Gaslighting is manipulative storytelling. Gaslighters imprison you inside a manufactured reality, eventually making you dependent on them to interpret your world.
Most gaslighters operate with full intent. Unconscious gaslighters, on the other hand, are unaware that they are gaslighting.
When someone is manipulating you, you end up second-guessing yourself and turning your attention to yourself as the person to blame. — Robin Stern
How could you recognize and protect yourself against unconscious gaslighting?
What Is Unconscious Gaslighting
Unconscious gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that happens without the explicit intention of exploiting others. It is an unconscious habit driven by specific strategies such as subtle deception, fact-fabrication, mind games, reflexive denial, or hidden agendas. It creates cognitive dissonance in the victim.
Unconscious gaslighters are innocent in the way that they do not know what they are doing.
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 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 unaware of. Unknown to them, for example, they may harbor a desire to reduce their partner’s overpowering independence and free will.
How To Recognize Unconscious Gaslighting Signs
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 the signs of unconscious gaslighting:
- You constantly question yourself.
- You frequently feel confused, if not insane.
- You have difficulty making simple decisions.
- You are constantly apologizing to your lover.
- You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
- You question if you are a “good enough” companion.
- You begin to lie to avoid the insults and reality twists.
- You ask yourself many times a day, “Am I too sensitive?”
- You make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
- You begin hiding facts from friends and family to avoid explaining things.
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).
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
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.
How To Stop Unconscious Gaslighting
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.
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.
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.
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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