Gaslighting, as commonly understood, is a particular type of psychological abuse that is motivated by the conscious intention to harm. This is commonly discussed in the literature and associated with sociopaths, narcissists, etc.
There is however another type of psychological abuse that is identical in every way except that it is unintentional or unconscious.
There is so little awareness and understanding of this that there is no term to describe it. It is just as harmful but usually overlooked. This is like recognising murder but overlooking manslaughter. In this essay I seek to shed light on this little understood but very common and very harmful phenomenon.
First some information about conscious gaslighting before introducing the unconscious form:
"Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse or brainwashing where one individual attempts to get another individual to believe they are "crazy". This is most often done through the denial of facts, events, or what one did or did not say. The gaslighter might also directly or indirectly imply that the individual is defective, crazy, or suffers from a mental illness...
Gaslighting is a form of mental and emotional violence in which the abuser says and does things with the intention of making victims doubt their feelings, insights, perceptions and even their own sanity!
Sociopaths frequently use gaslighting tactics. Sociopaths consistently transgress social mores, break laws, and exploit others, but typically, are also charming and convincing liars who consistently deny wrongdoing. Thus, some who have been victimized by sociopaths may doubt their perceptions.
Sociopaths refuse to be held accountable for their behavior and often assign their own behavior to their victims. For example, a sociopath could accuse a victim of stealing when it is the sociopath themself that steals. Gaslighting is a common practice of abusers who attempt to convince their victims they are defective for any reason such as making the victim more emotional, more needy or dependent...
The victim may start to believe that they are imagining things, has some kind of mental illness, or has a faulty memory. When one doubts his or her perceptions of reality, the gaslighter is able to control that person.
It is possible over time to get so beaten down and so sure you might be at fault, that you can’t identify the dynamic. The Gaslight Effect happens over time - gradually - and, often, by the time you are deep into the Gaslight Tango (the dance you do with your gaslighting partner, where you allow them to define your reality) you are not the same strong - or not so strong - self you used to be. In fact, your ego functioning has been compromised and, no longer being certain of your reality, you are not often able to accurately identify when something is "off".”
Thus it is a process of systematic invalidation leading to confusion and loss of trust in one’s own mind, perceptions and judgements. This weakens one’s autonomy making one easier to control and less likely to identify let alone act to stop an abusive or exploitative situation.
It could be said that the term 'gaslighting' solely refers to intentional behavior, as most of the literature states, and when done unintentionally it is simply 'lying'.
However, a simple lie won’t drive someone insane or destroy their autonomy. It requires a specific pattern of lies with specific results in order to do that. Hence the unconscious form is not simply 'lying’, it is identical to what is called 'gaslighting' in every respect except for motive.
Thus a term other than 'lying' is required, one that captures the specific pattern of events and the seriously harmful results. To simply call it ‘lying' totally misses the point.
The distinction between 'murder' and 'manslaughter' is a useful one because the result is the same but the intention is different. Here murder corresponds to conscious or intentional killing and manslaughter corresponds to unconscious or unintentional killing.
The term gaslighting, as currently used, corresponds to conscious or intentional crazy-making / slave-making whereas there is no term for unconscious or unintentional crazy-making / slave-making.
This lack of a term is a product of the general lack of awareness and understanding of it, which allows it to go unchecked and grow to epidemic proportions.
Thus until a specific term is found I will use the term 'unconscious gaslighting’. Although not semantically ideal it does give us a conceptual handle on the very real phenomenon and thereby allow us to develop greater awareness and understanding of it.
What is unconscious gaslighting?
Unconscious gaslighting is not done with the intention to harm others using gaslighting, as a sociopath does, but instead as an unconscious strategy driven by underlying motives.
There is typically no awareness of the harm that they are doing to others via gaslighting or even an awareness that they are even gaslighting. There may still be some intention to harm, but only via the underlying motive, e.g. deception leading to theft , rather than via the gaslighting itself.
This form is an unconscious strategy driven by different motives; deliberate deception, reflexive maintenance of denial, power games, prejudices or some other agenda.
An example from the film Flightplan
"Kyle... is widowed with a six-year-old daughter Julia... after her husband David falls off the roof of their building to his death. Kyle decides to bury him in their hometown... A few hours into the flight, Kyle and Julia fall asleep, and Kyle wakes moments later to find that Julia is missing. At first calm, she begins to panic when none of the passengers or flight attendants claim to have seen her. One of the flight attendants, Stephanie... calls the Berlin airport that they departed from and, shockingly, she claims that the gate attendant told her they have no record of Julia boarding the flight. In addition, the passenger manifest registers Julia's seat as unoccupied, Kyle cannot find Julia's boarding pass, and when she goes back to her seat to look for it in the overhead bin, she finds that Julia's backpack has also disappeared. Fearing somebody has her, Kyle forces Captain Marcus Rich... to have the flight attendants conduct a thorough search of the plane while all of the passengers are told to remain in their seats and not to get up for any reason...
As the search goes on with nothing being found, Kyle becomes more and more desperate, and even goes so far as to attack and unjustly accuse two Arab passengers... of kidnapping Julia and plotting to hijack the plane. Capt. Rich and the flight attendants (particularly Stephanie, who is exceptionally unsympathetic) start to suspect that Kyle may be unhinged by her husband's death and that she imagined bringing her daughter onboard. Because of her increasingly erratic and panicked behaviour, Capt. Rich orders Air marshal Gene Carson... to guard and handcuff her.
Later, after releasing all the passengers from their seats, Capt. Rich informs Kyle that he received a wire from the hospital in Berlin, saying that Julia was with David when he fell off the roof and also died of internal injuries. Kyle furiously denies this, saying that Julia wasn't even there when David died and continues to insist that she brought her onboard. The crew now believes that she is delusional and Carson escorts Kyle back to her seat. A therapist, Lisa... tries to console her, and Kyle begins to doubt her own sanity..."
The intention of those involved wasn’t to drive Kyle insane or weaken her autonomy, rather there was a conspiracy between certain airline employees who kidnapped the child and concealed their actions as part of a much bigger agenda than simply abusing one woman.
If it wasn’t for one small oversight, that woman would have come to genuinely distrust her own memory. And if it wasn’t for later events that eventually uncovered the plot and thereby vindicated her, then everyone else would have continued to believe that she was insane and treated her accordingly.
Regardless of motive the psychological distress and resulting harm is identical. Regardless of whether someone plots to drive you insane or enslave you intentionally or does so in pursuit of some other agenda, the resulting harm is the same.
Just as with murder and manslaughter, regardless of whether someone plots to kill you intentionally or your death is just peripheral to some other agenda of theirs, the resulting harm is the same for you.
Prevalence of unconscious gaslighting
Conscious gaslighting is quite rare however unconscious gaslighting is done by many at some time to some degree; including individuals, groups, organisations, corporations, media, governments and so on. It is a common strategy for pursuing agendas.
Anyone with some life experience and knowledge of the world would know of many situations where:
"... information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted... or false information is presented...This is most often done through the denial of facts, events, or what one did or did not say. The gaslighter might also directly or indirectly imply that the individual is defective, crazy, or suffers from a mental illness..."
Whether the abuser intends to harm, or is intending to deceive, or is reflexively defending a wall of denial, or seeks power over others, or harbours prejudices, the affect on the victim is the same:
"... making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity...believe they are... defective, crazy, or suffers from a mental illness.. making victims doubt their feelings, insights, perceptions and even their own sanity!… making the victim more emotional, more needy or dependent… the gaslighter is able to control that person… so beaten down and so sure you might be at fault, that you can’t identify the dynamic… not often able to accurately identify when something is "off".”
A punch in the face is the same regardless of the motive behind it; the flying fist, the impact and the damage caused are the same. Thus in all its forms:
"Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse... psychological abuse or brainwashing... a form of mental and emotional violence..."
Most of us have deceived others at some time, or are in denial about something, or sought power over someone or have some prejudices. Hence unconscious gaslighting can be triggered within many individuals, groups, etc when certain topics are raised, or certain people are approached or in certain circumstances.
The impact of unconscious gaslighting
The degree of harm caused depends on the exposure to gaslighting. For instance, when communicating with an acquaintance, if the topic under denial is minor and peripheral then the gaslighting is rarely triggered and can be avoided by avoiding discussing certain topics, or by avoiding that person, hence little harm is done. However if there are many topics under denial or the topic is of a very deep and general nature, and the individual is a central figure in one’s life, then there will be many conversations that trigger gaslighting and significant harm can occur.
For example, if there is a central figure in one’s life who needs to believe, for the sake of the balance of their psyche, some simplistic and idealised view of the world and the process of life (such as the “belief in a just world” BJW; studies have shown it to result in victim blaming, obstruction of social reforms, admiration of authoritarianism and neglect of the underprivileged, see the links at the end).
In this situation any attempt to discuss any issues arising in one’s own life or throughout society due to events, phenomena or processes that cannot be conceived of within their idealised view, these attempts will crash against a wall of denial that may be defended using unconscious gaslighting. This might include studious ignorance or misunderstanding of events or phenomena, refusal to consider evidence, repeated unjustified invalidation and victim blaming.
Or perhaps due to power games or prejudices, whenever a certain person raises such issues the abuser feigns or ingenuously adopts such an idealised view to obfuscate and avoid the issues as well as to dismiss and silence the victim.
Furthermore if a large number of individuals are in denial or deceived about a topic then any attempt to communicate with these people about that or related topics will result in unconscious gaslighting from many sources.
For example, consider someone who discovers the existence of something that others at the time find unthinkable, inconceivable and therefore preposterous. Such a person would not be believed and every attempt to discuss it with others would crash against a wall of denial and trigger unconscious gaslighting (based on denial) from the population. They could perhaps also encounter unconscious gaslighting (based on deception) from those who know but wish to keep it concealed. That person would be dismissed as a crackpot or "conspiracy theorist" despite the fact that they were talking about something very real and potentially important. This leads to further unconscious gaslighting (based on prejudice) from those prejudiced against crackpots or conspiracy theorists as well as unconscious gaslighting (based on power games) from those qualified in related topics such as academics, officials, clergy and so on.
For instance, consider the case of Ignaz Semmelweis, who first suggested that doctors wash their hands between treating patients to reduce mortality rates. This was rejected by the medical establishment and doctors were offended by the idea that a gentleman could carry germs. He was forced out of medicine, subjected to widespread ridicule, eventually committed to a mental asylum and then beaten to death soon after his arrival there.
His name lives on via the Semmelweis reflex or Semmelweis effect, which refers to the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.
Similarly, the case of Ludwig Boltzmann, a physicist and philosopher, who founded statistical mechanics and thereby discovered the second law of thermodynamics, i.e. that in a closed system entropy or disorder always increases. This idea contradicted deeply held prevailing beliefs so he was ridiculed and ostracised, leading to his suicide.
Or the case of Otto Gross, considered by many now to be a founder of the counterculture movement. He was a psychoanalyst who diverged from the prevailing patriarchy and authoritarianism that was the norm throughout his culture. He championed women’s rights, same sex couples, and the earliest instances in Europe of what are now called 'hippie' communes. He also proposed that in many cases it was not the patient who was defective, rather they were having a normal reaction to an oppressive culture.
Due to his differing attitudes both Freud and Jung branded him a hopeless lunatic, his contributions to the field of psychoanalysis were ignored and expunged from historical records, his father had him arrested and forcibly committed to a mental asylum, he eventually became a drug addict and died of pneumonia after being found near starving and frozen on the streets of Berlin.
Or the more recent case of Gary Webb, an investigative journalist who revealed to the American public that the CIA was supporting the Contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua and to fund this the rebels were smuggling large quantities of cocaine into the US thereby creating the crack epidemic that was destroying communities.
Recently released documents show that the CIA, US government and mainstream media began a coordinated campaign to discredit him and to suppress public awareness of his revelations. Eventually he was found in his home with two bullet wounds to the back of his head, which at the time was reported as a suicide, however evidence is emerging that he was most likely murdered.
Plato wrote: "Those who are able to see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture will never be understood, let alone believed, by the masses."
I would add: Instead they would be unconsciously gaslighted and possibly driven insane or else flee into exile or obscurity to preserve their sanity. Only the strongest of minds can retain trust in their own judgment in the face of systematic invalidation from almost their entire culture.
Also consider the manner in which colonial era oppression and slavery didn’t oppress native populations only with guns and chains, but also with mind-games; to make them believe they are inferior, to weaken their autonomy and make them tolerant of abuse and dependent on their colonial ‘masters’. The intention was to steal land and resources for economic gain, not to abuse individuals, the abuse was part of a larger agenda.
Or consider the scenario in the novel ’1984' by Orwell, where information is systematically twisted, omitted and falsified to keep an entire population suppressed and enslaved. Keeping them confused, believing themselves to be powerless, destroying their autonomy and making them dependent on the state; unable to clearly identify how oppressive their situation is, let alone revolt. There was an inner circle who sought to impose order, not merely to abuse individuals, the abuse was just part of a larger agenda.
Or consider the scenario portrayed in the novel “Brave New World" by Huxley, where the cultural narratives had become warped; based on a narrow and simplistic conception of the nature and purpose of life. A shallow form of happiness based on consumer items and entertainment is achieved at the cost of all that truly makes us happy, such as family, freedom, love, the exercise of independent will and overcoming of adversity. The people are institutionalised from conception and deeply brainwashed until they lack autonomy, become entirely dependent on the state and blind to how oppressive their plight actually is; those who feel the pain of what they have lost cannot understand their pain and simply numb it with tranquilisers. The intention here was to achieve universal happiness and the insidious abuse was just part of a larger agenda.
"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free ." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
For some everyday examples of unconscious gaslighting that people commonly experience; from women being unconsciously gaslighted by sexist men, children being unconsciously gaslighted by overbearing parents, victim blaming, etc, see the further reading at the end.
How to deal with unconscious gaslighting
Regardless of the motive that drives the gaslighting the harm caused is the same, although the way to deal with the abuse will be different depending on the motive.
For example, when dealing with a conscious gaslighter who knows they are gaslighting and is doing it to harm you, there is no possibility to reason or plead with them and the general advice is to escape or to erect strong barriers if escape is not possible.
Or when dealing with an unconscious gaslighter who is trying to deceive you it may be possible to expose their deception to end it, if not then escape or erect barriers.
Or when dealing with an unconscious gaslighter who is trying to maintain their denial it may be possible to avoid triggering it or to help them to face and overcome their denial, if not then escape or erect barriers.
Or when dealing with an unconscious gaslighter who seeks power over you it may be possible to acquire the appropriate power yourself or seek backing from others with equal or greater power than the gaslighter, if not then escape or erect barriers.
Or when dealing with an unconscious gaslighter who harbours a prejudice against you it may be possible to disguise yourself so as not to trigger their prejudice, get backing from others who don't trigger their prejudice, or challenge the prejudice itself, if not then escape or erect barriers.
More reading on unconscious gaslighting:
Some questions to contemplate regarding the incidence of unconscious gaslighting and its impacts: https://medium.com/@Anandavala/unconscious-gaslighting-questions-80ae41ef60be
Information on conscious gaslighting, some of which can be adapted to unconscious gaslighting or generalised, in particular how to heal from the debilitating affects of gaslighting, see here : https://m.facebook.com/notes/john-ringland/gaslighting-summary/10155883708920005/
Gaslighting, shadow, and abuse – How protecting our unconscious can sabotage our relationships
A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not “Crazy”
Can We Please Stop Gaslighting Our Kids?
Gaslighting = Psychological War
Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person (belief in a just world leads to victim blaming and more) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/oliver-burkeman-column/2015/feb/03/believing-that-life-is-fair-might-make-you-a-terrible-person
This column will change your life: the just world bias https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/nov/11/oliver-burkeman-just-world-bias
The Monstrous Cruelty of a Just World http://hazlitt.net/blog/monstrous-cruelty-just-world
Gaslighting Is a Common Victim-Blaming Abuse Tactic – Here Are 4 Ways to Recognize It in Your Life http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/gaslighting-is-an-abuse-tactic/
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