It is important to realize that the gaslighting does not need to be severe in order to have severe consequences on the victim; it can be as subtle as being told that “you are so sensitive”, or that they should not do something because “you are not able to do it, leave it to me”. Even though the victim can rationalize that these statements are untrue, gradually their confidence is being eroded away to such an extent that they cannot trust themselves. Gaslighting strokes, such as moving items from place to place, and then the abuser denying that they had moved the item really creates huge confussion to the victim. Or saying something, then later denying that they had said such a thing. All of this psychological warfare has the effect of making the victim doubt their own memory or perception of events. Desperate for the gaslighter’s approval and reassurance that they are not going mad, the victim becomes very dependent on their narcissistic abuser for a sense of reality.
At this stage the victim still has enough of their self to fight and defend themselves against the gaslighting manipulation. However, the narcissist’s “gaslighting” is beginning to do what it is intended to do, that is, to throw the victim off balance by creating self-doubt, angst, turmoil, and guilt. This emotional damage causes the victim, over time, to lose their sense of reality, and sense of self. Becoming lost, confused, and unable to trust their own instincts and memory, they tend to isolate themselves somewhat because of the shame they feel. Before long their psychic energy becomes depleted, and they are left unable to defend themselves from the horrendous gaslighting effect. At this stage the person’s whole system may feel that it is in danger of annihilation.
From birth, nature builds in unconscious defense mechanisms and adaptive behaviours in order to protect the child from annihilation from early trauma, and these same defenses remain throughout life when ever we are vulnerable to highly stressful experiences that threaten us with annihilation. When the child starts life, they experience the world as a frightening place, so in order to reduce their fear they need to form an emotional bond with somebody in order to reduce their stress and anxiety. They identify and bond with their main caregiver (usually the Mother), and of course, they are very likely, at some time in the future, to experience her as their first aggressor. Mother can be experienced by the child as being both “threatening and kind”, and this seems to lead to the child turning to emotional bonding for survival. This psychological condition is known to-day as “Stockholm Syndrome”. It is found to happen universally in situations where people find themselves to be held captive and in fear of their lives; as in kidnapping, hostage situations, and narcissistic abuse. This phenomenon of trauma bonding with the narcissist aggressor can be found in Narcissistic Victim Syndrome. In Stockholm Syndrome, the victim adapts to the traumatic situation by unconsciously going into an regressive mode, where they return to childish infantile patterns of behaviour (Regressed Infantilism), and bond with their captor as they did with their mother earlier in life as a defense against annihilation. In order to cope with the discomfort of living within such madness, the victims motivational drive provides a way that they can rationalize to reduce the dissonance they are experiencing (Cognitive Dissonance). For the therapist to understand the dynamics of all these defense mechanisms, they will then be able to appreciate why victims stay in these narcissistic abusive relationships, as it is a clever, but complicated unconscious self survival strategy.
By this stage the victim can hardly recognize themselves, they are quickly becoming a shadow of their former self. Living under tyranny within a war zone where they are controlled, physically and emotionally battered, unable to make decisions, subjected to constant rages, sucked dry, stripped of dignity and safety, they exist in a joyless life. They begin to feel that they can’t do anything right any more, they don’t feel that they can trust their own mind, and they withdraw with a skewed reality of what is really taking place. They escape into depression. Many victims will also go on to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis of PDSD can be made based on certain symptoms being present, and these symptoms fall into three categories: