Narcissist Gaslighting: What It Is, Signs, & How Cope

Narcissistic gaslighting refers to a form of gaslighting exhibited by individuals with narcissistic personality traits or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). It involves distorting, altering, or denying reality in order to make someone doubt their own perception, memory, or sanity.

People with high levels of narcissism often use gaslighting to control and dominate others. Gaslighting serves as a tool for them to maintain power over their victims by undermining their confidence, self-esteem, and sense of reality.

Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by a pattern of behaviors and attitudes that include a lack of empathy, an excessive need for admiration, and a sense of entitlement and superiority. As such, narcissists are driven to gaslight as a way to protect their ego and control others to meet their own needs and desires.

Their goal is to make their victims doubt their beliefs and perceptions so they can manipulate them into submission and compliance.

Narcissistic gaslighting can sometimes have an element of sadistic pleasure; individuals engaging in the manipulation may derive a sense of satisfaction, power, or enjoyment from causing confusion, doubt, and distress in their victims.

Is gaslighting the same as narcissism?

Gaslighting and narcissism are related concepts, but they are not the same.

Gaslighting is a specific manipulative tactic used by individuals, specifically those with narcissistic traits, as a means of control and manipulation.

Narcissism, on the other hand, refers to a broader personality trait or personality disorder characterized by self-centeredness, lack of empathy, excessive need for validation, and antagonism. The need to gaslight is born out of these characteristics as a way to preserve a narcissist’s inflated and grandiose ego.

Gaslighting is just one way that narcissistic individuals might manipulate others, but it’s not the entirety of narcissism itself.

Do All Narcissists Use Gaslighting?

While gaslighting is a manipulation tactic commonly associated with narcissistic individuals, not all narcissists use gaslighting.

Gaslighting is just one of many manipulative behaviors that narcissists may employ to achieve their goals of control, validation, and dominance, but it’s not the entirety of narcissism itself.

It’s also important to note that not all individuals who engage in gaslighting behavior are necessarily narcissists. People with other personality traits or disorders, such as those with antisocial or borderline traits, might also engage in gaslighting.

Gaslighting can also happen unintentionally or from a place of wanting to be right, rather than wanting to control another person. 

Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse

Relationships with narcissistic individuals often follow similar patterns. While each relationship is unique, there are common dynamics and stages that tend to emerge when dealing with a narcissist.

One common pattern is often referred to as the “Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse” or the “Idealize, Devalue, Discard” cycle. In the beginning of the relationship, the narcissist “love bombs” you, showering you with attention, affection, and praise. This is the idealization phase as the narcissist portrays themselves as the perfect partner, making you feel special and valued.

As the relationship progresses and the narcissist has gained your trust, their behavior starts to change and their true nature starts to show. This marks the beginning of the devaluation phase.

During this phase, they may become critical, dismissive, and emotionally abusive. This is where they begin to engage in gaslighting and other manipulative tactics to belittle you and undermine your self-esteem.

You may notice that their behaviors are unusual, hurtful and confusing, but you might feel unsure whether they are considered gaslighting. The behavior can be subtle, so it is important to pay close attention to their words and actions and how they make you feel.

Eventually, the narcissist may grow bored or dissatisfied, or they may have found a new source of validation. During the discard phase, the narcissist will abruptly “discard” you, often without explanation or closure.

After they discard you, the narcissist might attempt to come back into your life. This phase is called “hoovering.” They might use tactics like apologizing, promising change, or rekindling the idealization phase to regain control over you.

The cycle often repeats itself, with the narcissist oscillating between idealization and devaluation, keeping you emotionally off balance and dependent on them.

The Gaslight Effect

The Gaslight Effect is a term used to describe the impact that gaslighting has on one’s mental and emotional well-being.

Robin Stern, a psychoanalyst, and the author of “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life” (2007), outlines three phases of the Gaslight Effect in her book.

  • Disbelief: In this initial stage, you may experience confusion and doubt and find it difficult to believe that someone you care about would intentionally manipulate you. You may question your own judgment and memory, or think “I must have misunderstood” and brush it off as a one-time occurrence.
  • Defense: As the gaslighting continues, you enter the defense state. You might start to offer explanations, seek evidence, or even confront the gaslighter about their behavior in an attempt to make sense of the situation and protect your own sanity.
  • Depression: If the gaslighting persists, you can enter a phase of depression. The constant manipulation, questioning, and self-doubt can lead to feelings of helplessness, isolation, and emotional exhaustion. You might feel disconnected from reality and lose confidence in your perceptions and feelings.

Here Are Some Common Signs of Gaslighting:

  • Denying events or statements that you know to be true.
  • Dismissing your feelings, concerns, or opinions.
  • Distorting facts or altering details of events or conversations.
  • Shifting responsibility for their actions onto you, even when evidence suggests otherwise.
  • Contradicting themselves or describing past events in a way that differs from your memory.
  • Deliberately withholding information.
  • Projecting their own negative traits, behaviors, or feelings onto you.
  • Questioning your perceptions, making you feel like you’re the one who’s mistaken or confused.
  • Isolating you and undermining your relationships with others.
  • Citing your past mistakes to question your credibility.
  • Eroding your self-confidence by consistently challenging your decisions or abilities.
  • Using intimidation or anger to make you doubt your own judgment.

Signs You Are Experiencing Gaslighting:

  • You find yourself constantly confused, doubting your memory, and feeling unsure about what’s real or true.
  • Your self-esteem and self-confidence are eroded.
  • You feel nervous and anxious about how the other person will respond to you.
  • You find yourself apologizing for things that aren’t your fault or taking responsibility for the gaslighter’s actions.
  • Your emotions are often in turmoil, swinging between feeling elated when they’re being nice and feeling devastated when they’re being critical.
  • You avoid bringing up concerns or confronting the gaslighter because you’re afraid of their reaction.
  • You doubt the validity of your own emotions.

Phrases that narcissistic gaslighters use

Narcissistic gaslighters often use manipulative phrases and tactics to undermine their victims’ perceptions and reality.

Here are some examples of phrases commonly used by narcissistic gaslighters:

“You’re too sensitive/overreacting.”

This phrase dismisses your emotions and feelings, making you question the validity of your reactions.

“You’re lucky to have me.”

This reinforces their superiority and makes you feel dependent on their approval.

“I never said/did that.”

Gaslighters will deny previous statements, conversations, or actions, making you doubt your memory and perception of reality.

“You’re the one who’s always causing problems.”

They will place blame on you for conflicts, making you feel responsible for their actions. If the abuser has done something wrong, they often try to turn the tables and make you take responsibility.

“You’re emotionally unstable/ clingy/dramatic”

This is an attempt to put into question your stability and sanity. They are belittling your emotions and reactions, making you doubt your worth and feel unstable.

“You’re remembering it wrong.”

Gaslighters might deny events or conversations that you clearly remember, causing you to question your memory.

“You’re just trying to start a fight.”

This shifts the focus onto you and portrays you as the instigator, deflecting from their behavior.

Are narcissists aware that they gaslight?

In some cases, narcissists might be consciously aware that they are using gaslighting tactics to manipulate and control others, while in other cases, their behavior might be more instinctual or subconscious.

While it can vary from individual to individual based on their self-awareness, intentions, and level of manipulative behavior, most narcissists are motivated to protect their ego, their beliefs, and their position of power.

Narcissists often lack empathy and have difficulty understanding how their behavior impacts others. While they might not be explicitly aware of gaslighting, they understand that their behavior is getting the reaction they want, reinforcing their sense of control and superiority.

For some narcissists, gaslighting might be a learned behavior that they engage in without fully recognizing it. This behavior might have been normalized by their caregivers, so they might not necessarily be aware of the harm they are causing.

Some narcissists might rationalize their gaslighting behavior as a way to protect their own ego or maintain a false self-image. They might believe that the victim’s perceptions need correction in order to align with their view of themselves.

It’s also possible that narcissists fall along a spectrum of awareness. Some might consciously use gaslighting tactics at times and subconsciously at others.

Regardless of the narcissist’s level of awareness, the effects of gaslighting on the victim’s mental and emotional well-being can be profound and damaging


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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BA (Hons) Psychology, Princeton University

Editor at Simply Psychology

Julia Simkus is a graduate of Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She is currently studying for a Master's Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness in September 2023. Julia's research has been published in peer reviewed journals.

Anna Drescher

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Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.