Gaslighting – Is It Ever Unintentional?

Two persons looking at a false human figure. Gaslighting, unreliability, deceit and fraud. Unworthy of trust and confusing people around. Communication difficulties, Absence. a Dummy.

Last Updated on

April 30th, 2024 10:37 am

Gaslighting is one of the most toxic behaviours in a relationship between two humans. With intent to undermine the other person, gaslighting is known to cause great psychological damage and distress to the victim.

Yet, with many neurodivergent people with a disorder such as Autism struggling to understand social cues amongst relationships with others, is any form of gaslighting ever unintentional?

Let’s take a closer look at unintentional, or unconscious gaslighting, and explore the idea that, whilst never acceptable behaviour, gaslighting may not always be intentional.

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is an intricate form of psychological abuse in which the abuser engages in manipulative behavior. They control the victim to the point where they no longer trust their sense of reality through their own memory, thoughts, or feelings. It can occur in personal relationships or in workplace settings, and it is often done in order to gain control over the victim without any interference.

When an individual is being gaslit, they will usually feel confused about their surroundings and how they perceive certain situations. This confusion stems from the fact that the person is constantly being told something that doesn’t match up with reality. Intentional gaslighters will often say things like:

“You’re wrong.” “No you’re wrong.” “I’m right.” “You’re crazy.” “You’re lying.”

These statements are meant to create uncomfortable feelings and confuse the victim. Often narcissists create a false appearance of victimization, and make the true victims question whether or not they are actually seeing what is happening around them. They begin to believe that they are going mad due to the constant barrage of comments from the abuser.

This confusion causes the victim to lose confidence in their own memories, thoughts, and emotions. As a result, they become vulnerable to further manipulative behavior and control and suffer from significant mental health issues.

Why Do People Gaslight?

People who try to gaslight do so for different reasons. Some with malicious intente may want to control another person, while others may simply want to manipulate them. In the case of unconscious gaslighting, these reasons are even harder to spot. Regardless of why, unintentional gaslighting is still damaging to both parties involved, causing mental health issues, and should be avoided at all costs.

The goal of classic gaslighting is to create a power struggle. It’s to make the victim doubt themselves and their perceptions so that they are more easily manipulated and controlled by the abuser.

The effects of someone trying to gaslight can be long-lasting and devastating, leading victims into a state of confusion, isolation, and self-doubt.

Why the Term Gaslighting?

The concept of gaslighting has been around for centuries. But the term gaslighting comes from a film called Gaslight (1944), directed by Jean Renoir.

In this film, a husband tries to convince his wife that she is insane after she claims to have seen her dead mother walking around the house. He does this by telling her that she is imagining things, when in fact he has been doing exactly what she says.

Who Is At Risk Of Being Gaslit?

Anyone can be gaslit, but those who are particularly susceptible include Autistic individuals, those with borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and schizophrenia to name but a few. These conditions can cause the sufferer to have difficulty understanding social cues and emotional responses.

Do note, of course, that it also means that an unconscious gaslighter may also have these conditions. So it’s important to recognize that being neurodivergent isn’t the only reason someone might be an unintentional gaslighter, or be the victim.

In addition, anyone who has experienced trauma in childhood or suffers from a mental illness could also be at risk of verbal abuse, especially the mind games that come with being gaslit. Personal experience in the form of trauma-induced mental illness such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can leave people feeling emotionally numb and unable to process information clearly.

How Do I Know I’m the Victim of Unintentional Gaslighting?

It can be hard to tell whether you’re the victim of unintentional gaslighting or not by its very nature. After all, emotional forms of manipulation is the intent of the narcissist, right? Some telltale signs of unintentional gaslighting to look out for include the following:

  • The gaslighter’s story never makes sense and they live in denial.
  • The victim becomes convinced that their own version of reality is wrong.
  • The victim is always wrong, even when they have proof they’re right.
  • The gaslighter makes the victim perceive an alternate reality, giving a false appearance of victimization.
  • The victim is often in denial that they are being gaslit by abusive behavior.
  • The victim becomes isolated from friends and family.
Woman shouting at man with hands on his head to cope with stress headache

Unintentional gaslighting can be hard to spot, especially if you’re the victim.

Is Toxic Positivity Unintentional Gaslighting?

Toxic positivity can indeed be a form of unintentional gaslighting. Toxic positivity is the belief that one should only focus on positive emotions and dismiss or invalidate any negative emotions. While the intention behind toxic positivity may be to promote optimism and resilience, it can inadvertently invalidate someone’s experiences and emotions.

For example, if someone is going through a difficult time and expresses their sadness or frustration, a toxic positive response might be, “Just think positive! Everything happens for a reason.” This dismissive response can make the person feel as though their emotions are not valid and that they should simply ignore or suppress their negative feelings.

In these instances, the gaslighting effect occurs when an individual is made to question or doubt their own feelings and experiences. The unintentional gaslighter may genuinely believe that they are offering helpful advice or encouragement, but in reality, they are causing harm by invalidating the other person’s emotions.

Further Examples of Unintentional Gaslighting

Sometimes it can be hard to observe unintentional gaslighting, especially if you’re living in the emotional reality of the abuse of power. But here are some examples of gaslighting showcasing the telltale signs. And, whether you’re in a relationship with a romantic partner, or a professional or family relationship, these same everyday interactions apply in all settings.

  • When your partner tells you something happened, but you don’t remember it happening, causing you to doubt your recollection of events. You might think you’ve imagined it, or maybe you just didn’t hear them correctly. But in this insidious form of gaslighting, the gaslighter’s goal is to manipulate both the conscious and the unconscious mind with their version of events.
  • When your partner lies to you about something important. They might lie about who did something, where they were, or why they left. Or they might lie about whether they had sex with someone else.
  • When your partner acts like nothing happened between you. They might act like everything was fine, or they might pretend like a lack of awareness meant they didn’t see anything.
  • When your partner ignores your needs and wants, showing a lack of empathy. They might ignore you when you ask for help, or they might ignore you when you need attention. Whether malicious intent or not, this form of abuse can leave you feeling confused, hurt, angry, and alone.
  • When your partner doesn’t listen to you. They might talk over you, interrupt you, or get angry when you speak up. Often, this pattern of behavior is used as a weapon against you, as you’re a threat to their control.
  • When your partner changes the subject whenever you bring up something uncomfortable. They might change the topic of conversation to something less upsetting, which to most people may seem like a caring thing to do, but in reality it’s a diversion tactic to keep the powerplay in their control.
  • When your partner treats you differently than usual. Maybe they start acting nicer, or they might treat you as though you aren’t there.
  • When your partner uses guilt against you. They might tell you how bad you feel, or they might try to control you through guilt.
  • When your partner takes credit for your accomplishments. They might brag about all the work they did, or they might take credit for your success.
  • When your partner blames you for problems. They might blame you for not having enough money, or they might blame you for making mistakes. What’s more, they might blame you for things that weren’t your fault at all.

After reading this, it’s clear to see where the confusion arises in an Autistic individual who may struggle with social cues to be an unconscious gaslighter, when in reality they have best intentions at heart.

Meanwhile, it’s also easy to comprehend that a narcissist (autistic or not) may exhibit these behaviors with intent for their own self-gain, frustrated at the world around them not understanding their own actions.

So when looking into the idea that gaslighting may or may not be unintentional, we have to look at the bigger picture to best understand the reasons why and how all parties resolve the issues in the best possible situation.

Narcissism and Gaslighting go hand in hand

Narcissism and Gaslighting go hand in hand

How to Deal with Unintentional Gaslighting

Leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult with someone who gaslights you, especially if it’s unconscious gaslighting and you know there’s a deeper reason at play. But in reality, it’s a sad truth that many gaslighters refuse to accept their behaviour, even if it’s innocent and they don’t understand. Therefore leaving might be the only option if they never acknowledge your problems or their behavior.

An unconscious gaslighter may not even see a toxic relationship and in some cases even feel that they are the targets of gaslighting. But the reality check is that these subsconscious manipulative tactics come from a place of unhealed trauma that’s created perceptions of reality far from the truth, when in fact they need support for their own psychological abuse.

If your abusive partner engages in unconscious gaslighting, be firm in your decision to end the relationship. They may recognize that their behavior is wrong but they won’t always admit it. If you can’t work through it with that person and they refuse to seek help, then it’s better to stay away from the negativity and move on with your life without the other person in it.

Find Support for Unconscious Gaslighting in Your Relationship

No matter whether it’s intentional gaslighting or not, gaslighting is emotional abuse and is never excusable. It’s an emotional manipulation tactic that, if left unaddressed, can cause significant distress to the victim in question.

Make sure to speak up to someone you can trust and have a healthy relationship with, or professional counseling such as a relationship expert, licensed psychologist, or mental health professional.

Alternatively, there are options online to support with psychological abuse in relationships such as in the USA. Finally, always consider seeking counselling or a licensed therapist that’s professionally trained and qualified and knows how to spot the signs of gaslighting behavior in others.

Is Gaslighting Ever Unintentional?

Gaslighting can be perpetrated intentionally or unintentionally. Many who take part in unconscious gaslighting don’t realize that they’re making their victim lose their perception of reality, or like the victim is losing their mind. They may mistakenly believe that they’re just trying to help the victim see things more clearly or that they’re doing what’s best for them.

Unintentional gaslighting is most common in Autistic people, as the daily struggles with social cues and normalities affect everyday life. In many cases, Autistic people have the best intentions at heart of those around them. But the way this presents itself to neurotypical people can often create the illusion of intent, causing distress to both the victim and the gaslighter.

Irrelevant of the nature of the gaslighting, the abuser’s psychological manipulation and constant reflexive denials can cause long-term damage and make it difficult for the victim to trust themselves or have a romantic relationship again. So it’s important that if you suspect someone tries to gaslight their partner, attempts are made to make this known so they have the opportunity to seek help for their issues.

Check out our must-read books about gaslighting for further reading.

Recommended Reading
Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People -- and Break Free

A mental health expert sheds light on "gaslighting", the manipulative technique used by sociopaths, narcissists, and others, offering practical strategies to cope and break free. A must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about gaslighting.

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Rob Butler
30-Something Millennial with ADHD and suspected Autistic and Dyspraxic. Thought leader behind this website. Big visions of a better future for everyone, but forgets where he is half the time.Loves Rugby, his kids, and anything silly. Hates U2 and Marmite.

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