N.B. This article is a follow up from our initial article on psychopaths, narcissists and gaslighting.
Another form of gas-lighting which is not so often discussed, though can be equally damaging and invalidating for victims of psychopaths and narcissists – is secondary and tertiary gas-lighting.
Primary gas-lighting is pretty obvious – the abuser themself is chipping away at your perception of reality to make you think your feelings and perception that something is seriously wrong with this person and relationship.
They do this in full conscious, intentional awareness. It is a deliberate tactic to chip away at your confidence and perception of reality and make you think you are “losing it”. It is part of the more general abusive tactic of identity erosion.
Secondary and tertiary gas-lighting are more subtle and insidious, and not always deliberate. This is when people close to you or your situation other than the abuser themselves knowingly or unwittingly further invalidate your perception of reality and try to convince you that the abuse is not really happening to you.
See the fantastic video below by life coach Richard Grannon for an explanation of this. We will cover the main points below.
Secondary Gaslighting Explained – Friends, Family, Colleagues, Onlookers
Secondary gas-lighting is defined as when close by onlookers to an abusive relationship knowingly or unknowingly continue to back up the abuser and not support the victim in their perception that abuse is happening.
This could happen in a number of contexts; here are just some examples:
- In family abuse, other family member don’t back up a victim that emotional or physical abuse is taking place. They deny it is happening.
- Close by friends don’t back up a victim in a toxic relationship. “He/she would never do that/is not like that”.
- In more severe cases, they may accuse the person of making false accusations regarding abuse.
- Work colleagues don’t see or invalidate a victim who is being bullied by a psychopathic manager. They say it isn’t happening or accuse the person of over-reacting.
- Sometimes people may actively side with the psychopath or narcissist, further traumatizing the victim.
- See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for a good framework to explain how this takes place.
In most cases (perhaps not all), secondary gas-lighting is damaging but not intentional; it simply arises because onlookers do not themselves understand toxic personalities like psychopaths and narcissists and are blind to the patterns of emotional abuse that take place.
Often times they are also well taken in by the psychopath or narcissist’s glib charm and charisma and are still holding onto the belief that all people are basically good and that malevolent personality types who are actively looking to cause harm to others don’t exist.
Another factor which can exacerbate the effects of secondary gas-lighting is that psychopaths and narcissists don’t go after normal people with strong, healthy boundaries, and so these people don’t see the more toxic side to them.
Toxic personality disordered people only go after those targets with weak or porous ego boundaries – often labelled as co-dependents/people pleasers/empaths.
The psychopaths/narcissists and the co-dependents mesh together in a kind of toxic “dance”, where the toxic person chips away at the weak boundaried person, and this person continues to allow the abuse to happen, because they cannot healthily say no or set boundaries.
“(Toxic people) can’t force you to feel (dependent on them for love or approval)…..It’s a false narrative, it comes from our co-dependency…If they were trying to do that to a neuro-typical person who didn’t carry the issues that we carry, these invisible wounds from childhood, the normal person would tell them to f**k off, and rightly so, because they have the ability to say no, and we don’t, and we have to learn it”
Richard Grannon – Spartan Life Coach
The victim can start to feel they are going insane, for they don’t see the narcissist or psychopath acting this way with with others. They think “why is this person targeting me, and not others?”.
The answer lies in their own weak ego boundaries, but in the moment this sense of being systematically picked on by the toxic person, while the abuser is seemingly fine and charming with others (who they know they wouldn’t get away with bullying), serves to further isolate them and chip away at their perception of reality.
There is such a gap or chasm between how they are experiencing the abusive person, and how other neuro-typicals are experiencing this person, that it adds to the gas-lighting and invalidating effect.
They feel there is no one they can talk to about this, that no one really understands what they are going through with this person, since if they did, they would get a reaction like “What do you mean? He’s not like that. He’s fine with me”.
This is how secondary gas-lighting, while in many cases not intentional, can still be so damaging to victims of psychopathic or narcissistic abuse.
It acts as a kind of compounded gas-lighting on top of the direct and more obvious gas-lighting the psychopath/narcissist already subjects them to. It could also be called “environmental gas-lighting”, since it is a by-product of the strange dance that co-dependents and abusive personalities get caught up in, and how normal boundaried individuals by their nature don’t get caught up in this dynamic, and so can’t always fully understand it.
Tertiary Gas-Lighting Explained – Therapist & Counselors
Tertiary gas-lighting can in some ways be more damaging, since it involves the very people who should be helping victims of toxic relationships work their way through the damage caused – professional therapists.
This is when the therapist a victim of a toxic relationship turns to to try and recover does not validate their perception that something was seriously wrong with the person they just got tangled up with.
This can happen in a number of different ways and for a number of different reasons. Here are some of them:
- The therapist not diagnose the presence of personality disorders (Cluster B – psychopath/sociopath, narcissist, borderline) and toxic abuse patterns (gas-lighting, identity erosion, smearing etc) in the relationship.
- As a result, the victim does not have those crucial initial cathartic insights about what they were dealing with and what happened to them which can move the process of recovery along so much quicker.
- They also sometimes lack the terms and labels to describe what they were dealing with that can so often help with understanding their experiences better. Again the recovery process is slowed down and hampered.
- This can happen because the therapist is either unaware of or does not believe in the existence of these severe personality disorders.
- The therapist may re-frame all the traumatic experiences as merely the person’s “perception” or “interpretation” rather than what actually objectively happened.
- Eg. Therapist may say the person “felt bullied” during a toxic relationship, instead of the objective fact they were bullied (with deliberate, conscious intent) and this bullying caused significant damage to the person.
- Less forgivable than secondary gas-lighting, since therapists are trained professionals and should know about personality disorders by now with all the information and training that is readily available on them.
- Put differently, the therapist has an insufficient knowledge base and skills set to truly help the victim, but this inadequacy in them is sometimes (subtly) projected onto the client instead, whose correct perception of abuse is re-labelled as “external focus”, “interpretation”, “perception” or something else.
“Mainstream psychology is not prepared for (personality disorders and toxic abuse), it’s not. The number of times I’ve spoken to people (about this), and I had the same experience myself. Personality disorders are a sub-topic of abnormal psychology, (which) was an option for me for 10 weeks out of a 3 year degree. It’s not trained, because it is ‘not important’. But knowing what Freud had for breakfast is.
..Nobody really knows about this stuff, and those that do, don’t know how to deal with it. Because if you have someone who is technically brilliant, with the best will in the world, and they take all that information about the Cluster B personality, how are they going to train anyone to deal with that? It’s very very difficult.”
Resources to Help With Secondary & Tertiary Gas-lighting
Both of these types of gas-lighting need to be emphasized in addition to the more obvious gas-lighting engaged in by toxic abusers themselves, since they can be just as damaging and leave a person to feel just as isolated and invalidated, even when they are supposedly doing the “right thing” and reaching out to others for help and support.
The help and support needs to be the right kind of help and support, particularly in the case of psychotherapists. Here are some resources and tips to help people recovering from gas-lighting in toxic relationships
- See this other video from Richard Grannon for some good tips on picking a good therapist when recovering from deeply traumatizing toxic relationships.
- See also our recovery from toxic relationships definitive resource guide for links to excellent, validating resources on recovery from toxic relationships.
- See also our article on invalidation and recovery from toxic relationships for more on this dynamic.
- For a similar resource which agrees with our perspective, see here.
- Sam Vaknin’s Youtube channel is also another excellent resource on personality disordered people.
- Dr Ramani Durvasula is also another superbly skilled and validating therapist on toxic relationships. Check out her Youtube channel and her Medcircle Podcast Series on Antisocial Personality Disorder.
- See also our Resources Page for links to validating books on toxic personalities and relationships, which will give a comprehensive grounding in labeling and understanding what happened to you.
- In general, try to surround yourself with empathic and supportive people who validate and understand what you have been through and don’t try to shift the blame back onto you, when you already know the subjective and internal distress the toxic person put you through.
- Be extremely picky with any therapists you work with. Make sure they have full knowledge of Cluster B disorders and common abusive dynamics like gas-lighting, as well as good knowledge of co-dependence (what it is, where it comes from and how to heal it). See our page on finding a suitable therapist.