Adult Children of Gaslighters

Adult Children of Gaslighters

Adult children of gaslighters can have some pretty unique problems. For various reasons, and in so many ways, they just don’t trust themselves. And sadly, in their self-doubt, they too often look for reassurance in the wrong ways and places.

Children need to be able to trust. They’re inherently dependent, and in many ways. So, they necessarily need to rely on their caretakers. And they especially need to believe those caring for them have their best interest at heart. Last week, I wrote about what can happen when that turns out not to be true. And this week, I want to explore how adult children of gaslighters sometimes inadvertently repeat unhealthy patterns they experienced growing up.

The Torture of Doubt

It’s a particular kind of torture for a child to harbor doubts about a parent’s regard for them. A child naturally wants to trust. But when their gut tells them it isn’t safe it sets up a real dilemma. A child who wants to believe in a parent’s motives but simply cannot do so safely is in a real bind. Moreover, the inner emotional conflict that rages about that can be pure torture.

The problem becomes even worse when a narcissistic parent has good manipulative skill.  Such a parent can make a child hesitate to ever trust their own instincts and judgment. Narcissistic parents use a child’s conscientiousness against them. A child naturally wants to do right and be right. But a skilled narcissistic manipulator will have them convinced they always have it wrong. This can set up the unhealthy pattern of deference. That’s the pattern of deferring too often to those who’ve convinced you they know better.

Children of a narcissistic parent also learn to accommodate. They figure out quickly that the road to peace is paved with placating and deference. Make mom or dad look good. Make them feel good. Be a positive reflection on them. Be anything, except yourself, and all is well.

How Patterns Sometimes Repeat

Several studies have confirmed what I suspected in the early research leading to In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance. Adult children of gaslighters often have an impaired sense of self. Accordingly, such folks tend to be the covert narcissist’s favorite prey. The typical scenario goes like this: You meet someone who seems to have it all together. And they have all the confidence you wish you had. That’s attractive in itself. But what’s really appealing is the interest they show in you. Somehow, they make you feel special. And the more interest they show the more it boosts your sagging ego. The hook is definitely in at that point. And it will likely be years before you realize that mere interest is not the same as genuine regard. (For more on this see: Abuse Victims Mistake Interest for Regard.)

As mentioned earlier, narcissists who abuse look for two traits in those they target. And sadly, adult children of gaslighters often fit the bill well. Narcissistic abusers want partners who tend to be accommodating and willing to defer. That keeps them in the position they crave in relationships – a position of dominance. But it won’t be long until they start abusing that position. Unfortunately, most of the time this is a slow, incremental process. So, the victim only realizes things after it’s too late and a lot of damage has been done. We’ll explore this dynamic in more depth next week.


9 thoughts on “Adult Children of Gaslighters

  1. Thank you for this. It’s been a long time coming, and I’ve needed to read it. I’ve read plenty of your stuff, trying to adapt it to my story, both my past and my present. I still need some convincing about my situation, but this helps a lot. Thanks!

      1. I’m only now just realizing I’m an adult child of a gaslighter. Parents usually give lots of warning signals which I was unaware of until now and maybe because it is due to neuroticism but parents will almost always avoid fault and make it about them 100% of the time. If they aren’t the direct beneficiaries of your actions- they either don’t care, or will try to direct you towards it being beneficial to them (“Yeah be successful so I can come and live with you”). When you take longer to accomplish things they will say it’s your fault for not getting it done even though they played a significant role in your not getting goals done. Like, they will forget you had to work full time to support their household they were unemployed, injured, etc.
        They’ll mention it now casually like, “Well if you’d just have got it done 20 years ago….” When 20 years ago they were subjecting you to help support the household, they’ll respond, “oh and why are you reacting so much?”
        It really does damage over the years when you look at it cumulatively. Finally now, I’m learning to separate myself and my household (as I’m married) from giving details that will later be used against me because in an outrage she’ll pull any card she can. It’s so sad and so unnecessary.

  2. Wow. I’ve read a LOT on narcissistic family systems and I’ve never read anything that articulates the “bind” and “deference” so completely & accurately. Without the language, it has been almost impossible to frame the situation for what it is and move on with life. Thank you.

  3. What I find remarkable is that according to the experts, gaslighters do not even know that they are gaslighting. I always thought it was a deliberately manipulative behaviour.

    1. You are right to trust your gut over the so-called experts. All the tactics are deliberate, and they almost always produce a gaslighting effect even if there’s no deliberate intent to also make you feel crazy, which there usually is.

    2. Yes indeed. I don’t think the majority knows entirely what they are doing when they are gaslighting – unless they are really super- manipulative and have a background into the inner-workings of their own behavior patterns. It’s really sad but I almost think now that it is a part of a personality pattern that may (on a continuum) have existed since birth or late childhood/early adulthood. I believe gaslighting is a part adaptive behaviors according to circumstance but then gets incorporated into everyday, manipulative behaviors. They get what they believe is a positive response and they keep rolling with it. Psychologists would probably call it conditioning.

  4. Need to read this daily. It’s a constant battle to stay on guard for this. This is me in a nut shell. It’s only around narcs & other manipulators. Normalish people don’t have that affect.

  5. I don’t know how I missed this post.

    Like Healing, this is me in a nutshell. Funny thing is, I never considered that I have a poor ego, I know I don’t have much of an ego, I just generally considered that a good thing. I’m probably overcompensating for the hellacious egos I’ve been contending with for so long.

    I generally don’t feel like I regularly defer, although I will to avoid an attack and will then usually withdrawal.

    My biggest ‘issue’ seems to be about being accommodating which I actually consider a positive character trait. Accommodating other people’s needs as well as my own seems to me to be positive but I can certainly see where in the past I’ve accommodated while sublimating my needs while I ‘wait my turn’ which of course never comes.

    My parents, my ex husband and now my brother has and continues to drum into my head ‘how difficult I am’ and how I ‘don’t go with the flow.’ Those two phrases have been hot buttons to manipulate me. I don’t want to be seen as or be a difficult person. I absolutely don’t want to be the difficult person in someone’s life like the difficult people in my life have been with me.

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