People often talk about how a narcissist isolates you geographically. He may convince you to move to a new town to start a new life, seducing you with the romantic allure of ‘us against the world’. But what if you’re around a sophisticated narcissist who plays his game slowly and subtly, so you lose your sense of reality and identity, and he starts to dictate your life?
Gaslighting is when someone screws with your reality, and then says you’re mad.
This is a common way narcissists break you, justify their abuse, and tell you you need help.
When you stop trusting your own senses, you become beholden to the version of reality the narcissist paints.
My friend Dr Jonathan Marshall (Psychologist & Executive Coach) explains that narcissists convince you to doubt your own hunches, before you eventually learn to abandon real data.
“In the hands of a skilful psychopath or narcissist, our hunches are the only weapon we have, and gaslighting isolates us from our own common sense”. – Dr Jonathan Marshall
Common methods include messing with the way you arrange your environment, insisting you did or said something else, and telling you you’re abusive.
My narcissist would corner me and force me to repeat details, before laughing at me and saying “Look at you, you’re crazy”, or he’d tell me I was messing with his head when names would disappear from my phonebook.
In such instances, black becomes white, and vice versa.
The problem with being with a narcissist is that it isn’t all bad.
Enter intermittent reinforcement, where you get treated well enough on some days, it confuses you if you should really end the relationship. A part of you takes the times he can be decent or kind as evidence he’s a good person. After all, we all engage in confirmation bias– we only accept evidence that aligns with our worldview, and discard everything else as a fluke.
Jonathan says that being abusive and then offering redemption by treating you nicely, makes victims hungry to be a good dependent.
Eventually, you willingly isolate yourself, following your narcissists’ terms.
Sylvia would fall sick whenever my cousin had exams, so Timothy never finished his degree.
When my ex played the sick card on the day my best friends flew in, that queasy Sylvia feeling arose. I gave him tablets and went off.
Unfortunately, my stubborn nature eventually eroded.
You see, a sophisticated narcissist doesn’t explicitly forbid you from spending time with those important to you. Instead, they might charm these people, and utter noncomittaly “She’s cool, I like her”. But when you’re sleepy and therefore suggestible, say things like “Oh, your best friend, she’s shallow, I’m not sure how good they are for you”.
I witnessed firsthand how he dined, laughed and hung out with my friends, before turning to me and saying “You’re not allowed to hang out with those dykes. I know you’re having an affair with them.”
The statistics show that new immigrants are especially vulnerable to domestic violence, given that they have uncertain status . Abusers have an added dimension of power, so they can say “This is what men (in this country) do” and “You’re a guest in this country”.
Then they may start justifying things on the grounds of spirituality and age— “I’m older, I know better”.
Statements like that can cause you to hand your power unknowingly, especially if you think you can trust that person who once promised you they’d help you to settle into the country.
I was the same person who indulged in sensory pleasures, from the beginning. So I couldn’t understand why he accused me of changing, coercing me to give them up.
My life shrunk as I gave up singing, dresses and perfumes.
Not only was I bored out of my mind, I often checked myself if I was being pompous for pursuing something that gave me joy.
I was denigrated as shallow for reading fiction, and then asked “What are you trying to prove” when I read non-fiction. Either way, there was no respite.
The things that give us joy and nourish our soul shape our identity. Cut off from them, we eventually lose our sense of self, feeling unanchored and prime targets for more abuse.
He starred me down whenever I spoke to mutual male friends. Then he accused female friends of ferrying me to see my lovers.
Eventually I started seeing myself though his eyes— was I really the coquette he thought I was?
I checked my behaviours, like the prisoners in Foucault’s Panopticon, feeling guilty when I had to speak with a man to order a taxi, or when a stranger smiled at me. Because he blamed me for triggering him.
And when I stopped seeing my friends, he called me a loser, offering to save me from my unhealthiness.
Jonathan comments that narcissists are experts at compiling details about others, which they twist to cause doubts as they demonise your community . They summarise their case with phrases like “That person’s a liar”, “They’re evil”, “Stop giving your kids/family too much time, it’s unhealthy for our relationship”, and concomitantly create more attraction for themselves by painting themselves as your saviour.
A common way narcissists do this is to persuade you to give up your career to start a family. You become financially dependent, and so you cannot leave. My friend Shannon Thomas (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) comments that financial dependence makes it the most difficult for abuse survivors to start their new life.
Otherwise, his abuse may exhaust you.
If you don’t sleep enough, your brain cannot integrate memories and discard the things that don’t matter. Your attention and energy management become compromised. If you live in fear, then cortisol and adrenalin are always coursing through your blood. You are hypervigilant and your adrenals get fatigued. Like an iPhone battery on “Low Power Mode”, your functioning is compromised.
Just like that, my ex continuously sabotaged my studies with abuse. Then he stalked me at meetings, insisting I wasn’t there, to justify that I shouldn’t work. Then he diverted emails on my website form to a mysterious mailbox— anything to make me dependent.
I get it if you’re reading this and feeling angry with yourself for having been hoodwinked.
And one thing I tell all my clients is that you didn’t walk around paranoid for people who might hurt you, and never start living life that way. Instead, the narcissist is a conman adept at deceit and manipulation; the older and more experienced he becomes, the more sophisticated his techniques.
What really is more important is to know that like myself and many other women, you can get out and write your new chapter, reclaiming who you are.
Contact Dr Perpetua Neo if you’d like to heal from abuse deeply and quickly.