Unintentional Gaslighting: Do Gaslighters Know They Are Gaslighting? (2023)

Can Someone Gaslight You Without Realizing It?

Yes, it is possible for a person to gaslight you without realizing it. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where a person seeks to make someone doubt their own perceptions, memories, or sense of reality.

Individuals tend to engage in gaslighting behavior to gain control and avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. This drive can happen unconsciously or unintentionally, and the gaslighter might not be fully aware of the impact their words and actions have on the other person’s mental state.

Unintentional Gaslighting: Do Gaslighters Know They Are Gaslighting? (1)

Gaslighting behaviors might include trivializing (“you are so sensitive”), countering (“you aren’t remembering correctly”), blame-shifting (“that was your fault”), or dismissing (“you are overreacting”).

In such cases, the gaslighter might genuinely believe they are just expressing their own perspectives or opinions.

Other gaslighting behaviors, such as lying or denying, are typically a conscious effort to distort the victim’s perception and confuse them.

While the perpetrator may not be thinking, “I am going to gaslight this person,” they likely are lying or denying the truth intentionally.

Is Unintentional Gaslighting Still Gaslighting?

Yes, unintentional gaslighting is still gaslighting. While unintentional gaslighting may not involve a deliberate attempt to manipulate or control someone’s perception of reality, it still involves undermining another’s feelings, experiences, or sense of self.

The impact of unintentional gaslighting is real and can be hurtful to a relationship and the mental well-being of both parties.

Here are some examples of gaslighting that can be unintentional:

  • Dismissive Language: Using phrases like “you’re overreacting” or “it’s not a big deal” when someone expresses their feelings or concerns.
  • Minimizing Experiences: Downplaying or trivializing the other person’s experiences or emotions (e.g., telling your friend “it’s not that bad” or “other people have it much worse than you” when they share their distresses).
  • Blaming the Victim: Suggesting that the person’s actions or choices led to negative outcomes (e.g., telling someone “that only happened because you X” when they express their feelings or concerns).
  • Contradicting: Offering conflicting information or opinions (e.g., a parent telling their child “you’re not hungry” when they ask for a snack).
  • Forgetting Details: Accidentally forgetting important details or events that are significant to the other person.

Why Do People Unconsciously Gaslight?

Unconscious or unintentional gaslighting can occur for a variety of reasons. The motive might stem from communication issues, interpersonal dynamics, personal insecurities, or simply a lack of awareness.

Some individuals may not be fully aware of the impact their words and actions have on others. They might not recognize that their behavior is causing the other person to doubt themselves or their reality.

People may unintentionally use dismissive language, fail to validate feelings, or convey messages in ways that make the other person question themselves.

In other cases, individuals might unconsciously engage in gaslighting as a way to protect their own self-image or ego. By downplaying others’ concerns, they can avoid feeling criticized and maintain a sense of control.

For some, they may have learned this behavior in childhood. Individuals who grew up in a family that engaged in gaslighting might believe this behavior is normal and allow it to occur below conscious awareness.

It might also be a survival mechanism that developed in childhood to protect themself from a toxic or abusive environment.

Gaslighting is also a way to cope with an insecure attachment style. If a person with an avoidant attachment style feels pressured to be emotionally intimate, they might inadvertently dismiss or invalidate the other person’s perspective to protect themselves from uncomfortable feelings or confrontations.

And lastly, it can simply be a result of a misunderstanding. Differences in how people remember events or perceive situations can lead to unintentional gaslighting.

One person’s genuine memory might conflict with another person’s recollection, causing confusion and self-doubt.

Signs Of Unintentional Gaslighting In A Relationship

Signs of unintentional gaslighting in a relationship may not be as obvious as deliberate manipulation, but this behavior can still have a significant impact on the well-being of the victim. Therefore, it is important to be able to identify if your partner is gaslighting you (whether unintentionally or not).

Be mindful of the way your partner treats your feelings and opinions, how they react when you confront them, and how you feel when you are around them.

Some signs of unintentional gaslighting to look out for include:

  • Your partner consistently downplays or dismisses your emotions or concerns (e.g., “you’re overthinking things”).
  • You feel like your feelings are invalid or overblown (e.g., “you should be grateful for what you have when there are so many people suffering in the world”).
  • You have noticed a decline in your self-esteem and confidence as a result of the relationship.
  • You avoid confrontations with your partner because they consistently dismiss you, play the victim, or shift the blame onto you (e.g., “I lied because I knew you were going to get angry”).
  • You find yourself doubting your own feelings and perceptions.
  • Your partner uses subtle manipulation tactics, such as guilt-tripping or passive-aggression, to control your behavior or emotions.
  • Your partner makes derogatory comments or jokes that subtly erode your self-esteem or self-worth.
  • You feel unheard and misunderstood.
  • You have frequent disagreements about past events or conversations.
  • Your partner is reluctant to apologize or acknowledge their mistakes.
  • Your partner corrects or contradicts your statements, opinions, or memories during conversations.

While gaslighting can come from innocent, or even caring, intentions, it is still important to address these behaviors through open and honest communication.

Express to your partner how their behavior makes you feel and provide specific examples of their gaslighting behavior.

If they listen willingly, engage in honest dialogue, and apologize, it is likely they were unaware of the harm they were causing.

However, if they deny their behavior, dismiss you, and try to shift the blame, they are most likely intentionally manipulating and undermining you.

Is Unintentional Gaslighting Abuse?

Unintentional gaslighting, while not necessarily as severe or intentional as deliberate manipulation, can still be considered a form of emotional abuse, depending on the situation and context.

While the definition of emotional abuse according to the American Psychological Association is:

“a pattern of behavior in which one person deliberately and repeatedly subjects another to nonphysical acts that are detrimental to behavioral and affective functioning and overall mental well-being,” unintentional gaslighting can still contribute to a pattern of behavior that negatively impacts someone’s emotional and psychological well-being.

Unintentional gaslighting may not be purposeful, but the impact on the victim can be just as detrimental.

However, it is important to note that abuse can manifest in various degrees and forms, and not all instances of unintentional gaslighting may be equally harmful or severe.

If the behavior is persistent and significantly impacts the victim’s well-being and mental health, then it is considered emotionally abusive.

Can You Gaslight And Not Be A Narcissist?

Yes, gaslighting behavior is not exclusive to narcissists. While gaslighting is a behavior commonly exhibited by people with high levels of narcissism, not all gaslighters are narcissists and not all narcissists gaslight.

A high level of narcissism is often associated with a sense of grandiosity and superiority, a lack of empathy, and a constant need for attention and admiration. People with narcissistic traits may feel entitled to special treatment or privileges and believe they can exploit others for personal gain.

Narcissists are particularly prone to using gaslighting as a means of maintaining control and dominance in relationships. But, while gaslighting is a common behavior among narcissists, not everyone who engages in gaslighting is necessarily a narcissist.

Gaslighting can occur in various contexts and relationships due to misunderstandings, poor communication, and other factors.

Read this article for more information on gaslighting and narcissism.


American Psychological Association. (2015). APA Dictionary of Psychology (2nd ed.)

Stephanie Huang (2022, August 26). The Different Types of Attachment Styles. Simply Psychology. https://www.www.www.www.www.www.www.simplypsychology.org/attachmentstyles.html#:~:text=Avoidant%20attachment%20is%20a%20type,They%20show%20little%20stranger%20anxiety.

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