In our first two blogs we talked about little Jimmy, a toddler learning through social approvals and disapprovals what is selfish and what is prosocial. If Jimmy doesn’t receive the appropriate boundaries and instruction during the critical periods from 10 months forward, he risks developing narcissistic wounds that could potentially permanently arrest his psychosocial, psychosexual, and moral development.
But what about gaslighting? How does gaslighting fit into normal development?
When Jimmy is around three he can engage in cocorrective play, or games where he can share influence with another on rules, behaviors, and imagination. This is a magnificent developmental milestone! Mutuality is turbocharged by cocorrective play, because we can offer and receive influence simultaneously and cooperatively. This lays the groundwork for all great human achievements, from building the pyramids to baking a souffle.
As usual, such negotiation has healthy and unhealthy aspects. Say Jimmy at 3 and a half doesn’t want to go to bed at bedtime. “I’m not sleepy!” he asserts. Mom replies, “You need your sleep so you’re not crabby in the morning and can have fun at preschool.” Jimmy will have none of this, “I’m not crabby in the morning!” Jimmy is now trying to gaslight Mom into not believing what she knows to be true (normal young child behavior). Mom responds appropriately, “Jimmy, you’re going to bed now.” Jimmy tantrums, Mom patiently waits him out and puts him to bed.
But what if Mom is not attuned or appropriate? What if she says, “Of course you’re right! You know yourself better than me. Stay up as long as you’d like.” Say this defines her entire mode of parenting.
Fast forward thirty years when Jimmy’s wife has caught him cheating on her with his personal assistant. “You’re crazy!” he says confidently, “You’re being paranoid. I’d never cheat! What’s wrong with you?” His wife begins to doubt herself and feel ashamed she accused him. She is being gaslighted.
Most of us don’t gaslight because drives exist in coregulatory relationships. The desire to explore and enjoy the world goes down as the hunger for sleep goes up. Sympathetic goes up, parasympathetic goes down. Selfish self-involvement is balanced by empathy and social responsibility. When individuals lose balancing drives like empathy and social responsibility, they can keep expanding narcissistic entitlement and objectification of others. Some of these people end up abusing others. Some end up in prison or dead. Some end up CEOs, and two ended up Putin and Trump.
Toxic narcissism has no trouble with gaslighting, because other people are objects, and the world runs on a double standard—one set of rules for me, and another set of rules for everyone else. We see this writ large in Putin’s invasion of Ukrane, in Big Tobacco saying cigarettes don’t hurt your health, in Monzano (now Bayer) saying glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer, and in the health-care industry saying Americans have the best medical system in the world while ranking 68th in the world in health of our citizens.
Along those lines, the pharmaceutical industry has successfully gaslit all of U.S culture, as have health insurance companies, managed care medical networks, and food companies. They have all knowingly promoted policies and false narratives that have resulted in countless deaths, diseases, and wasted lives.
We live in social contexts where we are pressured constantly to believe what goes against what we see and know to be true. Any advocacy that denies, distorts, or minimizes contrasting opinions or established facts is engaging in forms of gaslighting, whether it is conservatives denying the need for social welfare and climate initiatives, or progressives being contemptuous of business and profit.
What to do?
With narcissism, if you feel injured by another, politely point it out and see how they respond. Refusal to apologize, blaming others, denial of any wrongdoing, contemptuous dismissal, or ghosting are all signs of narcissistic wounds, which can be anywhere on the continuum from healthy to toxic. Further dialogue generally will reveal where on the continuum this person is generally. The more narcissistic someone is, the more often they communicate with demands and opinions, while having little ability to register others’ messages and feelings. The following guidelines have been helpful to me and my clients over the years
- If someone is in a toxic narcissistic moment, gently and respectively point it out.
- If someone has a narcissistic trait, handle them as best you can in the areas they are emotionally immature.
- If someone has narcissistic personality disorder, avoid them—if they are a family member, get therapy.
- If someone is in a healthy narcissistic moment, join in the fun!
With wanting-to-influence, when invited to join in a perspective which dismisses others as less worthy of rights or care, or when pressured to deny what you can see, feel, or remember clearly, it’s a good idea to point out your doubts. Healthy discourse will lead to both/and dialectics with this confrontation. Someone doubling down on their rigid positions while denigrating you probably indicates more of a narcissistic gaslighting situation. That person needs to be handled.
When you have signs of toxic narcissism or gaslighting in yourself, seek out therapists and coaches to help you grow. When you encounter toxic narcissism and gaslighting in others, and they respond with hostility and dismissal to your feedback, shift from relating to handling. Relating is staying open and vulnerable while seeking deeper truth. Handling is recognizing the other has blind spots and compassionately managing the situation for the highest good.