?
The best solution I have, and it’s clunky at best, is to ask friends often, to crowd-source my reality-checks, so to speak. Not to over-do this, as it would get wearing for them and me. But if it’s important and I want to know the absolute truth of something, I do check with people I trust. And I’m quite willing to hear from them that in this case I was wrong, because only that way does their feedback have any value.
One thing I do know, though, and that’s not to trust anything your narcissistic mother tells you, because odds are she’s gaslighting you. If she’s right about anything to do with you, it’s only by accident. There’s a lot of freedom and relief if refusing to accept her image of you any more. And she has a vested interest, don’t forget, in making you think badly of yourself. She’s not unbiased in what she says, at all.
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