Gaslighting. It’s one of the narcissist’s worst head games.
I never even knew the word existed until I heard this song by Steely Dan in 2000: Gaslighting Abbie
Huh? I had to look it up. Turns out, the term comes from a 1938 play called Gas Light. It’s about a married man who plays around with the gas lights in the couple’s home–turning them up and down. His wife notices, and comments about the lights dimming, but he swears they didn’t dim and she must be imagining things. By doing things like this, he slowly drives her crazy because she keeps experiencing strange things while he tells her her reality is not true.
I heard this term years before I really understood it in real life. It went from being a strange song or a strange movie, and became a real life problem that left me feeling like my head was spinning!
This game is extremely common with narcissists. I cannot count how many times my narcissist mother would say one thing and literally deny it moments later. I’d sit there frazzled and point out what she had JUST said, and she’d deny it and tell me I was imagining things. My narcopath ex did the same. He’d say or do something, then later swear it hadn’t happened. Or, he’d tell me I said or did something that I was certain I had never said or done. Sometimes, my mother or my ex just wanted to deny their bad behavior, but other times, they were trying to re-write reality and make me doubt mine. It’s is incredibly frustrating!
One incident I had with my mom left me boggled and irritated a few years ago, but looking back now, I can laugh because it was so over the top ridiculous. It’s one of my “favorite” stories of dealing with a gas lighting narcissist mom. I swear, this is true!
My mother works part time at a grocery store that sells gourmet foods. She and I were shopping there one day and she recommended I try a new item in their deli–sauerkraut balls with dip. She said customers were raving about them, and they were selling really well. So, I bought one and went home to eat it. I loved it! The sweet/sour dip really went well with the breaded sauerkraut. I called my mother and asked her to pick up some more for me the next time she went to work because it’s a half hour drive for me. She said okay. All seemed well.
The next night, she brought them home, and I went to her house to get them. There was no dip. I was disappointed, because that was what really made the sauerkraut balls good. Darn. I asked her to grab the matching dip next time she went to work, but she swore there was no such thing as a dip. Huh? I know I ate these things the first day with a little side container of dip they gave me. I KNOW it. She insisted I was imagining things and there was never a dip. She even got on the phone, called the store, (or at least pretended to,) and reported back that the person answering the phone in the deli swore there was never any such thing as a side dip. ARRGGH! But I bought it! It came with the one I bought! My mother then told me she’d never even heard of these sauerkraut balls until I asked her to bring some home. HUH??? I pointed out that she was the one who’d recommended I try them. She swore she hadn’t and I was crazy. I reminded her that she had told me all the customers loved them so I should get some. Again, she told me I was imagining things. Frustrated, I just gave up and took the dipless sauerkraut balls home.
A couple days later, my mother showed up at my house with a container of the dip that goes with the sauerkraut balls. Wait a second…she had told me that it didn’t exist, but here she was at my door with it. I reminded her that she had told me I was crazy and imagining things…and she insisted she’d never said that. She then stated that she had known about the dip all along, but forgot to pick it up. Then she told me I was crazy and that she’d never told me it didn’t exist.
The story just flipped back and forth, and with each new conversation, she swore the previous had never existed. And every time, when I KNEW the truth, she swore to me that reality was not real and that I was imagining things. Fortunately, she never convinced me that I was imagining things, but she did stress me out and frustrate me with her head games…and she enjoyed it. She would smirk and play sweet an innocent while claiming that she never said the very thing she said. And I fell for it for years! She did this kind of thing very regularly for years.
At worst, this will drive a person nuts. At best, it will put you in a bad mood. Narcissists love to do things like that to make you feel crazy or to make you angry so they can turn around and tell everyone you are crazy or angry. They will pull you into a debate where you defend yourself and the reality you remember while they swear it never happened. It’s a losing battle. You will get backed into a corner and they will just patronizingly tell you you are crazy. Not worth it!
If you are dealing with a gas lighter, my first advice is…don’t! Don’t deal with them. But, if that’s not possible, my back up advice is to either firmly state the facts and move along, or don’t engage at all. Narcissists are better at driving people crazy than we are, so there’s no way to win with a gas lighter.