“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.” —Paramahansa Yogananda
Psychologist Stephen Johnson writes that a narcissist is someone who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.” This alternate persona often comes across as grandiose, “above others,” self-absorbed, and highly conceited.
Gaslighting is a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and to ultimately lose one’s own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth. A gaslighter’s statements and accusations are often based on deliberate falsehoods and calculated marginalization. The term gaslighting is derived from the 1944 film Gaslight, where a husband tries to convince his wife that she’s insane by causing her to question herself and her reality.
Multiple studies have been done on the impact of narcissism and gaslighting on relationships(1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6). While each of these often destructive pathologies is unique, there are certain behavioral overlaps. Following are six common traits, with references from my books: “How to Successfully Handle Narcissists(link is external)” and “How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Psychological Bullying(link is external)“. Not all narcissists and gaslighters possess every characteristic identified below. However, chronic narcissists and gaslighters are likely to exhibit at least several of the following on a regular basis.
1. Frequent Lies and Exaggerations
Both narcissists and gaslighters are prone to frequent lies and exaggerations (about themselves and others), and have the tendency of lifting themselves up by putting others down. While narcissists often strive to make themselves seem superior and “special” by showing off, bragging, taking undeserved credit, and other forms of self-aggrandizement, gaslighters tend to concentrate on making you feel inferior through false accusations, constant criticism, and psychological intimidation. Both narcissists and gaslighters can be adept at distortion of facts, deliberate falsehoods, character assassinations, and negative coercions. One key difference is that while the narcissist lies and exaggerates to boost their fragile self-worth, the gaslighter does so to augment their domination and control.
2. Rarely Admit Flaws and Are Highly Aggressive When Criticized
Many narcissists and gaslighters have thin skin and can react poorly when called to account for their negative behavior. When challenged, the narcissist is likely to either fight (e.g., temper tantrum, excuse-making, denial, blame, hypersensitivity, etc.) or take flight (bolt out the door, avoidance, silent treatment, sulking resentment, or other forms of passive-aggression). The gaslighter nearly always resorts to escalation by doubling or tripling down on their false accusations or coercions, to intimidate or oppress their opponent. Many gaslighters view relationships as inherently competitive rather than collaborative; a zero-sum game where one is either a winner or a loser, on top or at the bottom. “Offense is the best defense” is a mantra for many gaslighters, which also represents their aggressive method of relating to people.
3. False Image Projection
“My husband always wants people to see him as successful, powerful, and envy-worthy, no matter how shaky his real life actually is.” —Anonymous partner of narcissist
Both narcissists and gaslighters tend to project false, idealized images of themselves to the world, in order to hide their inner insecurities. Many narcissists like to impress others by making themselves look good externally. This “trophy complex” can exhibit itself physically, romantically, sexually, socially, religiously, financially, materially, professionally, academically, or culturally. The underlying message of this display is: “I’m better than you!” or “Look at how special I am — I’m worthy of everyone’s love, admiration, and acceptance!”
Gaslighters, on the other hand, often create an idealized self-image of being the dominant, suppressive alpha male or female in personal relationships, at the workplace, or in high-profile positions of society (such as politics and media). Many gaslighters like to view themselves falsely as all-powerful and strong, capable of dishing out judgments and penalties at will. Pathological gaslighters often take pride and boost themselves up by marginalizing those whom they perceive as weaker, believing that the meek deserve their downtrodden fate. They attack their victims with direct or subtle cruelty and contempt, gaining sadistic pleasure from these offenses, and betraying a lack of empathy and humanity.
In essence, narcissists want others to worship them, while gaslighters want others to submit to them. In a big way, these external facades become pivotal parts of their false identities, replacing the real and insecure self.
4. Rule Breaking and Boundary Violation
Many narcissists and gaslighters enjoy getting away with violating rules and social norms. Examples of narcissistic trespass include cutting in line, chronic under-tipping, personal space intrusion, borrowing items without returning, using other’s properties without asking, disobeying traffic laws, breaking appointments, and negating promises. Examples of gaslighting trespass include direct or subtle marginalizing remarks, public or private shaming and humiliation, sardonic humor and sarcastic comments, internet trolling, angry and hateful speech, and virulent attacks on undesirable individuals and groups.
Both narcissist and gaslighter boundary violations presume entitlement, with a narrow, egocentric orientation that oppresses and de-humanizes their victims. In severe cases, this boundary violation pathology may result in illicit and underhanded dealings, financial abuse, sexual harassment, date rape, domestic abuse, hate crimes, human rights violations, and other forms of criminality. Many narcissists and gaslighters take pride in their destructive behaviors, as their machinations provide them with a hollow (and desperate) sense of superiority and privilege.
5. Emotional Invalidation and Coercion
Although narcissists and gaslighters can be (but are not always) physically abusive, for the majority of their victims, emotional suffering is where the damage is most painfully felt. Both narcissists and gaslighters enjoy spreading and arousing negative emotions in order to feel powerful, and keep you insecure and off-balance. They habitually invalidate others’ thoughts, feelings, and priorities, showing little remorse for causing people in their lives pain. They often blame their victims for having caused their own victimization (“You wouldn’t get yelled at if you weren’t so stupid!”).
In addition, many narcissists and gaslighters have unpredictable mood swings and are prone to emotional drama — you never know what might displease them and set them off. They become upset at any signs of independence and self-affirmation (“Who do you think you are!?”). They turn agitated if you disagree with their views or fail to meet their expectations. As mentioned earlier, they are sensitive to criticism, but quick to judge others. By keeping you down and making you feel inferior, they boost their fragile ego, and feel more reassured about themselves.
6. Manipulation: The Use or Control of Others as an Extension of Oneself
Both narcissists and gaslighters have a tendency to make decisions for others to suit their own agenda. Narcissists may use their romantic partner, child, family, friend, or colleague to meet unreasonable self-serving needs, fulfill unrealized dreams, or cover-up weaknesses and shortcomings. Narcissists are also fond of using guilt, blame, and victimhood as manipulative devices.
Gaslighters conduct psychological manipulation toward individuals and groups through persistent distortion of the truth, with the intention of causing their victims to question themselves and feel less confident. In personal and/or professional environments, they manipulate by micromanaging (controlling) relationships, including telling others how they should think, feel, and behave under the gaslighter’s unreasonable restrictions and scrutiny. They often become critical, angry, intimidating, and/or hostile toward those who fail to bow down to their directives. Gaslighter manipulation is often highly aggressive, with punitive measures (tangible or psychological) executed toward those who fail to recognize and obey their self-perceived authority.
Perhaps the biggest distinction between narcissists and gaslighters is that narcissists use and exploit, and gaslighters dominate and control. While the narcissist does so to compensate for a desperate sense of deficiency (of being unloved as the real self), the gaslighter does so to hide their ever-present insecurity (of being powerless and losing control). Both of these pathological types betray an inability and/or unwillingness to relate to people genuinely and equitably as human beings. They become “special” and “superior” by being less human and by de-humanizing others.
In the worst-case scenario, some individuals possess traits of both narcissism and gaslighting. This is a highly toxic and destructive combination of vanity, manipulation, bullying, and abuse — all unleashed in order to compensate for the perpetrator’s deep-seated sense of inadequacy and fear.