Let’s talk about narcissism and gaslighting. If you’ve been on the internet at all since the Trump Administration, you know that there is regular and ongoing discussion of narcissism and gaslighting, because there’s been ongoing speculation that Trump is a clinical narcissist and would routinely gaslight people. So let’s talk about what those terms actually mean, and particularly, I’m going to talk about when use of these terms can be an overstatement of harm that ends up escalating conflict in your relationships, rather than what I presume we all want—to deescalate conflict.
Clinical narcissism is a personality disorder involving self-aggrandizement, a need to always be the best, associate with the best people, to be special. There will be no admission of fault. There is no recognition of the needs of others. A full description is available here, from the Mayo Clinic.
“Gaslighting,” according to Google, is “to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” There was a movie in the 40s called “Gaslight” in which a husband intentionally tried to drive his wife crazy by lowering the lights in the room—which were controlled at the time by gas—and when she talked about how dim they were, he’d say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He did this on purpose, to psychologically manipulate his wife into questioning reality.
The reason it entered the cultural conversation that Trump could be a clinical narcissist is in the constant talking about how he is the best, the smartest, and an inability to admit to any fault whatsoever or take any responsibility for his behaviors. He’s also been called a gaslighter. There are videos where he says X and later denies he ever said X; that’s gaslighting. There are videos where he talks about himself as the best and refuses to admit responsibility for things he did, and that’s a classic portrait of a narcissist. We don’t need to resuscitate every example; there are many and they are easy to find if you wish to find them. We can’t diagnose someone with clinical narcissism just from observing these behaviors. We can speculate, but that’s about it.
But let’s also talk about how narcissism and gaslighting have entered the everyday pop culture lexicon and now, there is a bias to start seeing those traits in everyday, human conflict, and how the application of terms like these inaccurately, can really escalate human conflict. In other words, sometimes I’m seeing people call things narcissism and gaslighting purely because they are offended, not necessarily because they are accurate terms to apply to the situation.
Let’s say that oops, you step on someone’s foot. It hurts, so they are angry. In conversations where someone misunderstands what narcissism and gaslighting actually are and deploys those terms carelessly, use of these terms escalate conflict rather than work towards a solution:
Person: You stomped on my foot! That was mean and unkind and I’m standing up for myself and I’m not taking your shit, anymore.
You: [Feeling defensive because you’ve been accused of something, and because you’re feeling defensive, you’re also more focused in that moment on defending yourself than on apologizing]. Whoa, wait—I didn’t stomp on your foot. I stepped on your foot, by accident—I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry about that.
Person: No, you stomped on my foot. How can you deny that? I was right there, and I saw it. You stomped on my foot.
You: I stepped on it, by accident—I didn’t stomp on it, on purpose. How can you think that I would do that, on purpose?
Person: It’s always about you, you, you. What about me, and the fact that you stomped on my foot? How can you take the focus off the fact that my foot is hurting?
You: I’m not trying to take the focus off of your foot hurting; I’m trying to talk about the fact that I didn’t intentionally step on your foot, which is what you’re accusing me of when you say “stomp.”
Person: You’re gaslighting my experience—I was here, I saw what you did, it was definitely a “stomp,” and now you’re trying to convince me that it never happened.
You: I’m not trying to convince you that it never happened. I’m trying to convince you that it wasn’t intentional!
Person: Impact is more important than intention. I’m saying the impact you had on me was that I felt like my foot was stomped on.
You: But…so…I’m supposed to say that I did stomp on your foot, so that you feel I’m validating your experience?
Person: See, I knew it. You can never take responsibility for your actions…
Now, let’s break this down for a moment. Most humans, when they are in conflict with someone, feel defensive. When they feel defensive, most of their focus goes to…defending.
If someone is defensive and does not want to take responsibility for their behavior, this does not automatically mean that the person is a narcissist. It means they are defensive. In the example I just gave, the defensive party isn’t saying, “I never even went near your foot.” They’re arguing with the interpretation of what happened, not saying that it never happened that way. In conflicts, it is very common for two different people to experience things very differently—thus prompting two different realities.
We need to keep in mind that just as someone else’s interpretation of what happened or what the behaviors were can differ, their interpretations of us can also be very different.
As a society, we need to get clearer about what clinical diagnoses actually entail. Now, I am not qualified to diagnose anyone with anything, but I took graduate level coursework in diagnostics as part of a marriage and family therapy program tied to a masters in counseling degree, and the professor for that class emphasized that if you look too much at the DSM or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, you’ll see yourself in everything. The question is often tied to severity and prevalence.
Again, let me say—the diagnosis is often tied to severity and prevalence. So, how intense are the symptoms, and how often are they happening?
So yes, from a diagnostic perspective, clinical narcissists overly focus on outward appearances, but we have to take into consideration the entire picture. Let’s say there’s someone who wears a lot of makeup and maybe they’re even judgmental of people who are who don’t put a lot of time into their appearance or who don’t wear makeup. Now, if you said to me, “That sounds like a very unattractive quality in a person, very superficial to be so focused on outward appearances,” I’d be inclined to agree with you. But if this same person also made a point of always taking care of her grandmother, and cleaned up the house for their family members, and was apologetic when they made mistakes, guess what? They aren’t a narcissist, just because they have a focus on outward appearances, or just because they judge others who don’t put as much time into appearances.
Or, to bring in another example—let’s say there’s a marriage that’s been marked by arguments and conflict for several years. One partner feels life should be less about the hustle, and wants to slow down and have less going on in the household. The other partner is a workaholic high achiever who gets a lot out validation out of working, and that person also has trouble apologizing when they are very clearly wrong—they say and do things that are snippy and irritable, and they never want to admit it. In fact, when it is pointed out, they tend to deny (“I wasn’t irritable”) or redirect (“Well, what about how irritable you sound, right now?”).
If you just cherry-pick the examples of their workaholic behaviors and difficulty with apologies and tendencies to deflect, it would be easy to paint a picture of this person as a clinical narcissist who is gaslighting their partner in the marriage.
But you’d have to look at the entire picture of this person, if you want to accurately assess for narcissism or gaslighting—is this person a cardiologist who is dealing with secondary vicarious trauma due to the pressure of their job, and while they are distant and conflict ridden in their marriage, their patients would describe them as kind and supportive? Is this person a high achiever who always sends heartfelt cards to friends on birthdays, who has—at another time in the marriage when it was less conflict ridden—held their partner while their partner cried and offered empathy and tenderness?
Again, I’m not qualified to diagnose and I’m not trying to give you diagnostic tips, here. I’m sharing what I learned as a result of my education when I was in an MFT program and when I completed my Masters in Psychology, which is that when someone is diagnosed with a mental health issue, the entire person and the broader context of their life is looked at. Not just their worst character flaw, like being superficially focused on outward appearances with makeup. Not just who they are in one relationship, a marriage, whereas in other relationships or in other parts of their lives, they have capacity for empathy and warmth.
So here’s why I’m talking about this: I see relationships being essentially destroyed because people start throwing out these terms, which escalates conflict. When we start throwing out accusations of narcissism not because the totality of their life adds up to that but rather, because we feel someone is being selfish, that person is less likely to work things out with you. If we accuse anyone who doesn’t agree with our assessment of the situation as gaslighting, then conflict is escalated.
The point is that when conflict is unnecessarily escalated, no one gets what they want. The person throwing out the accusation doesn’t get what they want—in fact, the behavior of the person they’re accusing of narcissism or gaslighting is even less likely to change, which unfortunately will only appear as more evidence that the person must be a clinical narcissist who gaslights. And the person receiving the accusation is probably feeling defensive, hurt, embarrassed, and what’s more, they’re also not fully trusting the feedback they’ve been given because on some level they know that it’s crazy to throw out these terms just because there’s conflict. I mean, to go back to this stomped versus stepped on the foot example—if you know that it truly was an accident that you stepped on someone’s foot, and they are committed to believing that you intentionally stomped on their foot, aren’t you a bit mistrustful of their ability to accurately perceive the world?
Just so that I’m clear—so no one thinks I’m trying to gaslight around the existence of narcissism—I do think that clinical narcissists and gaslighters really do exist. If you are dealing with someone who really fits into those categories, that’s very real, and it’s wrong for them to mistreat you. In no way do I blame the victim of someone’s narcissism. I just think these labels are being applied very liberally, and narcissists are in fact more rare than people might realize based on how often discussion of narcissist and gaslighting traits appear on social media. And, I think that while it may temporarily feel powerful to have a label to put on something, especially when you’ve feel that someone has hurt you, it doesn’t actually solve the problem.
And, of course, I think that someone can wholeheartedly disagree with what I’m sharing here and that’s okay, too.
In my mind, the problem is the conflict that doesn’t get resolved by deployment of inaccurate terms, and two people’s different views of what happened without being willing to ask one another why they feel the way they feel—and truly listen to the answers from others when they are given.
A better approach when you’re angry and convinced that someone did something on purpose?
Tell them how you feel: “I feel as if you might have stomped on my foot on purpose. I feel that way because I saw you lift up your foot and bring it down, really hard.”
Ask questions: “Did you stomp on my foot?”
Diffuse conflict by speaking to your experience, and understand that it’s human to feel defensive, and most people lack skills to navigate conflict, so they may be unaware that they are being defensive in response to you. So, when they are defensive: “I’m not trying to accuse you of anything—it was my perception that you stomped on my foot because I saw you lift up your foot and bring it down, really hard. I could be wrong.”
Give it time: Have you ever finished a conversation where you were defensive and angry and unwilling to admit any responsibility, and then after you calmed down, you realized…okay, maybe that person did have a valid point? Great. Then you know that time can be something of a curative for conflict. Give the person time to digest what you’ve brought to them. See if they come back later and are willing to say, “You know, I truly didn’t intend to stomp on your foot, but if I think about how fast I was running around in the back yard, I can see how it appeared that way. I’m sorry for stepping on your foot.”
Get better at your own apologies. The best way to see the vulnerability and self-reflection and awareness that is involved in making an apology is to start making more of them, yourself. You’ll recognize all the places where you get defensive and don’t want to apologize, and it humanizes the fact that other people might do the same thing when egos get in the way.
Last thing—I’m never saying that abusive behavior should just be excused. We need to confront it and speak truth to it—critical thinking time. Of course I’m not saying that when people are abusive, or when someone is an actual narcissist, that we should just throw glitter in the air and look for ways to rationalize their behavior. No.
I’m only saying that sometimes we create more drama, conflict, discord, sadness, anger in our lives when we are inaccurate about how we apply labels like narcissism or gaslighting. A licensed psychologist would take in a multitude of factors when making a diagnosis, so let’s not get so into the pop culture references or armchair psychology that we think we are qualified or equipped to diagnose our partners or family members.
We don’t get what we want, and no one is really winning in these situations. I want us to diffuse conflict, not amplify it.
Let’s have the courage to call things what they are, and to apply integrity in being accurate and responsible when we call things as they are.