When we think about gaslighting, it tends to be in the context of one person intentionally attempting to manipulate another. But it isn’t always that straightforward: Gaslighting can also be unconscious. Like gaslighting parents, unconscious gaslighting involves a toxic relationship, but in this scenario, the person doing the gaslighting doesn’t fully realize what they’re doing.
Whether or not you realize it, the term “gaslighting” came from the 1944 film noir movie called Gaslight (or, more accurately, the 1938 play Gas Light, upon while the movie was based). Billed as a “psychological thriller” (in order words, a more audience-friendly way of saying “full of emotional abuse”), the plot centers around a man manipulating his wife into thinking she is dealing with serious mental illness — or, in the phrasing of the time “descending into insanity” — so he can get away with criminal activities. Of course, the woman (played by Ingrid Bergman) is in no way cognitively impaired but comes to believe she is because her husband second-guesses her every move, getting her to question her own memory.
Sounds like a whole bunch of mindf*ckery, right? Well, here’s everything to know about gaslighting’s even more insidious cousin, unconscious gaslighting, including how to tell if you’re dealing with it and its impact on different types of relationships.
What is unconscious gaslighting?
Also referred to as “unintentional gaslighting” or “shadow gaslighting,” unconscious gaslighting is exactly what its name suggests. As discussed, the traditional concept of gaslighting involves one person deliberately manipulating another person by causing them to doubt themselves, their thoughts, and their entire sense of reality. It is intentional and calculated.
Unconscious gaslighting, however, is far more subtle. According to Justice Schanfarber, a counselor specializing in marriage and relationships, everyone has an unconscious self, which includes the parts of ourselves that we “have disowned or denied because they are frightening, disappointing, socially unacceptable, or because they threaten our positive self-image.”
Sometimes, he says, these parts of ourselves manipulate people in our lives for our own gain — something that can happen without us being fully aware of what we’re doing. In other words, while these are still very much a person’s own motives and actions, it may not register with them that they’re actively gaslighting someone. Of course, this doesn’t serve as a valid excuse or absolve the person of responsibility for how they treat others. The actions may lack malicious intent, but they’re still a form of psychological and emotional abuse at the end of the day.
How can you tell if you’re a target?
Because of the very nature of unconscious gaslighting, it can be difficult to know if you’re on the receiving end of it yourself. On the most basic level, if you feel as though you’re losing your confidence, self-esteem, and trust in yourself — either gradually or all of a sudden — in a way that’s tied primarily to one person, that could be a sign that you’re experiencing unconscious gaslighting. But again, it’s extremely challenging to have that type of self-awareness at a time when you’re being encouraged to doubt yourself.
“Identifying the signs of unconscious gaslighting can be very difficult,” says Dr. Sandip Roy, a physician, psychologist, and founder of the Happiness India Project. “It is a very intricate form of manipulation that stems from deep within the unconscious mind.” Gaslighters strategically distract their target from their manipulative behavior by either drawing their attention away from it or providing an alternative target or coping mechanism, he explains. Additionally, Roy says that unconscious gaslighting may occur during acute trauma — including sexual, physical, or verbal abuse.
Some other signs of unconscious gaslighting may include:
- The gaslighter undermines your belief in your grasp of reality.
- They invalidate your feelings.
- Their words don’t align with their actions.
- They leverage your guilt to their advantage.
- They play the martyr.
- They fail to empathize when you are hurt.
- They make you feel guilty, often for things outside of your control.
Unconcious gaslighting sounds like saying one thing when we really feel something else. Here are a few examples:
- Saying, "I feel hurt," when you really feel angry.
- Saying, "I feel angry," when you really feel hurt.
- Saying, "This is all your fault," when you also share the blame.
- Saying, "Everything is OK," when you really just want to avoid conflict.
What are some ways experiencing this impacts relationships?
Unconscious gaslighting can impact any type of relationship, including those between romantic partners, family members, friends, or colleagues. Because the underlying objectives of unconscious gaslighting could include things like deliberate deceit, fabricated facts, reflexive denial, mind games, or other hidden agendas, Roy says that all the situation requires is a relationship in which one person is vulnerable and emotionally open.
And although the gaslighting might be unconscious, its effects are the same as those of traditional gaslighting: the person being gaslit doubting their memory, judgment, and overall sanity.
How do you deal with unconscious gaslighting?
The first step to avoiding unconscious gaslighting is recognizing it’s happening to you. Again, that can be particularly tricky when you’re being made to feel as though your version of reality isn’t right. But it’s important to try to bring the behavior into the light so you can discuss it with the unconscious gaslighter in your life. If you’re the one doing the unconscious gaslighting, you must be open to hearing out the other person if they ask you to take a critical look at your own behavior. Since unconscious gaslighting, by nature, isn’t done with the intent of malice, you probably don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. But you owe it to the other person (and to yourself, if you want to have healthy relationships) to hear them out and try to address any problematic actions.
Keeping the lines of communication open is the best way to avoid or end unconscious gaslighting.
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