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Unconscious Gaslighting: What It Is and How to Avoid It

April 1, 2021 Jennifer Lear

"Gaslighting" is a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser makes the victim question their perception of reality in order to undermine their feelings and avoid accountability for abusive behavior. It is cruel and inexcusable to deliberately treat another person this way, but is it possible to do it unconsciously? Is it possible to gaslight someone with nothing but good intentions? I believe so. In fact, I believe unconscious gaslighting is a trap into which it is easy to fall when you are caring for a person with a mental illness.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For me, this means engaging in repetitive, compulsive behaviors to "cancel out" intrusive thoughts (e.g., touching a door handle a specific number of times to stop my family from coming to harm, or staring at the stove with my hands behind my back for a full three minutes to convince myself that it is turned off). I underwent two rounds of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address my issues and was taught that the best way to combat intrusive thoughts is to refuse to engage with them: to refuse to touch the door handle or stare at the stove. 

What Is Unconscious Gaslighting?

My recovery is thanks in large part to the support of the people around me, who helped me by (at my request) refusing to pander to my obsessions when I was behaving irrationally and forcing me to face the thing I feared. What worries me now is that by encouraging them to disregard my irrational fears, I have forced them to start ignoring my legitimate fears, and in effect, caused them to "gaslight" me into doubting my reality even when my reaction is perfectly reasonable.

I have a tendency to internalize and obsess over personal criticism. A throwaway comment from a stranger about my appearance can plunge me into a pit of depression and self-loathing when somebody without OCD wouldn't even register the remark as derogatory. Because of this, my close family and friends are quick to remind me that I am reading negative intentions when there are none when they see me slipping into obsession.

However, on the few occasions when somebody has been openly and purposefully rude to me, I have found myself having to deal with accusations from loved ones who weren't there that I am "reading too much into it" or "obsessing over nothing." I have then started to question whether I am, in fact, overreacting and whether the interaction did happen how I remember it. 

This is a horrible feeling and completely unfair. The fact that I have a mental illness does not give anybody the right to disregard every one of my feelings. Causing a person to doubt their recollection of events or making them think that their feelings are irrational is the definition of gaslighting. Is it accurate to say, then, that I have been gaslighted by my loved ones when all they want is to see me happy?

Unconscious Gaslighting Is Not a Form of Abuse

I would have to say yes, but with one major caveat: in this case, I believe the "gaslighter" is as much the victim as the person being gaslighted. 

The people I love have supported me through unimaginable pain, and they have gone through it with me. Having seen me so low, their first instinct when they see me upset about something they cannot themselves verify is to "nip it in the bud" by telling me that my worry is unfounded. This might sound insensitive and infantilizing, but how are they supposed to distinguish between a reasonable reaction to something real and some imagined horror that only exists in my mind? It is unfair to expect this of them and thus unfair to call them out on the occasions they get it wrong.

How to Avoid Unconscious Gaslighting

The way I have found to deal with this is with one simple phrase: "This is not my OCD talking. This is real."

This phrase has a grounding effect, and when said calmly, reassures the other person that you are in full control of your feelings, rather than letting them run away from you.

It is a particularly cruel phenomenon of mental illness that it strains your relationships with the people you love the most. Their efforts to support you through your illness can cause them to behave in objectively unfair ways, but to call this behavior gaslighting is just as unfair. Supporting someone with a mental illness is an exhausting endeavor and requires a degree of emotional insight that most people just aren't trained for. The best thing we can do is keep talking and hope that by doing so, we can help each other better understand what is real and what is not. 

Have you noticed unconscious gaslighting in your life? Tell us about it in the comments.

APA Reference
Lear, J. (2021, April 1). Unconscious Gaslighting: What It Is and How to Avoid It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, April 13 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/copingwithdepression/2021/4/unconscious-gaslighting-what-it-is-and-how-to-avoid-it



Author: Jennifer Lear

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