is gaslighting ever unintentional
is gaslighting ever unintentional

Gaslighting – Is It Ever Unintentional?

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 this sensitive form of manipulation and explore the situation that, whilst never acceptable behaviour, gaslighting may not always be intentional.

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which the abuser manipulates and controls 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. For example:

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

These statements are meant to confuse the victim and make them 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 manipulation and control.

Why Do People Gaslight?

People who try to gaslight do so for different reasons. Some 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, unconscious gaslighting is damaging to both parties involved 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 in itself 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 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 Unconscious Gaslighting?

It can be hard to tell whether you’re the victim of unconscious gaslighting or not by its very nature. After all, emotional manipulation is the intent of the narcissist, right? Some signs of unconscious 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.

-The victim is often in denial they are being gaslit by abusive behavior.

-The victim becomes isolated from friends and family.

Couple having an argument
It’s common for both sides of a troubled relationship to engage in gaslighting

Examples of Gaslighting

Sometimes it can be hard to observe unconscious gaslighting, especially if you’re living in the emotional reality of the abuse of power. But here are some examples showcasing the tell-tale signs of classic gaslighting. And, whether you’re in a romantic, professional, or family relationship, these same traits apply in all settings.

 1) When your partner tells you something happened, but you don’t remember it happening. You might think you’ve imagined it, or maybe you just didn’t hear them correctly. This could be because of auditory processing issues, sensory overload, or a lack of awareness. The goal of the gaslighter is to manipulate both the conscious and the unconscious mind.

2) 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.

3) When your partner acts like nothing happened between you. They might act like everything was fine, or they might pretend like they didn’t see anything.

4) When your partner ignores your needs and wants. They might ignore you when you ask for help, or they might ignore you when you need attention. Whether deliberate or unintentional, this kind of behavior can leave you feeling confused, hurt, angry, and alone.

5) When your partner doesn’t listen to you. They might talk over you, interrupt you, or get angry when you speak up. Often, they see this as a threat to their control and use it as a weapon against you.

6) 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.

7) When your partner treats you differently than usual. Maybe they start acting nicer, or they might treat you as though you aren’t there.

8) When your partner uses guilt against you. They might tell you how bad you feel, or they might try to control you through guilt.

9) 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.

10) 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 word cloud
Gaslighting and Narcissism go hand-in-hand

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.

How to Deal with Unintentional Gaslighting

It can be difficult to leave a relationship 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 emotional abuse 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 partner gaslights you, 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 or not, gaslighting is emotional abuse and is never excusable. It’s a 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. Alternatively, there are options online to support with psychological abuse in relationships such as in the USA. Finally, always consider seeking counselling or a therapist that’s professionally trained and qualified and know how to spot gaslight behavior in others.

Keep reading our articles and inspire your journey of self-discovery!

Last Updated on December 7, 2022 by Neurodadversity

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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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