Narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional abuse where the narcissistic person will coerce or manipulate others into doing what they want them to do. It can involve threats, verbally abusive language, manipulation, bullying and sometimes deceit.
Often it is used to describe situations where it is hard for the person who is being abused to escape. The abused person is usually vulnerable to or dependant on the abuser in some way. The narcissist who is abusive will often have power over the person who is victimised by the abuse. Partners, employees, co-workers and children of narcissistic parents are most frequently victimised in this way.
Gaslighting is a particular form of narcissistic abuse used by people who are narcissistic to try to get others to believe they are wrong and that the narcissist is right.
The recent box-office success “The Girl on the Train” demonstrates the worst of Gaslighting behaviour.
In this film, the protagonist (Rachel) is confused and manipulated by her ex-husband into losing trust in herself and her understanding of events. In an attempt to avoid discovery, Tom exploits Rachel’s vulnerability and her history of alcohol use to persuade her that she cannot trust her own judgement or her memories.
At first we suspect that she is unstable and that her narration is “unreliable”.
But as the film unfolds, we learn that she is much more trustworthy than her ex-husband and that her original interpretation of events is accurate.
Towards the end of the narrative, we come to understand that Rachel’s initial fears are justified and her actions near the end of the film prevent another woman from being harmed by her violent and abusive ex-husband.
Like other victims of narcissistic abuse, Rachel at first doubts her own sanity. Has she really seen what she thinks she has seen? Are her fears for the safety of another woman paranoia inspired by jealousy and obsession, or is she actually onto something?
Gaslighting like this involves the narcissistic person manipulating our understanding and interpretation of events, trying to ensure that their own worldview dominates.
As humans, we all have a propensity towards narcissistic behaviours and tactics, however healthy relationships do not involve manipulation or the systematic undermining of another person’s point of view.
The kind of manipulation, violence and abuse depicted in The Girl on A Train is unusual, but many ordinary relationships involve manipulation and attempts to control. It is when this manipulation and control dominates the relationship that we need to assess whether it is in our interests to stay.
Not all people suffering from narcissism are abusive, and some forms of narcissism are very hard to spot - for example the “shy” or deflated narcissist. (Shy narcissists rarely manipulate others and are more likely to avoid conflict than fight for dominance.)
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the normal ups and downs of any relationship and something that is tipping over into abuse.
But when you feel scared to say what you think, to pursue your own interests or feel hijacked by the moods of your partner, then it is worth looking closely at your interactions and weighing up the benefits of staying.
If you feel that you are at risk of being abused or you are recovering from a relationship with someone who is narcissistic, psychotherapy can help you take back control.
Working with an empathetic and experienced therapist can help you regain your equilibrium, discover healthier relationships and develop real intimacy.
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More about Narcissism from The Recover Room Blog