Lola Pickett, Mentor to Empaths
Why Are Empaths So Easy To Gaslight?
Empaths are notoriously drawn to unhealthy narcissists (in friendships, partnerships, and in family dynamics). But, what makes empaths so vulnerable to narcissistic techniques like gaslighting and derailment? Is there more to this toxic entanglement than meets the eye?
In simplified terms, “gaslighting” means to make someone doubt themselves.
Malignant narcissists use gaslighting (sometimes intentionally, sometimes unconsciously) to manipulate others, particularly empaths. By planting seeds of doubt about what’s been said or what’s happened, the empath’s self-trust and self-esteem erode over time; making them more easily controlled and manipulated.
Gaslighting often begins with statements from the narcissist such as:
There is often just enough truth to the narcissist’s perspective to thoroughly confuse the empath.
Next, the narcissist will start to derail conversations.
Derailment is a distraction tactic to prevent the narcissist from owning up to their problematic behaviors. For example – when an empath asks for their needs to be met, they are often hit with a pity party about the narcisisst’s inherent flaws and unworthiness.
Instead of listening to the empath’s requests, the narcissist will respond with statements such as, “I’m such a terrible partner. I never get this right. You deserve someone better than me.”
This brings the focus back on the narcissist and prevents the empath from being heard and honored.
Likewise, minor offenses—such as leaving dirty dishes in the sink—become major blow-outs: “If I’m so awful, why are you even with me?”
Meanwhile the dishes are still in the sink, and the empath will likely resort to doing them (with resentment) while the narcissist disappears to sulk.
In every scenario, the narcissist’s needs dominate and the empath’s needs disappear.
But, why are empaths so susceptible to gaslighting and derailment?
- Empaths are extremely perceptive. An empath can genuinely see and feel the alternative reality that a narcissist creates. This creates cognitive dissonance between the empath’s actual experience and the narcissist’s version of events.
- Empaths can also see beyond the surface. Underneath the narcissist’s harmful words and actions, the empath sees the “true” higher self of that person. It can be tempting for an empath to hold out hope that someday (maybe even with the empaths “help”), this higher self will be revealed and take over. Potential is a dangerously addicting drug.
- They also tend to be self-sacrificing; preferring to focus on the needs, emotions, and experiences of others rather than their own. They are often chronic people-pleasers. Because they would rather “walk in someone else’s shoes” than their own, this makes them easily manipulated.
- Empaths despise conflict and disharmony. By abandoning their own needs, empaths prevent conflict (and allow the narcissist to avoid admitting fault or failure).
It’s a match made in hell.
And it happens over and over again for many empaths: in friendships, intimate relationships, and even at work.
To shift these dynamics, someone’s got to own up to the drama and get intimate with their trauma.
Spoiler alert: It’s not likely to be the narcissist, even though unhealthy empaths and narcissists tend to come from the same place: childhood, ancestral, and cultural trauma.
Empath… it’s up to you to see gaslighting and derailment for what they are.
It’s up to you to disentangle yourself from parasitic relationships (and take responsibility for your role in co-creating them).
But, before I continue, it’s important to acknowledge that any relationship with a malignant narcissist IS an abusive relationship, period. Abuse is traumatic, and trauma’s effects on the nervous system make it genuinely difficult to:
So, trauma healing is where this work starts.
This is not an easy—or simple—process.
But it IS completely possible to stop being victimized by these patterns (for good). As an empath, a great starting point is to deeply understand your “4F” responses to stress, uncertainty, and threat (in other words, the ways you instinctively respond to gaslighting, derailment, and other unhealthy narcissistic techniques).
According to Pete Walker—author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving—the Four F’s are an expansion on our ancient brain’s fight-flight-freeze instincts and now include “fawn” – a co-dependent/people-pleasing/“good girl“ pattern of creating safety.
Many empaths lean toward a “fawn” response when distressed.
Instead of standing up for themselves and/or leaving an unhealthy situation, an empath (for the reasons listed above) will try to fix the situation by being perfect, diminishing themselves, focusing on the “bigger picture”, doing ALL the personal work for the partnership, or other means of self-abandonment.
This explains why narcissistic gaslighting and derailment only serve to push empaths even further into co-dependency.
And… It’s not your job to make a narcissist happy, take responsibility for themselves, take care of themselves, or otherwise show up.
No matter how good, kind, patient, or helpful you are, nothing will make them heal or change (unless they want to).
Sometimes, to honor yourself, you have to abandon an unhealthy relationship—even if that person weaponizes their failure to try and shame you into staying.
Or promises to change (again).
Or threatens to harm themselves (again).
Or gives you the silent treatment (again).
As empaths, one of our hardest realizations is to acknowledge that other people’s choices (and healing) are NOT our responsibility.
But our choices (and our healing) are in our power.
And it’s time to make healthier ones; for the sake of our hearts, our bodies, and our future.
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I look forward to getting to know you.