Gaslighting: The art of making you feel like you are losing it

Origins of the Term 

Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 Film

“Gaslighting” is a term that has nothing to do with how we used to light our street corners and our homes. Nothing of the sort. Instead, the term originates from the play by Patrick Hamilton in 1938 called “Gas Light” together with the film adaptations in 1940 and 1944 which demonstrated the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by her husband. In the story, the husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of the environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she pointed out those changes.

The Scenario

As Ruth Ostrow recently reported in an article titled “Sanity Stealers” in “The Australian” on Friday, 26th January, 2018 (page 14), her situation went like this. She said, …”a recent experience really distressed me. It involved someone who was in the wrong. When I caught her out, instead of apologising, she somehow convinced me that I was to blame. She relayed events differently to what I had remembered, to the point I questioned my own sanity – and she accused me of creating a drama because I was feeling so guilty about my own bad behaviour. Hugh? I was so confused and kept going over events in my mind until I became convinced that I had remembered exactly what happened, which included catching her red-handed in an act of betrayal. Why had I ever doubted the facts for one minute?” Ostrow goes on to say that she had fallen for a deflective technique called gaslighting.

What is Gaslighting?

So what is it exactly? It’s the manipulative behaviour or technique of one person to make the other question their own reality and their intuition and then doubt themselves so that they become more dependent on the “gaslighter”.

The ultimate goal is for you to second-guess the following:

  • your choices (“Maybe I was wrong after-all”; “Maybe it was my fault”; Maybe I am to blame”),
  • your perceptions or interpretations (“Maybe I didn’t see it properly or maybe I did miss something”; “Maybe my memory is just not as good as it used to be”), and
  • your sanity (“Maybe I’m just going nuts”; “Maybe I really am just losing it”)

Doubting yourself in this way only serves to make you more dependent on the abuser. It’s a technique used by abusers, narcissists, dictators, con-artists, bullies, and cult leaders who all seek to gain control over you.

Sound familiar? Ever doubted yourself with someone in particular? Of course, we all have doubts at times, but sometimes there is a specific person who always makes us feel like we need to second guess ourselves.

For example, in some abusive relationships, spouses may flatly deny that they have been violent or lie about what happened. In parent-child relationships, especially where there is drug abuse or mental health issues such as personality disorders, then the parent might use gaslighting to keep the child quiet about the abuse or addiction. Where a child is emotionally, sexually or physically abused, the adult might use gaslighting to ensure that the child does not say anything to outsiders. In cases where the parents have had a nasty separation or divorce, one parent can use gaslighting to portray the other parent as “hopeless”, “irresponsible”, “immature” and a “total idiot” to the child, in order to get the child to side with the one parent against the other. In the work situation, you could have a manager who micro-manages for control, who changes their minds and then denies it, who lies about what happened or what occurred or who tries to align people against you.

Typically too, the gaslighting happens gradually in a relationship. It’s kind of like you get lured in and then in a sinister and insidious way, the gaslighting begins. The gaslighter may even initially camouflage the digs, put-downs and innuendos in humour. But they are barbs none the less. At first you may see it all as somewhat harmless or you reason that perhaps they are just having an “off day” or even that you explain it away by saying that “they’re stressed just now” or even “that’s just the way they are”. Occasionally too, you might be tempted to excuse them by saying that you’ll change them or that somehow “they’ll come round”. None of this is true however – they are gaslighters! Ironically too, your attempts to let them off the hook only means that you are gaslighting yourself. Think about that for a moment…

What are the Signs of Gaslighting?

In Psychology Today, Dr Stephanie Sarkis among others, writes that gaslighters generally use the following techniques:

  1. They tell blatant lies.

You know it’s a lie, but they say it so convincingly that it is kind of unsettling. If they can tell lies like this, what can you really believe about them? This keeps you unsteady and throws you off ‘centre’ and starts to tip your world upside down which is their goal.

  1. They constantly criticize you or find fault.

Nothing is ever good enough. They constantly chip away at your self-esteem and get you to really doubt yourself. No matter what you do, you didn’t do it properly or no matter what choice you made it was wrong. All this negativity adds up over time and lays the groundwork for the gaslighter to play with your perception of reality. This also means that the things in which you were once confident, you also start to doubt. “Maybe I never was really good at that after-all.”

  1. They blame you for their behaviour.

Yes, it’s all your fault. Every disagreement or argument in the end boils down to it being your fault. You’re to blame. You’re the one who created this situation. You find yourself constantly apologising in order to keep the peace and trying to gain some sort of harmony. For example, you point out a poor behaviour or their negative emotions and suddenly, you’re the one who is “dramatizing” it all or “over-reacting” or just being “overly sensitive”. You can’t win, and so in the end, you shut down. This is designed to keep you mute, and for you to question your own grip on things.

  1. They deny they ever said or did something, even if you have proof.

At some level, you know that they did something or that you heard something, but they out and out deny it. Their denials are such that as a reasonable person yourself, you start to doubt your reality. Maybe there was another interpretation to what you saw or heard. The more that this occurs, the more you question your reality and you start to accept theirs.

  1. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.

They know for example, that your work is important to you or your children are very important to you and they know of course, that your identify is fundamental to who you are. For work, they might state that you only have the job because the company feels sorry for you or they couldn’t find anyone else to do the job. In regards to your children, you say that you should never have had them. They tell you that you are a worthy person, but it’s just that you have this long list of negative traits and poor behaviours. They undermine who you are as a person.

  1. Their actions do not match their words.

These gaslighters do not have integrity as people, so you’ll see that their words and their actions are not congruent. Ultimately, don’t believe the words. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder than words.

  1. They throw in positive praise to confuse you.

While gaslighters are intent on bringing you down and undermining you, on occasion they will say something positive about what you did. Again, because you are a reasonable person, you cut them some slack saying, “Maybe they aren’t so bad after all”. But they are. This see-saw effect of negativity mixed with the occasional positivity only serves to keep you off-kilter again and unbalanced.

  1. They know that confusion weakens people

When things are unstable and you can’t count on consistency, you start to question everything. It’s like walking around on egg-shells. This is exactly the goal of the gaslighter. The more unsteady that you become, the more that you rely on them to feel “stable”.

  1. They project onto others.

Whatever they are accusing you of doing such as abusing alcohol or cheating on the relationship is a ploy to deflect attention away from them. They project onto so you find yourself so busy defending yourself that you get distracted from the gaslighter’s behaviour. The truth be known that whatever they are projecting onto you is probably a very good indication that they are dong exactly that ie., drinking way too much or having an affair.

  1. They try to align people against you.

As you’re aware of by now, gaslighters are master manipulators of their environment and they will find people who will stand by them no matter what and they use these people against you. Remember that they are constant liars so they will say things like, “This person knows that you’re hopeless too” or “This person knows that you’re not correct”. Now, it may well be that these people didn’t say anything of the kind, but nevertheless, this throws you and you’re not sure who to believe. If you don’t know who to trust anymore, then this can lead you straight back to the gaslighter.

  1. They tell you that everyone else is a liar.

By asserting that everyone else is a liar including family, friends, workmates or even the media, it threatens your reality. What’s the truth really? Because you are reasonable and genuine, you’ve never known anyone with the audacity to say such things, so maybe they are right. Maybe they do have a sense of the real “truth” after-all? So maybe you need to turn to them for the “correct” information – which of course, is not correct at all.

  1. They tell you and others that you’re crazy.

Finally, Dr Sarkis writes that this is a master technique because if the gaslighter can discredit you to the point of your sanity, then no-one is going to believe you in relation to the gaslighter’s poor, inconsistent, and inappropriate behaviour.

What are the Personal Signs that you’ve been Gaslighted?

According to psychoanalyst and author Dr Robert Stern who wrote “The Gaslight Effect“, there are some tell-tale signs for the individual caught up with a gaslighter:

  1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
  2. You start to question if you are too sensitive.
  3. You often feel confused and have a hard time making simple decisions.
  4. You find yourself constantly apologising.
  5. You can’t understand why you’re so unhappy.
  6. You often make excuses for your partner’s behaviour.
  7. You feel like you can’t do anything right.
  8. You often feel like you aren’t good enough for others.
  9. You have the sense that you used to be a more confident, relaxed and happy person.
  10. You withhold information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain things.

What to do?

Of course, it goes without saying that if you’re in such a relationship, then you are in danger emotionally and psychologically and you need to realise that such a relationship could impact you for some extended time (months or a few years) even if you manage to get out of it because of the significant effects on your mental health.

Step 1 is to make a stand for yourself and realise that you are your own best friend and that you owe it to yourself (if not to your children and family if you have any) that your partner is dysfunctional and unhealthy and that this is a toxic relationship. Call it for what it is. Never wait for them to “come to their senses” – it just won’t happen. They will stay in denial and they will never ever admit that they are gaslighting. So, give up on any awareness or confessions on their part.

Step 2 is to get out as quickly as you can and as safely as you can. It might mean that you don’t give any hint of leaving, but you just go. You cannot save them or get them to therapy (remember that there’s nothing wrong with them!), but you can save yourself. You’re worth saving! Get some trusted friends and family to support you and help you to leave.

Step 3 is to get therapeutic help and support. You may well need it after the battering you’ve taken over months or years of this toxic relationship. Therapy helps you to see things in perspective once again and it helps to have an independent opinion that you did the right thing by leaving.

Step 4 is critical in that you never look back. Don’t even think about second chances for your partner. Instead, focus on recovering and re-discovering yourself and going forward in positive ways. There is a big world out there waiting for you and you owe it to yourself to realise your real potential.


[Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach along with being an accredited family business advisor. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people and leaders to find their strengths and reach their goals as well as grow their businesses, become more productive and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and he can be contacted at [email protected]]

The Narcissist in the Workplace

We have already discussed what a narcissist is in a previous article (“The Narcissist: What is it exactly?”) suffice to say that the world famous Mayo Clinic based in Rochester, Minnesota defines the narcissistic personality disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others”.

Narcissists always stand out

Behind the grandiose exhibitionist presentation of self-enhancement is either the spoilt child who is the centre of their own universe or the individual who is masking a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

The Workplace Scenario

Peter Fowler is a 42 year old operations manager. He had been promoted over several other managers after only four and a half years with the company. A number of his peers had the feeling that Peter’s promotion to operations manager came about more through office politics and “sucking up” to the CEO than it did from significant professional achievements. Although there were certainly a few people who were resentful, many were also impressed by his looks, his disposition, his charm and his accomplishments. Peter’s wife was known to be extremely attractive, well-positioned in society and the mother of their two beautiful children. Rumour had it that his expensive cars, showy house and exclusive golf club membership were paid for more by his wife’s family than by his own income or investments.

Increasingly, there were complaints from Peter’s subordinates. His team did not appear to be a cohesive well functioning unit. Members of his team thought that Peter was relatively unconcerned about their well-being and professional development. They also thought that their projects were mostly designed to advance Peter’s position and make him look good and there was also the notion that he was sacrificing production quality and efficiency for his own short-term benefit. Peter sometimes used his team meetings as a forum to air his grandiose ideas or even for blatant discussions of his personal power, brilliance and future success. Despites his dazzling success however, he was hypersensitive to criticism. There was unanimous agreement that he was intolerant of even the most constructive advice. Irrespective, Peter still had quite a following. He certainly sought out those in positions of power. Although he seemed to tolerate direct reports who might be useful to him, he had little apparent concern for others beneath him. Those who might feel appreciated for a period would eventually end up feeling used and abused.

What are the Common Flaws of Narcissistic Managers?

As Stuart Yudofsky outlined in his 2005 book titled, “Fatal Flaws: Navigating Destructive Relationships with People with Disorders of Personality and Character”, there are 20 common characteristics associated with narcissistic managers. They are as follows:

  1. They value loyalty in their subordinates or direct reports more than competence or productivity.
  2. They overestimate their own knowledge about nearly every area of the business or organisation.
  3. They do not appreciate the important contributions of others.
  4. They take personal credit for the accomplishment of others.
  5. They are competitive with and threatened by peers and competent managers.
  6. They micromanage competent subordinates in areas in which they themselves have little expertise.
  7. They insist on making all decisions – even minor ones – themselves often with insufficient information about and understanding of the relevant issues.
  8. They overstate their own and the organisation’s successes – to the point of bragging.
  9. They never admit to making mistakes.
  10. They blame others for their own mistakes and failures.
  11. They distrust, intimidate, or fire subordinates who make independent decisions or raise concerns about their questionable decisions or business practices.
  12. They surround themselves with “insiders” who constantly praise and never disagree with them.
  13. They do not mentor their subordinates or advance their careers.
  14. They pursue highly visible (ie., flashy) short-term successes at the expense of supporting solid, long-range strategic plans.
  15. They misappropriate the organisation’s resources for their personal benefit and self-aggrandisement.
  16. They devalue and underestimate the achievements of competitors in similar businesses or enterprises.
  17. The miss out on important opportunities by not recognising their own lack of knowledge in some areas.
  18. They display great deference toward and respect for their superiors to their faces yet criticise, devalue, and undermine them behind their backs.
  19. They respond to constructive criticism of their work with anger, defensiveness, and thoughts or acts of retribution.
  20. They prioritise their own ambitions for advancement over the needs of the organisation.

Know anyone who fits this description or behaves in these kinds of ways?

How do you to Cope with a Narcissist Boss?

Andrew DuBrin in his 2012 book titled, “Narcissism in the Workplace: Research, Opinion and Practice” provides a number of helpful hints about how to manage narcissists in the workplace. For example, note the following:

  • Assess the relationship realistically and understand the kind of person with whom you are dealing and that it is not you necessarily who is at fault; recognise that you may never really be validated in the workplace and that you will not receive any credit for good work done.
  • Maintain your professionalism and do not stoop to manipulative or sinister ways to try to get even.
  • Confront any problems gently and tactfully.
  • Focus on solutions and not the problem; narcissists like to focus on problems and dissect such repeatedly; simply state the problem and quickly move towards solutions.
  • Present several solutions; narcissists like to be in control so it is important to provide options; options make them feel like you respect their opinion and are asking them to control the process.
  • Document your accomplishments in that the narcissist will want to take all the credit for work well done so you need to ensure that you keep your own record.
  • Be willing to accept criticism because you’re going to get plenty of it especially if you don’t show total loyalty or gratitude or give constant praise; you need to be resilient and quietly stand your ground.
  • Maintain a strong network; this helps you to keep “normalcy” in your life and helps you to have a good support base especially if the narcissist boss starts to get aggressive or too arrogant.
  • Be prepared to walk away and resign; remember that the narcissistic boss will never change and you really don’t need such a person like that in your life.

How do you Deal with Narcissistic Employees?

In the same book, Stuart Yudofsky outlines what to watch out for in dealing with employees who have a narcissistic personality disorder.

  1. Do your homework in the selection and recruitment process.

What is critical here is to do your due diligence. Phoning referees is really not going to give you the perspective that you’re looking for. I know of various occasions when the referee has either deliberately withheld crucial information or purposely portrayed a positive viewpoint when the reality was anything but. Instead, check out Linked-in and Facebook and try to discern who might know the employee and where else you can gain an opinion on the person.

  1. Use the interview process wisely.

During the interview, it is important to be aware of the characteristic behavioural and relationship patterns of people who might have a narcissistic personality disorder. For example, watch for comments from the interviewee along the lines of:

“I was indispensible to my previous boss”

“I handled everything in my previous employer’s personal life”

“The company was a complete mess before I came, but I fixed most of the problems”

“I left my last job because my efforts and contributions were not appreciated”

In fact, Dr Sander van der Linden from Cambridge University argues in a “Psychology Today” article that the one simple question to ask the narcissist at interview is, “Are you a narcissist?” To most of us that sounds like a “dumb question”. However, it is asserted that although this does sound counter-intuitive, and normally, it wouldn’t work to ask people directly about their personality traits, the narcissist is different.

True narcissists says van der Linden do not appear to view their narcissism as a bad thing and in fact, are likely to be proud of it. A number of studies have shown that narcissists often admit that they behave in explicitly narcissistic ways and they happily describe themselves as arrogant and even strive to be more narcissistic! Narcissists also appear to be aware that other people view them less positively that they view themselves, yet they simply don’t care.

  1. Do not accept personal favours or special treatment from any employee.

With a narcissist you have been trapped if you do because you will be forced to pay back such favours in manifold ways where it could cost you your professional reputation and your career.

  1. Maintain clear boundaries and separations between your vocational and your personal relationships.
  • As a leader or manager, it is important irrespective of the employee, to ensure that boundaries are clear and that there is no blurring of relationships, where personal relationships with employees can play right into the hands of the narcissist and confuse appropriate lines of responsibility.
  1. Never make a business or personal decision related to any employee that cannot stand the bright light of public scrutiny.

If what you are doing has to remain a secret, this not only compromises you as a person, but plays right into the hands of the narcissist who will endeavour to exploit this for their own ends. Beware!

  1. Restrict access to confidential or commercially sensitive information.

Only those trusted employees who are well known to you and who have built trust over a period of time ought to be privileged to access to such data. In the hands of the narcissist such information like Human Resource files or financial data relating to salaries or company profit for instance, could have devastating consequences for both the individuals concerned and the company itself.

  1. Ensure that you conduct and document regular staff appraisals on all employees.

This is a critical monitoring process. In this regard, it is important to not only provide positive comments to the employee about their performance, but to recognise that everyone has areas on which they need to work and improve. Be aware of any employees who cannot accept any criticism (no matter how slight) and who over-reacts to fair and constructive comments. Not only is this a flag to a possible narcissist, but also highlights the employee who is not prepared to accept feedback and who in turn will not grow and develop. These people tend to become entrenched in their ways and often grow bitter and resentful, become unproductive and certainly impact morale and culture in a negative way.

  1. Be aware of any employees who seem to require inordinate amounts of praise and who demand special entitlements.

This is typically a sign of a narcissist who although may well be contributing to the organisation, are clearly motivated by self-serving ambitions and would certainly not be a team player. Ultimately, they will affect team morale and productivity.

  1. Be aware of any employee who openly competes with their peers as well as devalues others including previous employers.

Real narcissists have great difficulty (if nigh impossible for them) working as a member of a team as well as working towards team goals (instead of their own personal goals and ambitions).

  1. Be aware of employees who overstate or who overvalue their contributions to the organisation.

Not only do these employees call attention to themselves and their efforts, but they typically cut corners to get where they want to go, and make short-term decisions in their own interests rather than longer-term decisions which benefit the company.

  1. Be aware of employees who are not satisfied or appreciative of fair and reasonable and even generous compensation.

Typically, these employees see themselves as above everyone else and have a sense of entitlement that somehow makes them special. Their perceived lack of “adequate” salary or compensation means that these employees become angry and resentful and will probably undermine their manager or leader in sinister and manipulative ways.

There is little doubt that narcissists in the workplace cause a great deal of anguish anxiety as well as depression and have a way of sabotaging individuals self-esteem and confidence. Thankfully, we don’t come across them every day, but we do need to have on our radar alert to pick up such individuals if they come into our space. In short, in my experience, nothing is going to change the narcissist, so your best strategy is to cope in the ways that are listed above and look for a quick exit.



[Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people to find their strengths and reach their goals. He works with businesses to facilitate communication and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and and he can be contacted at [email protected]]


Narcissist. What is it Exactly?


Generally these days, you don’t have to go far to hear people refer to someone as a narcissist. It could be socially at a party or gathering, it could be in the staff room at the workplace or it could be around the family table. The term is now relatively common place in our language. But, what is a narcissist? How did they get that way? How are narcissists as parents?

Although we loosely use the term to describe someone who seems to be ego-centric and the centre of their own world, true pathological narcissism has always been rare and remains so. According to Rebecca Webber in her article in “Psychology Today” (Sept-Oct 2016), it affects around 1% of the population and apparently this figure hasn’t changed since clinicians started to measure it in the late 1970s.

Similarly, Dr Ross Smith in this workshop titled “Views on Narcissism” presented on 25th November 2016 (SA Branch of the APS College of Clinical Psychologists), indicated that the prevalence was between 1-2% in the general population (0.7% for males and 1.2% for females).

So what is it exactly?

Essentially, the real narcissist (ie., the Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is typified by the following seven characteristics:

  1. Grandiose sense of importance (it is all about self-enhancement; over-estimate their abilities and accomplishments, boastful and pretentious; assume others attribute same vale to their accomplishments and are surprised if not praised; underestimate the accomplishments and contributions of others; preoccupied by fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty)
  • “I’m better than others”; “They look up to me”; “They wish they could be me”; “I love myself and I know you do too – in fact, everyone does – I can’t imagine anyone that doesn’t”
  1. Belief in their superiority (believe they are special and unique; believe that they can only be understood by and associate with special or high status people; their needs are special and they warrant the best person (eg., doctor) to attend to them and will then devalue those who disappoint them)
  • “I’m extraordinary, powerful, perfect”; “Most people are insignificant and not worth my time”; “I have no need to apologise. You however, must understand, accept and tolerate me no matter what I do or say”; “I have few equals in this world, and so far, I have yet to meet one. I am the best (manager, business man, student, lover…)”; “I only associate with the best people, and frankly, most of your friends don’t measure up”
  1. Require excessive admiration (need constant attention and admiration of self, possessions etc; preoccupied with how well they are doing and how well they are regarded; expect to be given what they want or need, no matter what it might mean for others; form friendships on the basis of how likely it is to advance their career, desires, self-esteem)
  • “I expect you to be loyal to me at all times, no matter what I do. However, don’t expect me to be loyal to you in any way”; “I expect gratitude at all times, for even the smallest things that I do. As for you, I expect you to do as I demand”
  1. Sense of entitlement (unreasonable expectations to receive special treatment; believe they shouldn’t wait in line, their priorities are more important and they get frustrated when others don’t assist in their “very important work”; may lead to conscious or unwitting exploitation of others)
  • “Since I’m special, I deserve special rules”; “If someone challenges me, I must come out on top”; “Don’t let anyone get ahead of you”; “I realise that there are rules and obligations, but those apply mostly to you because I don’t have the time nor the inclination to abide by them. Besides, rules are for the average person, and I am far above average”
  1. Lack empathy (difficulty recognising the feelings and experiences of others; discuss their feelings at length, but neglect to ask about others; often impatient of others who talk about problems or concerns; can show flashes of compassion, but ultimately their needs come first so the empathy is often shallow and short-lived)
  • “I am not manipulative. I just like to have things done my way, no matter how much it inconveniences others or how it makes them feel. I actually don’t care how others feel – feelings are for the weak.”
  1. Envious of others (begrudge others’ successes and possessions; devalues the contributions of others, particularly those who receive acknowledgment or praise)
  • “I will criticise you and I expect you to accept it, but if you criticise me, especially in public, I will come at you with rage. One more thing, I will never forget or forgive, and I will pay you back one way or another because — I am a ‘wound collector’ “
  1. Arrogant and haughty (snobbish, disdainful, patronising; will complain about others as being “rude” or “stupid”)
  • “I may seem arrogant and haughty, and that’s OK with me – I just don’t want to be seen as being like you”

However, there is also the suggestion that there are two forms of narcissism ie., two sub-types. There is the “grandiose” form as indicated above and there is also the “vulnerable” form. The former is about grandiosity, social charm, failure to respond to the needs of others, invulnerability, entitlement, aggression and dominance. We have covered this above. The later though is still about the grandiosity, but this actually masks a hypersensitivity to criticism, self-doubt, deep feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, inferiority and a sense of worthlessness. With this sub-type, the grandiosity is simply a facade that covers feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.

It is also a truism that almost all of us at some time or another demonstrate some aspects of being narcissistic. For example, there is the person who might indulge in the occasional selfie and talk about their accomplishments. At times, we might be a tad vain. This is normal behaviour. The narcissist however, demonstrates the above characteristics on a continual and permanent basis.

How did the narcissist get that way?

What produces a narcissist? Essentially, it is all about the first 12 months of childhood and perhaps the first few years. As the Jesuits quite rightly say, “Give me a child until they are seven and I’ll show you the person.”

For the grandiose type, typically they were spoilt as a child where they were the centre of the universe. These parents do not set boundaries, they give the child everything they want, give constant praise, do not allow the child to take responsibility for their actions or behaviour and tend to blame others for any deficiencies in the child’s behaviour, talents or abilities; it’s everyone else’s fault. This is the perfect child; he or she can do no wrong.

For the vulnerable type, these parents were generally cold, lacked warmth, and were highly critical and fault-finding. The narcissistic child therefore develops a perfectly lovable “grandiose self” to counteract feelings of inadequacy and embarks on a lifelong search for praise and adulation from which they were initially deprived.

How do narcissists perform as parents themselves?

If their own parenting was so abysmal, how do they manage when they are actually parents? Joanna McClanahan in a recent article titled, “Narcissistic Parents are Literally Incapable of Loving Their Children” argues just that. Because narcissists do not have the ability to emphasise with others, they do not have the capacity to love either and this includes their children. The narcissist parent sees the child simply as a possession who can be used to further their own self-interests.

Since the narcissist views the world as black or white where things are either seen as perfect/special/ideal or instead, seen as worthless/rubbish/harmful, and there is no grey or in-between, then, they treat their children according to these two extremes. This makes the child either the narcissist’s primary source of comfort or their punching bag.

Naturally enough, since every child wants their parent’s love, support and encouragement, they will desperately try to please the parent in order to try to get onto the “love” side of the spectrum rather than the more spiteful, darker side. This means therefore that they will give in to their narcissistic parent and let the parent control their lives to “keep the peace”.

Interestingly though, as the children grow older, and become more independent, the narcissistic parent will try to retain control by deliberately sabotaging their child’s sense of being and sense of self-worth. Not surprisingly, the parent resorts to somewhat malicious games by creating unhealthy competitions, using guilt and blame, giving ultimatums, and putting the child down by calling them names, telling them they are worthless, hopeless, an idiot, stupid and that they’ll never amount to anything.

It comes as no surprise that the children who grow up in this type of destructive environment develop feelings of guilt and low self-esteem which is carried on into adult life. Hence, these children are less likely to develop a realistic self-image as they mature. As children of narcissists become adult, they have to learn that there is a difference between real love and narcissistic “love” and they need to understand that what they have experienced is not “normal”, but is actually intense emotional abuse and constant manipulation.

As McClanahan argues, it’s an uphill battle for children to accept that their narcissistic parents actions and behaviour wasn’t their fault or their responsibility just as it isn’t for any form of child abuse.

She says that if the relationship with the narcissistic parent is to continue, then the adult children of narcissists “need to establish clear, firm boundaries – and stick to them.” However, she comments too that many adult children find that the most healthy option is to sever the relationship altogether because “narcissists can’t turn themselves off.”


[Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach. He is also an author, facilitator, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people to find their strengths and reach their goals. He works with businesses to facilitate communication and create positive cultures. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at and he can be contacted at [email protected]]