‘You’ve been the victim of a narcissist and he’s been gaslighting you ever since you were small. It’s a game to him’. There was silence as I took in what the counsellor was telling me. All these years I thought there was something wrong with me and that I’d done something to make him not care. Turns out, he had the power all along.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting, if you’re fortunate enough not have come across is before, is a form of subtle control used by abusers to make you doubt yourself, your abilities and what you stand for. People who do this belittle you and manipulate you into questioning your own thoughts and judgement. For many, this is a partner and for others, like me, it can be a parent.
For as long as I can remember, my Dad has only been interested in himself and how the world and everyone in it is against him. If you have a cold, he’s had it worse. If you’ve had a bad day at work, his would be even more terrible. It feels like being in a competition and always losing. Apparently, he’s a classic ‘narcissist’ which explains a lot of his behaviour.
His self-centredness has no limits. Every time I think he’s gone as low as he can, he pops back up with something else. Kinda like ‘whack-a-mole’. A year ago, he rang to tell me that I had two half-brothers. He’d never mentioned anything before, so it came out of nowhere and was a shock. He then followed that up with ‘well, actually, you now only have one as the other took his own life’. He talked about how upset he was that ‘his son’ had died and how he was grieving. He left these children when they were tiny and never spoke to them. This made me so angry that, yet again, it was all about him. Even him telling me about it was just another attention-seeking move which really upset me. And still does. It’s like he drops a bomb and doesn’t think about the explosion that follows.
My mental health is worse than yours
When I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), I called and told him. The response? ‘Well, I was diagnosed with that years ago. I’ve been struggling and it’s awful.’ No reassurance, no words of comfort, just comparison. He just made me doubt how I was feeling about this new diagnosis and that it wasn’t a big deal.
When my mental health took a turn for the worst and I self-harmed a year ago, I texted to tell him I’d been in hospital. Yet again, he said, ‘My attempts were much worse’ and then dove into the specifics of why his self-harming/suicide attempts were worse than mine. He also tried to blame my mum for this and said she was never understanding and that she didn’t care. I realised at that point that he was still trying to blindside me and make me doubt that mum cared. She was really upset about what I did but she was there every step of the way, holding my hand and trying to understand.
Gaslighting has really affected me
His gaslighting has had a massive effect on me in my adult life. I’m not very trusting and I always think people are going to leave me. I’m always torn between cutting him out of my life altogether or keeping him at arm’s length so he can’t hurt me. He makes me feel so guilty every time I speak to him. I don’t know how many times I’ve cried about him and what he’s done. He won’t contact me in months and then says things like ‘You know I love you and I’m proud of you’. What do I do with that? I fall for it and so the cycle continues.
If you’re in the grips of a narcissist, don’t let them ruin your life and don’t let them define you. When I was told that I was a ‘victim’ of emotional abuse, I felt helpless and embarrassed that I continued to let it happen. I immediately jumped on the defensive and even made excuses for him. But I guess that’s the power narcissists have over you.
Here are a few things I do to try and keep myself safe:
Keep them at a distance
I’m lucky that there’s physical distance between me and my Dad and that I can keep him at arm’s length. When he messages, I try to tell myself that I have the power to choose whether I respond or not. If I do, that’s my decision, not because he’s said something to trigger a response. If you’re not sure what to do, close the text/email/message and come back to it later when you’ve had chance to process it.
Talk to someone outside of the situation
Friends of mine know all about what my Dad has done and put me through and they’re very good at listening and not passing judgement. I recently spoke to a friend who had also been in an emotionally abusive relationship and completely understood what I was feeling. That helped me to feel like it wasn’t my fault and that he had to take responsibility. Perspective is so useful in these situations.
Set clear boundaries
My sister is so good at this. She goes by the three-message rule – after he texts three times, she answers him. She just dismisses his behaviour and doesn’t worry about it. I’m aspiring to be like that as I tend to feel things too much sometimes.
It’s hard to break the cycle with narcissists who get incredibly good at gaslighting. They make you doubt yourself and the way that you feel. Don’t ever doubt these things. Keep at the back of your mind that it’s all a game to them and that you don’t need to participate. In the end, it will be you that wins and takes back the power that they’ve had for so long.