Unconscious Gaslighting: What Is It and How to Manage It

Image of a street lamp to illustrate unconscious gaslighting.

Gaslighting is an intricate form of manipulation where one person in a relationship causes the other to question their sense of reality. It is a subtle form of psychological abuse that occurs gradually yet results in lasting harmful effects. Given the seriousness of this offense, many of us are understandably quick to demonize the perpetrator, but is it possible for unintentional or unconscious gaslighting to occur? And if so, how can we identify and manage these situations?

Unconscious gaslighting is an everyday occurrence that has probably happened to you. After all, when two or more people share an experience, they will interpret it in different ways. So before we press forward, let’s clarify what we mean by unconscious or unintentional gaslighting.

What is Unconscious Gaslighting?

“Did that really just happen?” 

We often ask ourselves this question when we experience an event or behavior that causes us to feel significant discomfort or confusion. The question arises as we replay the event in our mind, trying to make sense of the situation. 

Unfortunately, rationalization will never help you understand situations where intentional gaslighting occurs because gaslighting is when one person purposely denies or redefines another person’s perception of reality. Intentional gaslighting is pathological behavior and a blatant form of psychological and emotional abuse where the perpetrator deliberately confuses the victim for their gain.

On the other hand, unconscious gaslighting is when one person unintentionally causes another to question their version of reality, typically in response to a perceived threat. Left unaddressed, it can be just as damaging, but since it is an unconscious behavior, it is possible to correct it before it causes lasting harm. Therefore, it can help to acquire some strategies for recognizing the difference.

Understanding Forms of Gaslighting

Many think of gaslighting as something that happens among those in close relationships, between family members, good friends, and those in romantic partnerships. However, it can also occur publicly, at school, in the workplace, or in the political arena. For instance, consider the following examples of classic gaslighting:

Denying Someone’s Recollection of Events

A quintessential gaslighter often issues a reflexive denial of the facts when accused of saying or doing something wrong. Instead, they declare that the events never happened and the accuser is either mistaken or lying.

Such moments can occur at home, during an argument between a parent and child, or with siblings. But we also see cases in politics where a person is clearly on record for one set of behaviors or comments, then proceeds to deny that they said or did those things. They typically seem so sure of themselves that the victim questions whether their memory is accurate.

Discounting Feelings or Needs as Untrue or Unimportant

Another common gaslighting behavior is to react to expressions of concern, worry, or discomfort with disdain. For example, a leader in an organization I once worked with would single out a team member and verbally abuse them during meetings. Then, after the meeting, they would pull the victim aside and say, “I’m sorry that you feel hurt by my behavior, but you are being too sensitive.” 

Emotionally distressed person to illustrate the effects of gaslighting.

Since this conversation happened after the meeting and when the victim was alone with the leader, they would walk away feeling confused and wondering if something was wrong with them. Everyone on the team experienced this behavior and suffered silently until one courageous person spoke up. However, despite the revelation, people still internalized the belief that they were the problem. 

Shifting Blame for Mistakes

Sometimes this form of emotional abuse manifests in blame shifting. For example, imagine you are in a romantic relationship, and your partner has an affair. If your partner is a gaslighter and you confront them about the matter, they may respond by suggesting that it was your fault. They might cite many examples of why this is the case, leaving you feeling even worse than you did before.

Feigning Concern 

When someone is intentionally gaslighting, they may express worry for their victim to further their cause. For example, they may say they feel concerned you are too sensitive or weak or that you just don’t understand the effect you have on people.

Why would they do this? Because intentional gaslighters strategically distract you from their actions and try to break down your defenses. Then they isolate you by suggesting that you should feel guilty or embarrassed for your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors but that they (and they alone) understand. These mind games make it easier to manipulate you in the future.

In the example about the organizational leader, that person was pathologically motivated to use their power. However, sometimes gaslighting behavior can be unconsciously motivated by our ego or desire for power or control. And it can create a sense of cognitive dissonance in that the abuser is getting the results they want but may not be fully aware of the damage they are inflicting on others. 

The Effects of Gaslighting

Intentional and unintentional gaslighting have the same effect. The victim begins to feel isolated, and they question their grasp on reality. That can create a situation where they feel incapable of extracting themselves from the person or environment where the abuse occurs, which only exacerbates the problem. Over time, this can have a detrimental effect on their mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). So, clearly, it is vital to identify and address cases of gaslighting.

How Can Gaslighting be Unintentional or Unconscious?

Many of us see gaslighting as abusive behavior and are quick to judge. But we must remember that it can also be a sign of mental illness, and sometimes the offender simply isn’t aware that they are doing it. 

Spiral staircase to illustrate the confusion caused by gaslighting behavior.

Classic movies like Rashomon (or later incarnations like The Usual Suspects or Gone Girl) remind us that perspective is everything and that we form perspective by filtering our experiences through the lens of our identity. So, for example, what one person might consider honesty, another might interpret as hurtful. 

The same idea applies to gaslighting. You might see a pattern of behavior as “gaslighting,” but the perpetrator may have a different point of view. Perhaps they grew up in an environment where gaslighting was normalized, or maybe they are narcissistic and incapable of understanding that their behavior is manipulative. When this is the case, unconscious gaslighting may occur.

Whatever the case, it is crucial to find out whether a person is intentionally gaslighting or if they are merely oblivious to the effects of their words and actions before deciding what to do about it.

How to Discern Between Conscious and Unconscious Gaslighting

To explore a situation where you are unsure of the intention behind gaslighting behavior, think about the person you feel concerned about and consider using the following framework as an assessment tool:

  • Responsibility
    How does the person deal with taking responsibility for their actions? For example, do they tend to blame others, or do they reflect on their behavior and its impact? 
  • Reaction
    How does this person react to different perspectives about their behavior? Do they exhibit defensiveness, anger, and denial, or do they listen and reflect on the observations that others bring forward?
  • Response
    Once they learn how people feel about their actions, is this person willing to change? Do they escalate their behaviors to win at all costs, or are they open to compromise? Do they sincerely apologize for anything they’ve done?

Now, take a step back and think about your answers in context. 

If the person is willing to take feedback and is open to change, this may be a sign of unconscious gaslighting due to a lack of awareness. When this is the case, you (or others) may be able to bring these actions to their attention diplomatically and offer positive solutions for working on or redirecting their behavior.

If, however, you conclude that the person is consciously and pathologically gaslighting you or others, it is time to start thinking about ways to extract from the relationship, ideally with the support of friends, family, a therapist, or a trauma-informed coach. 

Finally, if you are still unsure about this person’s intent, talk to someone who can help you sort through your feelings. 

The Bottom Line Regarding Unconscious Gaslighting 

The term gaslighting refers to personal interactions that result in one party questioning their sense of reality due to the behaviors of another. Although it can be challenging to determine whether you are dealing with intentional or unconscious gaslighting, the resultant guilt, confusion, and anguish are very real. In the workplace example I mentioned above, some team members spent years processing the emotional damage that resulted from that leader’s behavior. Therefore, learning to spot gaslighting and unravel its intent is the first step in releasing ourselves from this cycle.

To better understand how gaslighting can be unconscious, I would encourage you to read my post on cultural identity to learn more about the power of perspective.

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