Portrait of a Gaslighter


A grape that likely originatedSyrah in Iran, Syrah (or Shiraz in Australia)  ascended to the public consciousness through the Rhone Valley. Fans of Hermitage wines know the region is the epicenter of the Syrah movement. It is among the darkest, most tannic wines you’ll find on the shelves. Personal note: Syrah is the one grape that survived and thrived in my move from Southern California to Northern Nevada. Diverse in its growth, it’s also amenable to a wide variety of food pairings. Hearty stews and cuts of game meat to a spring salad with balsamic and pear, Syrah plays well with others.
On our previous stop on the Wine Walk, I introduced this blog to the concept of “gaslighting.” I included an example of an interaction between the perpetrator and victim and shared signs that one may be a victim. To truly understand the concept, however, we need to explore the perpetrator.

In most psychological studies of gaslighting, the perpetrator is described as a narcissist or a sociopath. While the latter description can be applied with a broad brush as it is not specifically defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the anatomy of a narcissist is much clearer. A narcissist has an inflated sense of his/her own importance, a deep need for admiration, and lack of empathy for others. [1] Behind this elevated self-image is a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

In that, we already understand why such an individual would be inclined to gas light. To him (though gender roles are interchangeable), the distortions are a natural method for deflecting potential injury from him to “a lesser.” He may be amused by the effect it has on the victim, relieved that such an attack isn’t afflicted on him, but beyond “covering his own,” he may not be aware of his contribution to another’s malaise, resolving that “they brought it upon themselves.”

A narcissist shapes his world to fit his narrative. Anything that supports his narrative—that he is above the fray, that his ways are infallible, etc—is readily accepted, but anything that even remotely contradicts this narrative is a threat and needs to be put down by all means necessary. The narcissist may not even be aware that he is gaslighting, simply that the victim is acting in a way incongruent to the narrative and needs to be corrected.

Note that in the workplace, multiple participants may take part in the manipulation. In a case of systemic gaslighting, or mobbing, the group is constrained by the social setting by which it is formed. It is far more difficult to suss out as the mob blends seamlessly into an abstract entity “the company” or “the department.” This can be more frustrating than individual gaslighting as, when directly confronted, members of the mob can conveniently shift blame to that abstract. “We don’t know why funding for your projects is always reallocated. The company must not have faith in your work.”

Again, there may not be an intent to inflict harm on the victim, but the narrative remains sacrosanct. Using the previous wine post’s scenario, Bob may be a “minor bully” in an organization that views Jane as a threat. She may be the most objectively competent candidate for succession, but if her ascendance leads to a cultural shift—“no longer a “boy’s club”—efforts may be implicitly coordinated to undermine her effort and, ultimately, discredit her or force her out.

Consider your interactions with others. Have you ever intentionally distorted your memory of a past event to influence how they remember? Is it really just a matter of different perceptions? Did you, perhaps, misremember? Or are you trying to exert control?



[1] Mayo Clinic. Diseases and Conditions. 2016

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