When someone mentions an abusive relationship, specific images come to mind.
We may imagine physical assault, ridicule, degradation, and domestic violence.
However, abuse, such as unconscious gaslighting, comes in many other subtle forms, and sometimes the abuser is not entirely aware of their behavior.
In this article, we’ll explore unintentional gaslighting, an emotionally abusive behavior that damages relationships and both partners’ mental and emotional health and well-being.
We’ll also offer advice on how to deal with the unintentional gaslighter in your life and what to do if you realize that you’re the gaslighter.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is manipulative behavior in which one person makes another doubt themselves. It most often occurs in romantic relationships but can also be seen in child-parent relationships and friendships.
The victim’s own feelings, perceptions, and beliefs are called into question and doubted for the gaslighter’s gain.
Gaslighters don’t want to accept responsibility or be seen in a negative light, so they twist your version of reality to make themselves the ‘good guy.’
Gaslighting occurs both consciously and unconsciously.
Conscious gaslighters usually deal with their insecurity and low self-esteem by avoiding personal accountability and strategic manipulation of others. These people we often call narcissists are those of us who struggle with shame and vulnerability and use controlling manipulative tactics on purpose to protect themselves.
Unconscious gaslighting can also be committed by anyone. They’re not narcissists, but they don’t have the emotional maturity and self-awareness to deal with some issues in non-manipulative ways.
Let’s explore how and why someone becomes an unintentional gaslighter.
What is unintentional gaslighting?
Unintentional gaslighting is also known as unconscious gaslighting.
People who unconsciously gaslight others do not have malicious intent.
They often mean the best, but gaslighting and other types of manipulation are something they may have learned as a child.
The danger with unconscious gaslighting is that the gaslighter may be a wonderful person in other ways.
They don’t mean to gaslight you, but they can’t seem to help it, and they don’t even know they’re doing it. The consequence of their behavior leads to a toxic relationship.
You want a healthy relationship with this person, but their ways of coping with insecurity and shame make them challenging to handle.
What causes unintentional/unconscious gaslighting?
So, what makes one person gaslight another, and why is it unconscious?
In the 1980s, Dr. Richard C. Schwartz wrote about Internal Family Systems, an area of psychology that views the mind and personality as made up of distinct parts that make the whole. The parts are identified as managers, firefighters, and exiles.
Managers are the executive function of the brain. They help the conscious mind exert or gain control over situations in one’s life.
Firefighters, as the name suggests, put out fires. When exiles, which we’ll cover next, rise to the surface, firefighters come in and help unconscious gaslighters strategically distract themselves from emotional pain and other complicated feelings.
Exiles are the parts of ourselves that we have shunned. Perhaps a behavior or feeling we experienced when we were younger was rejected or ignored by our parents or other important people in our lives.
We come to believe that those parts are unlovable. We all want to be loved, especially as children, so some of us try to secure that love by suppressing the parts of ourselves that threaten it, burying them deep in the unconscious mind.
So, when one unconsciously or unintentionally gaslights another, they may be acting out of self-preservation. Something has provoked one of their exiles, perhaps a confrontation about a mistake or wrongdoing that brings up childhood feelings of shame, so they need to manipulate the other person and take the spotlight off of themselves.
They’re not yet ready to deal with that unhealed part of themselves, so they engage in manipulative, controlling gaslighting behaviors instead.
How to deal with unconscious gaslighting
The problem with unconscious gaslighting is that the person often has good intentions.
They may very well love and respect you, but their issues in their self-relationships prevent them from having a healthy and mature relationship with you.
Though conscious gaslighting is incredibly harmful and often malicious, it’s also easier to spot, call out, and remove yourself from the situation in time to maintain your mental health and well-being.
Unconscious gaslighting can be just as damaging as conscious gaslighting. Even though the the person may be unknowingly gaslighting somebody, they do not mean to be so toxic. It’s harder to notice because the person is otherwise caring, kind, and responsible.
Conscious or unconscious, it’s essential to know the signs of gaslighting.
So, how do we handle unconscious gaslighting?
The first step is knowing the signs. Knowledge is power, and knowing the signs can help you take the right course of action to protect and maintain your mental health.
1. Understand the types and signs of gaslighting
- Undermining your beliefs, claiming they’re wrong or uninformed
- Disregarding your opinion because theirs is different
- Invalidating your feelings because they ‘don’t make sense’
- Saying one thing but behaving differently
- Guilt-tripping you into spending time with them or following their wishes
- Playing the victim when confronted with a flaw or fault, making you feel guilty
- Lack of empathy and understanding for your feelings
- Blaming you for things outside of your control or for things under their responsibility
- Denying that they said something or claiming that they said something else
If you recognize the above behaviors and signs of gaslighting in a partner, parent, or friend, it’s essential to confront them on their behavior with honesty and authenticity.
You may feel hurt by their behavior and want to argue with them. Still, it’s wiser, healthier, and more conducive to a functional relationship to call out that person on their behavior from a place of love and compassion.
2. Approach an unconscious gaslighter with compassion
As mentioned, the unconscious gaslighter is not fully aware of their behavior.
So, if you confront them with insults and character flaws, they will feel attacked. They may get defensive, but they’ll mostly feel confused.
Instead of a personal attack, open a healthy dialogue with the person.
Below we’ve included examples of healthy and useful phrases to use as you confront your gaslighting partner or friend.
‘I feel hurt when you disregard my opinion like that. It makes me feel like I’m not being heard.’
‘I appreciate that you want to spend more time with me, but I don’t feel comfortable with guilt-tripping. It actually makes me not want to spend time with you.
‘I love you, and it’s great to spend time with you, but I need you to be more personally accountable when things go wrong. This relationship is starting to feel a little one-sided.’
‘I remember clearly what you said earlier. When you deny facts like that, it makes it harder for me to trust you.’
As mentioned earlier, the unconscious gaslighter does not have malicious intent. They’re not consciously trying to hurt you.
Their behavior often stems from a desire for control from challenging childhood experiences involving shame and vulnerability.
As such, attacking is unwise. An attack will only exacerbate the shamed exiles the person has inside.
Instead, it’s healthier and more effective to use compassionate communication, referencing your own experience and feelings rather than the flaws and mistakes of the other.
3. Have patience with the unconscious gaslighter
If the person loves and cares about you, they’ll listen when you bring up these issues and make the necessary changes.
Still, overcoming feelings of shame and coping mechanisms stemming from childhood experiences can be difficult, so you’ll also need to practice patience with this person.
4. Set boundaries
Understandably, you want to let the unconscious gaslighter know how their behavior affects you.
If they really love you, they’ll try to investigate their inner world and release those old feelings that no longer serve them and hinder their well-being.
Still, living with a gaslighter can lead to an unbearable mental weight.
If you grow tired, even exhausted by this person’s behavior, understand that it’s perfectly fine to set boundaries with them.
You’re entitled to set boundaries around actions and behaviors that hurt you, even with those closest to you.
Toxic positivity gaslighting
If you haven’t heard the term toxic positivity, it refers to an irrationally ‘positive’ attitude about life and oneself.
Its toxicity is based on the fact that one who adopts this attitude tends to ignore the more negative feelings and atmospheres that are just as equally a part of the human experience as the positive.
A toxic positivity gaslighter will encourage you to focus on the positives: the bright side, the ‘good vibes only’ attitude, instead of encouraging you to explore your more difficult and unpleasant feelings.
The toxic positivity gaslighter believes they are doing the right thing.
They take on the role of life coach without the credentials. They don’t mean to hurt you, but their disregard for authentic negative emotions and preference for ease, good vibes, and ‘choosing happiness’ can harm your mental health.
Being gaslit with toxic positivity may make you feel like there’s something wrong with you for having negative emotions.
This person’s attitude demonstrates a carefree, ‘life is what you make it’ approach to life; on the surface, they seem to have it all together. In contrast, you may look at your feelings and beliefs and wonder why you can’t be as happy and carefree as them.
Of course, it’s important to take a positive attitude to life.
Life is what you make it, but you don’t have to make it one-sided regarding your emotional experience. That’s ultimately impossible.
A genuine, healthy, positive attitude to life is one in which we accept both the positive and negative, the light and dark within ourselves, not one in which we ignore discomfort and unpleasantness in favor of constant but false bliss.
Am I an unconscious gaslighter?
If you’ve been reading this article and you notice elements of gaslighting in your behavior, don’t worry. Many of us engage in gaslighting and other manipulative behaviors without full awareness.
The good news is that with mindful self-awareness, self-compassion, and a commitment to making positive changes in your life, you can let go of these controlling behaviors in favor of healthier modes of communication and relation.
The process of overcoming deeply rooted shame and fear of vulnerability is not easy. It takes a lot of conscious inner exploration and plenty of support.
Trusted friends and family members can offer compassion, advice, and insight to help you explore your feelings and behavior. Still, friends and family can only take you so far.
It’s wise to reach out to a professional, licensed therapist or counselor who can safely and carefully guide you through your buried negative feelings and help you find healthier ways of dealing with them. These ways do not harm your interpersonal relationships.
When we hear about emotionally abusive relationships, we often picture an angry or aggressive partner and explicit verbal abuse, degradation, or other harmful behaviors. The problem with this image is that it is incomplete.
According to research in the journal Violence and Victims, ’emotional abuse can include verbal assault, dominance, control, isolation, ridicule, or the use of intimate knowledge for degradation.’
Gaslighting, conscious or unconscious, is a form of dominance and control.
Anyone – your partner, friend, parent, or even colleague – can be guilty of unintentional gaslighting. These people are not ‘bad’ or ‘evil’; even though you may suffer due to their behavior, they also suffer.
Their means of coping with complicated feelings (control, manipulation, and other emotional abuse tactics) ultimately isolate them from those they love, leading to loneliness, other mental health issues, and even mental illness.
So, if you can, have compassion for the unintentional gaslighter: as a decent human being, practice understanding, forgiveness, and loving compassion for their suffering. At the same time, don’t neglect yourself.
Prioritize your mental health and well-being above anyone else’s, and set any boundaries you feel necessary.
2 thoughts on “Unintentional Gaslighting—How To Not Let It Get The Best Of You”
GREAT article!! Very important topic that is seldom mentioned. Thanks for providing such a well written resource about this topic. God bless.
BTW for the section “The Types and Signs of Gaslighting”, was the bullet point that reads “blaming you for things outside of THEIR control”, suppose to state “blaming you for things outside of your control” (i.e. Blaming the gaslightee for things outside of the gaslightee’s control)?
Thank you, so glad you enjoyed the article!!