When regular people with no hidden agenda try to prove you wrong, it could be unintentional gaslighting. Learn how to spot and stop this subtle emotional abuse.
Suppose you and your friend are talking about sharks, and you say:
“Sharks don’t have a single bone in their body.”
And they respond,
“You’re just guessing – you’ve never seen a live shark in your life. I’ve seen two with my own eyes.”
Now, the truth is, while they have had two encounters with live sharks, their knowledge of shark bones is no more extensive than that of an average person.
Their intent was not to gaslight you for personal gain, but merely to get an upper hand in a friendly conversation. This was unintentional gaslighting.
What Is Unintentional Gaslighting?
Unintentional gaslighting is subtle manipulation where the gaslighter is unaware of their actions. Their words or phrases instill doubt and confusion in the victim, but when confronted, they genuinely deny any wrongdoing. Despite no harmful intent, their actions can still cause emotional distress.
Often described as mild gaslighting, unintentional gaslighting differs from its malicious counterpart classic gaslighting due to a lack of a malevolent intent to unsettle the other person’s mind.
Unintentional gaslighters are often ordinary individuals who are unaware that they have just gaslighted someone.
In plain words, an unintentional gaslighter presents false information with the mild goal of convincing you to embrace their viewpoint, without trying to undermine your ability to think independently.
Unintentional gaslighting can be hard to identify.
It may not be obvious right away if they are simply trying to win the argument, being insensitive, or unintentionally manipulating you.
5 Unintentional Gaslighting Examples
We should recognize how can gaslighting be unintentional, although unmalicious, can still damage a victim’s mental and emotional well-being.
Here are some examples of unintentional gaslighting to understand it better:
- Unintentional gaslighting due to lack of communication: If your friend was going through a tough time recently and you didn’t text them back for days, you might be unintentionally gaslighting them without realizing it. You may have been busy, overwhelmed, or avoiding the subject they want to discuss. But when they ask why you didn’t contact them, you might make up a story about having a severe backache that left you too mentally disturbed to reach out.
- Unintentional gaslighting when trying to help: Gaslighting can also occur unintentionally when you’re attempting to assist someone. For example, if you’re helping your friend and they become upset with you for not doing it the way they wanted or expected, you might have been unintentionally gaslighted by them.
- Unintentional gaslighting in romantic relationships: In a romantic relationship, one partner might unintentionally gaslight the other by dismissing their feelings or concerns. For instance, if one partner shares their feelings about an issue and the other responds with, “You’re just being too sensitive,” this can make the first partner doubt their own emotions and experiences.
- Unintentional gaslighting at the workplace: A coworker or supervisor might unintentionally gaslight an employee by downplaying their accomplishments or attributing their success to external factors. For example, saying something like, “You only got that promotion because the boss likes you,” can make the employee doubt their own abilities and achievements.
- Unintentional gaslighting in parenting: Parents might unintentionally gaslight their children by dismissing their emotions or experiences. For example, if a child is upset about being teased at school and the parent responds with, “It’s just kids being kids,” the child may begin to question the validity of their own feelings.
One of the mild gaslighting examples is your boss or your partner suggesting that you are exaggerating a personal experience or misremembering a fact, casting doubt on your own perceptions.
Causes of Unintentional Gaslighting
Unintentional gaslighting may occur due to various reasons, such as unconscious parental influence (from a habitual gaslighter parent), a hidden narcissistic desire to assert oneself as more knowledgeable, or a harmful tendency to undermine the other person by proving them incorrect.
Moreover, unintentional gaslighting can also come from cultural or societal conditioning.
People may have been taught to downplay or dismiss certain emotions, experiences, or concerns, like these below:
- “Boys don’t cry”: This common phrase reinforces the stereotype that men should not show vulnerability or express sadness, leading them to suppress their emotions.
- “Man up”: This expression suggests that men should display toughness and resilience in the face of adversity, often dismissing the need for emotional support or understanding.
- “You’re overreacting”: Telling someone they are overreacting can be a way to dismiss their feelings, making it difficult for them to openly express their emotions or concerns.
- “Don’t be so sensitive”: This statement implies that an individual’s emotional reactions are unwarranted, leading them to downplay or suppress their feelings.
- “It’s not a big deal”: By minimizing the importance of a personal experience or emotion, people might unintentionally dismiss the impact it has on the person having it, making it difficult for them to seek support or validation.
The society-given behavior gets internalized, leading them to gaslight others, without intending to harm them.
Nevertheless, it harms.
Unintentional Gaslighting Signs
There are a few telltale signs that one is being victimized by unintentional gaslighting:
- Self-doubt: One may feel like they cannot trust their own judgment or perceptions anymore, constantly second-guessing themselves.
- Unexplained emotional distress: They have trouble understanding why they feel so upset when they believe they shouldn’t be.
- Dismissed emotions: They feel like no one cares about their feelings or that their emotions don’t matter, leading to a sense of isolation.
- Lack of credibility: They feel like no one believes them, even when there is proof to support their claims or experiences.
- Confusion and anxiety: A pervasive sense of confusion and anxiety can develop as they struggle to reconcile their experiences with the contradictory messages they receive from the unintentional gaslighter.
Are You Unintentionally Gaslighting Someone?
To find out if you are unintentionally gaslighting someone, check out these signs:
- The other person frequently questions your version of reality, and you’re unsure why you felt compelled to persuade them with a fabricated story.
- You experience a strong desire to prove the other person wrong, even when you’re fully aware that they are right.
- Driven by envy of the other person’s popularity or perceived superiority, you aim to discredit them by proving them wrong.
- To cope with feelings of inferiority or low self-esteem, you attempt to put the other person down, knowing they won’t resist too much. (Research confirms that low self-esteem and depression are strongly related.)
- You unknowingly mirror the behavior of a parent who often lovingly corrected your other parent, by frequently pointing out their mistakes.
- You emotionally manipulate them by suggesting that you may harm yourself if they don’t comply with your wishes.
- You notice the other person in your relationship begins to lose confidence, acts confused or paranoid, doubts their own sanity, and increasingly relies on you for even minor decisions.
Remember, you could be the gaslighter you’re looking for in others.
How To Stop Unintentional Gaslighting?
Here is how to respond to gaslighting when it is unintentional:
- Identify and document their behaviors: Keep a record of incidents to help you recognize patterns and better understand the situation.
- Address the gaslighter directly with proof: Present evidence of their gaslighting behavior and calmly discuss the impact it has on you.
- Ask questions for clarity: Seek to understand their intentions and record their replies to hold them accountable and facilitate constructive conversation.
- Offer support and reassurance: Encourage them to seek help from a mental health counselor and assure them that you’re willing to work together on the issue.
- Offer an alternative perspective: Gently suggest they become more aware of their behavior and its consequences, promoting self-reflection and growth.
- Maintain your self-esteem: Stand firm in your beliefs and values, and don’t allow yourself to be belittled, insulted, or attacked by the gaslighter.
- Set boundaries and protect yourself: Minimize exposure to gaslighters when possible, and consider leaving the relationship if they show no signs of changing their behavior, prioritizing your well-being. Set healthy boundaries with them.
- Be aware of your own vulnerability to gaslighting. Learn to rise against the unintentional gaslighters in your life, and start to question their intentions.
- Mindful self-awareness: Self-awareness and self-compassion can help you heal from the damage of unintentional gaslighting and promote healthy, respectful communication in your relationship with yourself.
- Understand your own communication patterns: Knowing how you talk and react emotionally to others allows you to identify and correct any accidental gaslighting behaviors that you may spurt out on others.
Seek a professional psychological counselor’s help to address your susceptibility (“naivete”) to become more vigilant and resilient to unintentional gaslighting.
Can you accidentally gaslight someone unintentionally?
Yes, you could be accidentally gaslighting your friends, family, and colleagues without being intentional. This may occur when you unknowingly dismiss or invalidate their experiences, feelings, or thoughts. It can stem from your learned behaviors. But that is not an excuse to cause confusion and self-doubt in others, even when you have no malicious intent.
Who are the victims of unintentional gaslighting?
Unintentional gaslighting can affect anyone, although some people are more susceptible to it. People with low self-esteem, those raised by gaslighter parents, or persons who are overdependent on their partner for validation from them are more likely to be its victims.
How to stop unintentional gaslighting?
To stop yourself from unintentionally gaslighting someone, be mindful of your words and actions. Allow yourself an intentional pause between your feelings and your reactions. Be aware of subtler habits such as twisting or spinning information, selectively omitting facts, or presenting false information. Do not burden yourself with guilt or shame, and instead, recognize that your past doesn’t truly define your present self.
Is unintentional gaslighting abuse?
Unintentional gaslighting is a form of mental abuse perpetrated on the victim. Though these gaslighters cannot be faulted directly since they are unaware of their behavior. Most of them actually do not want to manipulate people into feeling confused, insecure, or insane.
What is “unconscious” gaslighting?
Unconscious gaslighting is emotional manipulation that occurs without any clear intent to exploit. The gaslighter is unaware of their own deceptive mind games, so when confronted, they respond with reflexive denials. The end result is the same as in classic gaslighting: victims start questioning their own mental sanity.
[Fact: Sharks do not have bones, but they do have skeletons made entirely of cartilage that serve as a supportive framework for their bodies.]
Here are 3 take-home messages:
- Gaslighting is a powerful form of emotional abuse that can manipulate unsuspecting people into doubting their reality and questioning their sanity.
- Both intentional and unintentional gaslighting can cause serious confusion and distress, leading victims to blame themselves.
- Keep an eye out for spotting and confronting gaslighting in relationships to protect your well-being and maintain your sense of self.
Unintentional gaslighting often occurs when you are “the less powerful one” in a relationship. To spot it early, know these classic gaslighting phrases.
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Check out the ten subtle signs of gaslighting:
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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy, an experienced medical doctor and psychology writer focusing on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy. His expertise and empathetic approach have helped many mental abuse survivors find happiness and well-being in their lives.
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