Creating Instability By Shifting Realities
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 5, 2019 (edited November 20, 2021)
A commonly used controlling technique used by narcissists is gaslighting. The controller creates mental instability in others by confusing realities.
In a 1939 play, Patrick Hamilton portrayed a man’s malicious acts that were intended to convince his wife she was going crazy and then to have her committed to a “lunatic asylum.” The husband (Mr. Manningham) manipulated events and conversations to destabilize Mrs. Manningham’s world. Powerful emotions of love may have a chaotic impact on our lives. Healthy relationships harness strong feelings, organizing the emotions into secure circles of trust, creating strength from the vulnerability rather than hurt. Science has strongly shown that healthy bonds increase longevity, support mental wellness, and improve over-all happiness. Loving partners work together, creating livable solutions to the countless conflicts inevitably faced when they choose to share a life together.
Unfortunately, some relationships hurt rather than build. Some partners seek relationship stability through domination. Instead of mutually beneficial solutions, they force the other to embrace their tainted view. A technique used to achieve this selfish goal is named after Hamilton’s play—gaslighting. The gaslighter uses malicious acts and vicious mind games to destabilize a partner, destroying the partner’s confidence and forcing submission to the manipulator’s control.
I’ve experienced the gross impact of gaslighting. The smooth and charming personalities of a gaslighter slyly creates environments that destroy. Close interaction with these magicians of chaos shakes foundations of security, leaving hapless victims scrambling for clarity. These manipulations are complex—the work of evil geniuses.
There is something fundamentally wrong in their minds that derives satisfaction from the disrupted and instable worlds they create. For them, external realities don’t exist. The outside world, including other living and breathing beings, are only agents to serve their self-absorbed reality. They live as the self-anointed king in a make-believe kingdom. Any person astute enough to see the illusion and challenge the fragile reality is ridiculed as stupid by these pretend kings.
Individuality is the enemy. The existence of others with their personalized knowledge and unique emotions threaten to destroy the gaslighters rule. Any evidence of individuality haunts their deranged minds, echoing a reminder that there exists more to the real world—a place where others matter.
They live as the self-anointed king in a make-believe kingdom.
A Normal Response to Bias vs. Gaslighting
No one is immune; everyone possesses some viruses of thought. Consciousness is subject to manipulation to create softness of harsh realities. We distort and interpret data in self-preserving ways. We jump to conclusions from biased observations. However, most of us mitigate the selfishness with empathy, moving from self-serving perspectives towards more others’-oriented views. Gaslighters never make these adjustments.
Gaslighters creates no-win situations from double-bind traps to enforce their faulty views (Kutcher, 1982). There are no winning solutions but escape for the victims of these attacks.
An Example of Gaslighting
An example of an entrapment looks something like this: A woman tells her husband she is exhausted and is going to retire for the evening. Her husband, who has been engaged watching television, critically responds, “you don’t like my company?” The woman interprets his response as an invitation. Perhaps, he enjoys her presence. She stays. Several minutes later, her husband breaks the silence, “I thought you were going to bed.”
The woman was entrapped, forced into a no-win situation. Her submission to his veiled request is not received with gratitude. This is typical. The woman in this example was trying to please. Something that healthy partners do. The man, however, is using the situation to gain control. No matter what the woman did, he would twist the meaning to create the power shift.
These no-win situations, when viewed through normal eyes, are confusing and frustrating. “I thought you wanted me to stay out here,” would be a natural response to seek clarification.
This is an appeal that is perfectly acceptable when with a normal person, showing our willingness for workable solutions. The gaslighter, however, sees the opportunity for domination and moves in for the kill, “You’re neurotic, you don’t know what you want. No wonder you are so unhappy. You’re just like your crazy mom.” The submission actually perpetuates the problem. The drive to please magnifies the power of the gaslighting abuser, giving him (or her) the upper hand.
The Mental Impact of Gaslighting
The constant magnification of failures gnaws at wellness, shaking the foundations of confidence. Everything we thought we knew about connecting is disrupted. When under constant attack, stability collapses and harsh messages ring true. Our intuitive bonding behaviors are morphed into weaknesses that the gaslighter exploits. The normal behaviors for healthy relationships become dangerous vulnerabilities.
While we encounter gaslighters everywhere, the most noxious encounters happen at home. Here, within the sacred walls, victims must endure a barrage of treacherous clashes. The normal safety zone becomes a chamber that brews chaos. Home should be a sanctuary where we can brush away the residue from grueling days. A gaslighter provides no refuge; instead, in these homes, we expend energy navigating the confusion. Too many victims frighteningly discover that they brought home the monster that is sitting at their table and sleeping in their bed.
By having a gaslighter in the home, our souls starve for nutrients from healthy connections. Victims of gaslighting must fight for scanty scraps of support that invite wellness (attention, appreciation, acceptance). The cruel attacks at home demand a continuous fight to prove sanity. Victoria Summit wrote that prolonged exposure to these demons create “a grand-disillusion in human nature.” (2013. Location 113). I agree. We doubt our own intuition.
Another frightening quality of gaslighters is their shifting reality. People create stability through accuracy of predictions—life is predictable. In the world of the gaslighter, there is no consistency.
Gaslighters have no commitment to words or facts. They carelessly say whatever they wish, expecting blind acceptance; but when circumstances change, they shift, denying their own facts. Victims bringing these inconsistencies to light find that the obvious doesn’t exist. The gaslighter turns the argument around, denies duplicity, and attributes any doubtful observations to the victim’s instability. “you’re crazy. I would never say that.”
Gaslighters have no commitment to words or facts. They carelessly say whatever they wish, expecting blind acceptance.
Gaslighters Hate Supportable Facts
Facts and proven realities rally with individuality as the most hated enemies of the gaslighter. Each of these traits possess the strength to crumble the paper castle. Individuals and scientific evidence have no place in their make-believe world. Anyone using these relics of normalcy must dodge the mangled and misaligned counter attacks of nasty names and hurtful digs. Here, personal attacks replace logic, moving attention from their vulnerable battle fields to the strength of unchallenged walls of preconceived notions—the fantasy world where they rule.
The Fantasy World of the Gaslighter
The gaslighter lives in a virtual reality where the past, present and future bends to fit their will. They rally for support in this ugly charade, blindsiding targeted victims with distorted facts to shake their confidence, constantly reminding their targets that they are only a guest in this customized world. Normal rules of civility do not exist. Once a victim catches on, believing they can survive the chaotic mess, the rules change.
The gaslighter will uses every advantage to destabilize. Intimidation and humiliation are masterfully harnessed to win this demented game. Once the gaslighter discovers weakness, the intimate knowledge becomes a weapon. In the heat of battle, they intend to hurt. With impunity, the gaslighter dredges up the past, flaunting hurtful memories. They use these emotional barbs to support their claims of your lunacy and their superiority. “Stop taking your childhood abuse out on me,” they may accuse. “Just because you have problems, I shouldn’t be the one to suffer. You are a certified mess.”
These demoralizing stabs cut to the core. Although these words are only meaningless garbage flowing from a madman, the victim eventually submits, converted to the lunacy, “maybe it is me.” The gaslighter goes where human decency prevents most from going. Their repeated message is clear, “give up your flawed individuality and let me take control.”
Gaslighters are driven to maintain the upper hand. To do this, a victim’s successes must be reframed and minimized. “That’s great you are going back to school, I bet my children will miss seeing their mother.” “Tonight’s dinner is really good, not like the usual shit you cook.” These cruel remarks crudely designed as compliments hurt more than intentional insults. However, when seeking any morsels of support, victims take note, cook the “approved” dinner, drop night-school classes and stay out on the couch when they really wish to retire. The victims of the gaslighter find it easier to conform than resist.
The more we let a gaslighter into our lives the more power they have. The common belief that kindness heals doesn’t apply here. Kindness provides ammunition that will be twisted into future manipulations.
The gaslighter's manipulations fail with many people for a good reason. Most people have boundaries. When boundaries are ruthlessly ignored, they pack their bags and run like hell. But we all have weaknesses—Achilles’ heels. The gaslighter seeks the person whose Achilles’ heel is vulnerable to their nasty antics. The insecure lover becomes their prey because of their vulnerability to the gaslighter’s charm. The relationship appears as a chance of a lifetime—so the insecure victims stay, endure, and suffer.
For these vulnerable victims, the relationship defines their worth. They falsely hope that compassion will cure their partner’s ills. They believe If only they love enough, they can fix the gaslighter and everything will be okay. So, they try to pull reason from the chaos, understand the underlying intent, giving the abuser what he wants through submission.
The victims of gaslighting must protect the decision to stay. They justify the abuse by focusing on the good traits of the manipulator (the handsome smile, the polished interactions, the social smoothness). The qualities of social perfection that they perceive that they lack themselves. The initial attention from these chameleons is flattering. But the flawless knight quickly morphs into an ugly villain, and the hopeful dream becomes an unending nightmare. From here, the pathologically dependent relationship is born.
The scene is set for a stream of well-meaning attempts to solve an unsolvable problem; instead of running from the danger, the victim embraces it as a path to personal fulfillment.
Defending Against Gaslighting
The best defense is a powerful offense. We must protect our boundaries by limiting exposure. We must ferociously defend our individuality. Whether the gaslighter is a mother, a boss, or a spouse, we must manage time in their presence, allowing only the amount of exposure that we can process without succumbing dysfunction. Survival demands we remain stable. Remember, the strength of the gaslighter comes from their victim’s instability.
We must limit interactions through difficult decisions—transferring to a new division, applying for a new job, avoiding family gatherings, or finding new friends and hobbies. If you discover a potential partner is a gaslighter, end the relationship—don’t try to fix it.
When the gaslighter is a spouse, the cure is more complicated. In marriage and long-term relationships, lives become intertwined. Escaping these connections proves difficult. Learn what you can while enforcing protective boundaries. If the marriage strangles all joy, consider divorce as a viable option; but do this cautiously, seeking assistance to create a safety plan that protects against possible violence.
Logic and emotional appeals are not effective negotiating techniques for combating the gaslighter. Normal communication (effective in normal relationships) is frustrated by sinister goals of domination rather than intimacy.
Logic and emotions don’t work with the gaslighter. We must maintain sanity with firmness and clarity. If a boundary is crossed, address it immediately—don’t negotiate. “Just this once” conveys willingness to disregard the trespass. When the same violation occurs again, the gaslighter will shift the argument to what was or wasn’t promised during previous negotiations. Instead of addressing the new violation, the victim, again, is pressured to defend their memory—and sanity.
Remember, boundaries are essential and something the gaslighter vehemently hates. In firmness, we must repeatedly advise, “I will not do that.” Take your stand in the moment; not a negotiated settlement. Bowing to a gaslighter’s will with hopes of an improved future is a fool’s game.
Remember, boundaries are essential and something the gaslighter vehemently hates.
Books on Gaslighting
The Gaslighter's Cruelness
Another nasty truth about life with a gaslighter is that even after submission, insults and intimidations likely will continue. Once you think you discovered a manageable pattern through their madness, the gaslighter invents new rules to disrupt the equilibrium.
We must ensure communications are clear. Clarity is king. Rephrase vague answers with clear yes and no’s, unencumbered by qualifiers. “That sounds good” isn’t a commitment; “yes, I will go with you to the 7 p.m. movie tomorrow night” is. The clarity doesn’t force gaslighters to the commitment but does eliminate easy escapes. More importantly, the clarity exposes the inconsistencies for the victim, so they don’t question their own memory and sanity. To further bolster reality, take notes. Write down the exact words of a conversation and the surrounding context. Again, not for the abuser but for your own sanity.
Wellness in these relationships is best achieved through outside resources. Victims must find support from a network of professionals and friends that build confidence.
For our mental health, we need interaction with normal people who live by commitments and treat others with decency. These connections keep hope in humanity alive. We cannot define ourselves in a healthy way through a broken relationship. Our stability will be shaken, and hearts bruised. The unpredictable world of a gaslighter will never provide comfort, security or peace. We must find stabilizing forces elsewhere.
If you choose to stay, self-care is essential. Victims must nurture their own wellbeing with growth-promoting hobbies, healthy friendships, and rejuvenating escapes. Be prepared for these ventures to be scrutinized and attacked. Healthy individuality can only be accomplished by courageously protecting boundaries.
Sadly, many victims fail to grasp the concept of boundaries; part of the reason they’re enmeshed in these damaging relationships. They may argue against the wisdom, “I can’t do that, He won’t let me.” Their troubled childhoods and harsh relationship histories have taught stern lessons. Victims cruelly believe individuality is a characteristic only exercised with permission. Until this view changes, there is no escape.
Unfortunately, the narcissistic world of the gaslighter is immune to correction. The traits are typically intractable, momentary improvements might give hope; but usually end with a disastrous return to the neurotic normal. We must give up hope in the tainted dream of curing the gaslighter.
Instead of trying to fix them, improve yourselves, finding peace through the many diverse and beautiful opportunities outside of the relationship; then, perhaps, your confidence will wax strong enough to courageously escape just as Mrs. Manningham did in Hamilton's 1939 play.
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Kutcher, S. (1982) The Gaslight Syndrome. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 27(3), 224-227
Summit, V. (2013) How Many Lies Are Too Many? Spot Pathological Liars, Cheaters, Con Artists, and Narcissists (Gaslight Survivor Series Book 2). Scarlett Publishing