Unconscious gaslighting is when the perpetrator doesn’t realize they are doing it. Learn how to fight it when your “innocent” gaslighter has a vantage point.
Do you often seek validation from your partner? Does your partner treat you like you’re wrong about everything?
It could be a red flag that your mental health is under attack.
Unconscious gaslighting can victimize you into a confused person just like classic gaslighting, but without you or your gaslighter knowing about it.
So, how can you tell if you’re being subtly gaslighted and protect yourself from its weirdness?
What Is Unconscious Gaslighting
Unconscious gaslighting is subtle emotional abuse without the explicit intention of exploiting others. It’s an unconscious practice fueled by objectives like fact fabrication, deliberate deception, mind games, reflexive denial, or hidden agendas. It creates confusion and cognitive dissonance.
Unconscious gaslighters are innocent in the way that they do not know what they are doing.
Unconscious gaslighting is the involuntary version of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse that can cause the victim to have doubts about their memory, sanity, perception, and judgment.
The abuser conceals, denies, or distorts facts, information, events, and remarks. They make the victim feel uncertain and question their reality, but do not take responsibility.
Unconscious gaslighters often invalidate their victims without trying to distort their perceptions, but the consequences can be severe. They mostly want to be “more right,” so they may gaslight with the good intentions of “correcting the person.”
It is sadly true that a gaslighter can turn someone into a mental illness patient without realizing it.
While classic gaslighters operate with full intent, the unconscious gaslighters are “innocently” unconscious of their abusive behavior. In either case, it takes time to get the victim under the gaslighter’s control.
When someone is manipulating you, you end up second-guessing yourself and turning your attention to yourself as the person to blame. — Robin Stern
Unconscious gaslighting occurs in relationships between family members, partners, and friends, or in any situation where a person is emotionally open and vulnerable.
Unconscious gaslighting is often triggered when the offender is specifically in a more powerful position than the victim. The victim, once they learn to spot it, may avoid these triggering situations by ignoring those persons, situations, or topics.
However, if the offender has a crucial role in the victim’s life that cannot be ignored, then gaslighting can be tackled by setting up boundaries.
After being a subject of the unconscious gaslighter’s sick game for far too long, the victim starts to doubt their own judgment, memory, and sanity.
Sadly, most gaslighters don’t realize how their manipulations hurt others. Looking deep, we may find that they have an evil plan, not because they want to, but because they do not know otherwise.
Signs of Unconscious Gaslighting In Relationships
Most effects or signs of unconscious gaslighting are similar to those of classic gaslighting: questioning the validity and reality of your thoughts, decisions, and memories.
Here are some signs of unconscious gaslighting:
1. Your partner invalidates or belittles your opinions and emotions.
This can lead to you feeling like your thoughts and feelings are not important, which can cause you to withdraw from the relationship. It can also make you more vulnerable to further gaslighting and emotional abuse.
2. You are often in a confused haze, unable to get out of overthinking loops.
This can make you feel like you are losing your mind and can even lead to anxiety or depression. It’s important to seek support from friends, family, or a therapist who can help you regain clarity and perspective.
3. You are constantly questioning yourself and have difficulty making decisions.
This can lead to feeling stuck and unable to move forward in your life. It’s important to remember that you are the expert on your own life and to trust your instincts. Seeking support from a therapist can also help you build confidence in your decision-making abilities.
4. You feel unheard and are stopped from airing your opinions during conflicts.
This can lead to feelings of resentment and frustration, and can also make it difficult to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. It’s important to set boundaries with your partner and communicate your needs assertively.
5. You feel that you can’t do anything right and doubt that you are “good enough.”
This can lead to low self-esteem and a sense of helplessness.
Please remember that you are worthy of love and respect, and it is okay to seek support from friends, family, or a therapist when you feel too overwhelmed to build up your self-worth.
Self-care and hobby activities can make you feel good about yourself and also help boost your confidence.
6. You begin to keep silent or lie to avoid their invalidation, insults, and reality twists.
Keeping silent or lying to avoid your partner’s invalidation, insults, and reality twists can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. It’s important to remember that you deserve to be treated with respect and honesty, and to seek support from a therapist or trusted friend who can help you navigate the situation.
7. You hide facts from friends and family and make excuses for your partner’s behavior toward them.
Hiding facts from friends and family and making excuses for your partner’s behavior can cause you to feel isolated and alone. It’s important to reach out to a support system and seek guidance on how to address the situation.
8. You ask yourself many times a day, “Am I too sensitive?”
Asking yourself many times a day, “Am I too sensitive?” can be a sign that your partner is gaslighting you. It’s important to trust your own feelings and emotions and to seek validation from a therapist or trusted friend.
9. You are constantly apologizing to your partner.
Constantly apologizing to your partner can be a sign that you are being manipulated and controlled. It’s important to set boundaries and communicate your needs assertively.
10. You may feel like going insane.
Feeling like you are going insane can be a sign that you are experiencing unaddressed emotional abuse and gaslighting. Treat this situation as urgent and reach out to a therapist.
The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, later made into a movie. In it, the husband tries to convince his wife that she is becoming insane. He dims the gaslights in the house, and when she complains that it’s dark, he insists that the lights are indeed bright and she is only imagining things. She wonders if she is seeing real or unreal things.
Every act of gaslighting, conscious or unconscious, does the same thing
- Make you utterly confused about what you are seeing.
- You gradually start losing your free will and self-esteem. You start to doubt your mental stability.
- When gaslighting goes on for a while, you typically become over-dependent on your gaslighter.
- Worst of all, you join them in blaming yourself for your pitiful condition.
Further reading: What is Gaslighting (National Domestic Violence Helpline Resource).
Dangerous Effects of Unconscious Gaslighting
Unconscious gaslighting can make the victim confused, indecisive, and question their own mental sanity. Their remarks and inquiries erode their victim’s self-esteem and willpower. When confronted, they dismiss the gaslighting accusations since emotional manipulation occurs without a clear goal to exploit.
The gaslighter often implies that the victim is mentally ill and has false delusions and illusions. They focus on the victim’s non-existent faults, call their actions and emotions inappropriate, or make them feel like they are taking it too personally or are overreacting.
The gaslighted victim loses confidence and becomes dependent on the gaslighter for validation and emotional support.
It is a way of methodically rejecting the victim, eventually creating an unsolvable uncertainty in their mind. It undermines the victim’s agency and freedom, rendering them less able to recognize the abusive relationship.
Gaslighting is manipulative storytelling. Gaslighters imprison you inside a manufactured reality, eventually making you dependent on them to interpret your world.
Gaslighting is mostly done by narcissists and sociopaths. They use it to convince their victims to believe their distorted version of events.
One thing is certain: the lack of malicious intentions in unconscious gaslighters does not guarantee that your suffering is any less intense than in classic gaslighting.
Classic gaslighters convince their victims of having hallucinations and becoming mentally unstable. Classic gaslighters often say things like:
- “How can you be so sure? You have such a bad memory.”
- “No, I didn’t say that. In fact, it was you who said that.”
- “You’re crazy – that never happened.”
In the case of unconscious gaslighting, the gaslighter may be asking the same questions to their victim, without being aware that it is slowly undermining the victim’s mental balance.
Unconscious gaslighters don’t realize or accept that they are manipulating your reality. Hence, they feel no need to change their habits.
Since they do not act maliciously toward their victims, we can mark them as “normal, good” people who gaslight without a motive or reason.
Unconscious gaslighters may have an underlying motive that they are consciously aware of.
Unknown to them, they could be acting out of an unconscious desire to reduce their victim’s independence and free will.
How To Handle Unconscious Gaslighting
If the perpetrator is unconsciously gaslighting, they have to make sure the target stays submissive instead of questioning their accusations.
They know that when they make the victim feel bad about themselves, they will agree to what the perpetrator wants.
You need to challenge that the perpetrator is not in control and that they are not his slave. You can tell them that, for example, getting triggered by something or someone is not unusual. Many people experience it.
You can always view the situation from a third person’s perspective, scrutinize the gaslighter’s actions, and decide your next steps.
Living with people who constantly belittle you can make it hard to take care of your emotional needs.
There are several helpful ways to cope with negative or triggering situations, such as journaling, breathing exercises, or talking to a friend.
If you feel like you cannot handle it all by yourself, reach out to a counselor and learn the techniques suggested by them. They can help you navigate the difficulties you are facing and help you navigate your feelings.
However, remember that healing will take time. You will need a long while to whisk away the negative emotions or triggering situations that affect your moods and thoughts.
How To Stop Any Gaslighting, Deliberate or Unconscious
Identifying and challenging the signs of unconscious gaslighting can be difficult, since it is an intricate form of manipulation that stems from deep within the unconscious mind.— Dr. Sandip Roy
Do not plead with a gaslighter to stop their behavior, since they are unaware that they are doing it and will not accept responsibility for it, no matter how much harm their behavior causes.
Here are a few tips to help you stop unconscious gaslighting:
1. Challenge their behavior.
Unconscious gaslighting is rarely provoked when the issue under denial is trivial and incidental. In such instances, you could avoid it by simply avoiding the contentious issues or temporarily ignoring that individual.
The aim of the perpetrator, however unobvious, is to make sure their target remains in their thrall, rather than brave out to question their behavior.
The gaslighter subliminally forces the victim to either lose or degrade their self-esteem. This leads the victim to become more compliant.
Challenge that. Tell them you are not a slave to be ruled by their falsified beliefs.
Remain defiant and show resilience. Keep trusting your version of the reality, even when they point out your “craziness” in doing so.
Take control of your life by taking responsibility for your choices. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
Of course, if it gets overwhelming, seek help from your social circle, family, or counselors.
2. Change your perspective.
Gaslighters find it hard to admit their guilt when caught.
Then, after they are caught and challenged, they cannot apologize easily.
Their apologies sound like, “OK, I’m sorry if you say so. Are you happy now?”
On the other hand, it’s the victim who keeps frequently apologizing, asking pardon for mistakes they did not make.
They will evade accountability and blame it back on you.
Probably, they will not change their behavior, or if they do, it will be grudgingly until they revert to their old ways.
You might try seeing the situation through your perpetrator’s eyes and diving underneath their actions.
You may discover that their provocation to gaslight you is the result of being gaslighted by someone else in their present or previous life.
Once you find this new perspective, make a firm decision about which way forward is right for you. Remember, any decision you make doesn’t need their endorsement.
Build courage to expose and oppose them. Seek moral support from people who have equal or higher authority than the gaslighter.
If none of these options look possible, flee the scene or install strong barriers between them and you.
Acknowledge and self-assert that you are not “crazy”, which is what the other person would lead you to think. You are innately not a bad person, so don’t accept that.
The right course of action is to leave the scene or to put up strong barriers between them and you if you can’t leave the relationship.
However, when faced with an unconscious gaslighter, who unknowingly seeks control over you, it may be a practical option to talk to them to make them aware of their actions and their effect on you.
Moreover, because unconscious gaslighting is so common, it can be difficult to pinpoint when it occurs. In some cases, even if you notice it at all, it might be so subtle that you prefer to ignore it. That psyches up the gaslighter.
Let go of your wish for things to be different. Think differently.
Your best bet is on you. Assure yourself that you have the power to change the direction of your life.
Let yourself be happy more often. Choose to make yourself happy.
3. Develop An Attitude of Detachment
Living in a gaslighted environment can make you hypervigilant about your judgments and decisions.
You are frequently so confused that you cannot make a final decision on your own.
You try to go over every option multiple times to make sure you fully grasp the situation before approaching your gaslighter for validation.
A practice of Stoic detachment can help you distinguish between actual reality and fake reality.
So, whenever an incident of gaslighting occurs, detach yourself from the situation and write an account of it from a third person’s standpoint.
This detached narrative allows you to rationally reflect on the event and determine when it went off the rails.
4. Seek Professional Help
Living in a world that puts you down almost every day can make it hard to take care of your emotional self.
At any point, if you feel you are unable to handle your hurt, gaslighted self alone, please reach out and get help from a counselor.
Let them assist you in learning the techniques and approaches for avoiding emotional triggers.
Seek people who are trained to help you heal your hurt feelings and cope with the negative fallout of unconscious gaslighting.
They can help you regain your perspective on your situation.
Some people never forget to point out a lesser, weaker, improper version of ourselves. Deny them access to your life, the same way you stop your past from messing with your present.
5. Quick Strategies
• Ask open-ended questions: Be as curious as you would be if the conversation was happening in a normal social setting.
• Expose their manipulative nature: When dealing with an unconscious gaslighter who is attempting to fool you, try to uncover their deception and stop it. If it is not possible, flee or create barriers.
• Avoid triggering gaslighting: Avoid making any type of judgment about the other person.
• Avoid assigning motives: You don’t have to determine whether someone is gaslighting you based on a label or if they are lying. Rather, you can watch their body language for behaviors that would be inconsistent with their assertions.
• Avoid triggering denial: When dealing with an unconscious gaslighter attempting to maintain their denial mode, try to avoid triggering it in the first place. You could also assist them in confronting their denial and overcoming it. If none of them are possible, flee or create barriers.
• Avoid revealing your true self: When dealing with an unconscious gaslighter who is prejudiced against your personality, try to mask your true self so that it does not trigger their prejudice. Try seeking support from people who make you feel safe and protected, or fight the prejudice itself.
• Avoid making presumptions: Be careful not to assume others are not wrong because you don’t think so. Ask questions until you find the truth. And remember, in any case, you deserve to be treated with respect.
Who Are Unconscious Gaslighters
The following people frequently play the role of unconscious gaslighters:
- Unconscious gaslighters are frequently a partner in ‘normal’ marriages and partnerships.
- Unconscious gaslighters at work are also common, especially among colleague-friends.
- Close friends, non-romantic partners, and family members, especially when the victim is emotionally vulnerable.
- It is common in toxic relationships, both personal and professional.
- Several business and political leaders also do it.
There is a high likelihood of gaslighting occurring if,
- the conversation has many controversial topics,
- the issues discussed are broadly negative, and
- the gaslighter plays a vital role in our life.
Why Do People Become Victims of Unconscious Gaslighting
Why do we accept unconscious gaslighting?
We often let our close ones abuse us, letting go of their many “little” mistakes, because we love them and don’t want to lose them. Often we are co-dependent on the abusive gaslighter, identifying more with them than with ourselves. Sometimes, we accept it because we may have been raised in a similar toxic environment.
Unconscious gaslighting negatively affects building a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship.
You become a victim of it because of several factors already playing in your background, including:
A relatable reason for a person’s continued acceptance of unconscious gaslighting is that they were previously co-dependent on their partner.
As a result, they may have identified with the abusive partner rather than with themselves. Over time, the victim becomes excessively dependent on their partner, and the partner enjoys this dominance.
Codependency is a relationship issue in which two people get emotionally and behaviorally invested in each other to the point that they cannot act on their own. Almost all the ideas and actions of a co-dependent revolve around their partner.
2. Shame or Guilt
Another reason the victim accepts unconscious gaslighting is that they are often overwhelmed by shame and guilt, so they cannot question the gaslighting person or know how to deal with it.
Gaslighters strategically distract their victim from abusive behavior by drawing their attention away from it, typically providing an alternative target to cope with.
3. Past Trauma
Unconscious gaslighting may occur after a traumatic event, such as sexual, physical, or verbal abuse. A common tactic in such instances is pointing toward victim-shaming social media posts that ask them to blame themselves.
4. Need For Approval
The victim of unconscious gaslighting may also have a high need for approval and validation.
They may feel rejected, unworthy, and guilty when the gaslighting person does not approve of their behavior, even subtly.
Unconscious gaslighting may also be caused by a person’s unconscious self-talk and values.
Gaslighting strategies: withholding, countering, blocking, diverting, trivializing, forgetting, and denial.
Gaslighting is a deliberate strategy of impairing the reality test of another person and rendering them dependent on the gaslighter for critical cognitive functions, usually to assert control for personal gain. — Prof. Sam Vaknin
Are emotionally vulnerable people more prone to gaslighting?
Emotionally vulnerable people are more likely to be gaslighted since they find it hard to detect subtle manipulation and, even when they do, cannot easily challenge the perpetrator.
Emotional vulnerability is one’s ability or willingness to identify, accept, and express difficult or painful emotions, such as shame, dejection, sadness, jealousy, anxiety, and insecurity.
What is shadow gaslighting?
Shadow gaslighting is a term used to describe the act of using “indirect” tactics to manipulate and discredit a target. It typically involves the gaslighter trying to sow doubts about what’s going on in someone else’s life, by convincing them that their own perception of reality is warped.
It is a more subtle form of manipulation, but no less harmful. Shadow gaslighting often occurs in a relationship in which one party is in a position of power over the other. The person in power may begin to sow seeds of doubt in the person’s psyche using indirect and manipulative tactics, making them question their own sense of reality and sanity.
Can gaslighting be done unconsciously?
Yes, gaslighting can be unconscious, which occurs when the person gaslighting is unaware that they are doing it. It happens when the gaslighter does not intend to manipulate the other person into believing that they are going insane. It is common in close relationships such as parents, children, partners, and spouses.
Do gaslighters know they are gaslighting?
It depends on the gaslighter. Some gaslighters who use the tactic as a manipulation tool are often aware of their behavior and use it intentionally to control and manipulate their victims. However, some others may not be aware of their behavior and may genuinely believe their distorted version of reality. In either case, recognizing the signs of gaslighting and seek support from a therapist or trusted friend can be a life-saver.
A gaslighter serves you false information, which you accept as true, muddling up your reality. That is the defining characteristic of gaslighting, whether of intentional or unconscious type.
Unconscious gaslighters are not aware of their acts. Therefore, they refuse that they have made any attempts at gaslighting.
Victims caught in their trap often can’t find a way or a reason to break away. The obscure allegations in their confused minds do not make sense.
Thus, it creates a vicious cycle of gaslighting—accusation—denial—hesitation (to break up)—more gaslighting.
There is a related concept called unintentional gaslighting. Find out how it differs and how to stop Unintentional Gaslighting.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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