Gaslighting: a philosophical take

What is gaslighting?

We know the definition and we know examples – both private and, throughout the Trump presidency/roadshow, spectacularly public – but what is it really, in its essence?

Let’s start with the so-called narcissist’s prayer:

That didn’t happen. 

And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.

And if it was, that’s not a big deal.

And if it is, that’s not my fault.

And if it was, I didn’t mean it. 

And if I did…

You deserved it.

What makes these words so discomforting to those with lived experience of narcissism? Why does this “prayer” feel so spot-on in capturing the awfulness of gaslighting?

Taken individually the statements are lies. Lying is knowingly asserting an untruth with the intention to deceive. “That didn’t happen” is a lie.

But the intention behind gaslighting is more insidious than immediate deception. While a liar wants people to accept his lies as truth, gaslighting isn’t really about specific truths or falsehoods. What the “prayer” demonstrates is a pattern of deflections, denials, and misdirection designed to disorient others and cause them to doubt their own sense of reality.

From the very beginning, as the narcissist vehemently denies that an event happened, he is at the same time already prepared to argue that you deserved it. But rather than admit this from the start, he forces you to fight a war of attrition through each layer of his arguments.

By the time you arrive at the final layer, most people will be mentally and emotionally exhausted. But even the final layer, the “you deserved it”, is no victory or revelation. It’s just another position that the narcissist will work with to continue gaslighting you.

Each element of gaslighting is a form of posturing: the narcissist presents a series of façades with the express intention of maintaining an unequal relationship with their victim.

In the moment their target accepts a façade as genuine, they become the victim of the gaslighter; the basis of gaslighting is indeed accepting a false person as a real one, and thereby placating the narcissist’s profound insecurity and need for control.

Because the lie of the gaslighter is not individual statements like “that didn’t happen”, it is the lie of presenting a false self as authentic or genuine, with the purpose of undermining and destabilising others, pushing the narcissist’s insecurity onto those around them.

For classic narcissists, gaslighting gives them the freedom and power to achieve their grandiose fantasies. For vulnerable narcissists, gaslighting allows them to hide and protect their terrifying secret sense of shame.

The narcissist feels most secure when those around them are dependent on the narcissist’s words and actions for their sense of reality. The narcissist wants to get hold of the levers of power over other people’s realities, giving themselves the freedom to pursue their self-interest without being held accountable to any other person or authority.

Each stage of the narcissist’s “prayer” contradicts the others. A reasonable person couldn’t hold six contradictory positions successively, and most people’s credibility would be shot to bits by such admissions. That’s why it is so important to the narcissist that they work steadily at undermining the reality of those around them. They instinctively undermine and corrode the confidence, independence and clarity of others, both directly and indirectly. Like a cult leader or despotic regime, they sense to the core of their being the threat posed by others’ security and confidence. Gaslighting undermines others’ security and confidence by offering no real or tangible basis for authentic interaction.

Gaslighting is therefore ultimately about trying to be in a position of control or persuasion over others, using bluster and posturing and lies to dominate, beguile, seduce, or subdue. It encapsulates all forms of communication and interaction that allow the narcissist to overtly or covertly maintain their dominant position.

That’s why the only way to deal with gaslighting is to disengage and remove yourself from the narcissistic relationship. Gaslighters can’t be reasoned with or called to account because they are already entirely committed to dominance via manipulation and deception. Entering into dialogue or debate with the hope of pinning the narcissist down is futile.

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