“S/He has always been nice to me….”
These words have enabled more narcissists to do their destructive interpersonal handiwork than nearly any others. Remember that what often makes it difficult to leave a relationship with a narcissist is the experience of “gaslighting” – the experience of having your reality challenged in such a manner that you not only feel that you are losing your grip on reality but you also stop trusting your judgment. Gaslighting is emotional abuse – pure and simple.
I remember once at a party watching a man sharing a heartfelt and vulnerable story about his brother – the brother was a malignant narcissist – critical, verbally abusive, deeply entitled, angry, hostile, and getting worse as arguments around inheritances were mounting up. He was sharing this story with an old friend who had known both of them for much of their lives. This man shared his story and his pain about what his brother had done to him his whole life, and what he was doing now – and the old friend looked at him and said “I don’t know – I don’t want to hear bad things about someone who has never done anything bad to me.” I remember being feeling very offended by the entire interaction – as though the snowflake of a friend couldn’t bear to hear his friend’s vulnerability or experience or about the brother’s problematic character. Perhaps if that man had similar experiences with the brother, then that would be the only way it was valid. I have also consulted on numerous cases in which other people would tell the victim of narcissistic abuse “it can’t be that bad”, “everyone at church likes him”, “you’re still with him – aren’t you?”, or the worst: “since you are the only one experiencing this – maybe it’s you.”
I call this “tribe gaslighting” – when other people around the narcissist (who may be in the position of seeing only one side of the narcissist) – actually doubt your experience because THEY did not have it. This empowers the narcissist and disempowers you.
This can happen in many circumstances – for example, when someone works with the narcissist and the narcissist is very charming at work or they are the narcissist’s supervisor or someone else higher up in the hierarchy. In many family systems – the one person brave enough to call out a narcissist or other toxic person is often silenced and told that they are being too sensitive. Because most people do not understand the finer points of narcissism – there may be a culture in the narcissist’s workplace that just pumps them up when they are at work (because they are in fact being charming and nice) and when they come home they are invalidating, insulting and unkind because there are no checks on their behavior. They may be the most charitable person in their community – hosting fundraisers and helping people with their causes – but once they get home, the charitableness fades into coldness and rage.
However, where it can be most devastating is when you render yourself vulnerable and actually share with other people what your relationship is like. You let yourself tell other people how abusive your partner is, or how cruel your father was, or how critical and petty your sister is – despite your pain about it or even your shame about it. And when that is met with utter surprise or even minimization (“wow, she’s always been nice to me, it’s hard to believe that is true” or “he’s always been a good guy to everyone here, that doesn’t make sense”) – it feels like the gaslighting is now happening at the hands of the world at large. It can take a lot of courage to step out of the shadows when you are in a narcissistic relationship of any kind, and when the world challenges that reality by saying ‘he wasn’t like that with me” – it can multiply your self-doubt, and put you back into the shadows.
Let’s say you are on the other side of this. You are the person who works with the narcissist or knows them from a social group – and in fact, you never have had any unpleasant interactions with them – maybe a bit of showing off, validation seeking – but nothing that directly negatively impacted you. At some level, perhaps all of us can understand some level of “diplomacy” – you may not have the same criticisms or concerns as someone else so you may be careful in your words. Ultimately, however, it is never ok to doubt the reality of another person. At a minimum, when someone shares his or her pain with you – listen to it and acknowledge that it is real to them, and offer them compassion or condolence. Take a step back. Then think long and hard about why you may have had a different experience of the narcissistic patterns that hurt the person who is sharing that uncomfortable story. Maybe that narcissistic person was “fluffing” you up because they want something from you, maybe they were masterful at window dressing and looking superficially good to other people – in superficial relationships, narcissists are brilliant – their charm, charisma, and manipulation can make them great “social sprinters” – they are fun at a party, but not for the long haul. Once the doors are closed, and there is no audience, that is when the cruelty often comes out. When you deny the suffering of the other because you didn’t experience it, you harm them once again. Most people in narcissistic relationships – whether with partner, parent or friend – remain quiet about it for a long time before ever talking about it – it’s like an iceberg – by the time someone talks about it – a lot already happened.
Pay attention to this pattern of “tribe gaslighting” – people do not like disrupting the status quo, and if they get information that doesn’t compute with their experience of a person – it’s destabilizing, and it’s easier to doubt your reality then to possibly have to face a new one. Treat this as a wakeup call – don’t take your vulnerabilities to people who do this to you any longer, find more humane listeners who receive your difficult words with compassion. To steal a person’s reality is the ultimate theft and violation, safeguard your own.