Unintentional Gaslighting: Do Gaslighters Know They Are Gaslighting?

Can Someone Gaslight You Without Realizing It? 

A person can gaslight you without realizing it. The motivation behind gaslighting (and other forms of manipulation) is to have control and to avoid taking responsibility and getting into trouble. This drive can happen on an unconscious level and the person may not realize why or what they are doing. 

This applies to gaslighting behaviors such as trivializing (e.g. “you are so sensitive”), stonewalling (“I don’t want to talk about that”) or countering (“you make me feel like such a bad person”).

Other gaslighting behaviors such as lying or denial are a conscious effort to distort the victim’s perception and confuse them. The perpetrator may not be thinking “I am going to gaslight this person” but they are purposefully lying or denying the truth. If the victim knows the truth or has the facts, lying and denying is gaslighting.

For example, if Emma says to Sarah “I saw you with Lisa” and Sarah says “no, you are imagining things”  this is gaslighting. However, if Emma asks Sarah “where were you tonight?” but has no concept of where she has been and Sarah says “at the gym”, this is lying, not gaslighting.

two women facing away from each other, head in their hands, frustrated and confused

Is Unintentional Gaslighting Still Gaslighting? 

Unintentional gaslighting is still gaslighting. The intention might not be malicious but the consequences can be the same; the victim’s feelings or beliefs are invalidated and they are left feeling confused and doubting their perception, memory, or sanity.

Here are some examples of gaslighting that can be unintentional:

  • Telling someone their opinion is wrong
  • Saying “it’s in your head” when someone tells you how they feel
  • A parent telling their child “you’re not hungry” when they ask for a snack
  • Telling your friend “it’s not that bad” or “other people have it much worse than you” when they share their distress with you

Why Do People Unconsciously Gaslight? 

The drive to gaslight is not always conscious. A gaslighter may unconsciously want to have control and avoid accountability. It can stem from not trusting themselves or other people and exerting control to cope with this insecurity.  

They may have learned this behavior growing up in a family that engaged in gaslighting. This normalizes the behavior, allowing it to occur below conscious awareness. It can also be a survival mechanism that developed due to growing up in a toxic or abusive environment.

It might be a way to cope with an insecure attachment style. If a person with an avoidant attachment style feels pressured to be emotionally intimate, they may dismiss you “I don’t want to talk about that” or they may not like to see you upset but are unsure how to be supportive and say “you’re overthinking it”.

A person with an anxious attachment style might gaslight you if they feel there is a threat to the relationship. They might say “no one else will love you the way I love you” or “if you really loved me, you would not be angry at me”. In both cases, the person is trying to cope with their insecurities, albeit in an unhelpful way.

Signs Of Unintentional Gaslighting In A Relationship 

Although the unintentional gaslighter did not intend to harm the victim, gaslighting is nonetheless harmful to the victim. Therefore, to identify whether your partner is (unintentionally) gaslighting you, pay attention to how you feel in the relationship.

Furthermore, be mindful of the way your partner treats your feelings and opinions, how they react when you confront them, and whether they apologize and admit to their wrongdoings.

Signs of unintentional gaslighting include:

Your Feelings

  • You have noticed a decline in your self-esteem and confidence as a result of the relationship
  • You worry about how you say things
  • You avoid confrontations with your partner because they dismiss you or shift the blame onto you
  • You doubt your feelings and perception of things
  • You feel unheard and misunderstood

Their Behaviors and Words

  • Being told your feelings or opinions are wrong
  • Saying “you’re overthinking things” when you are worried about an interview or other important event
  • Dismissing your feelings by saying, for example, “you’re so sensitive” or “there’s no need to get upset/ cry”
  • When you confront your partner, they play the victim and shift the blame onto you. For example “I lied because I knew you were going to get angry”
  • When you express distress or anger about a situation at work or in life and your partner says “don’t be so negative – it’s not that bad” or “you should be grateful for what you have when there are so many people suffering in the world”

These examples show that gaslighting can come from innocent or even caring intentions. A way to establish whether gaslighting is unintentional or malicious is to express to your partner how their behavior makes you feel. You can tell them (with examples) how they are gaslighting you.

If their reaction is to listen, engage in what you are saying, and apologize, it is likely they were unaware of what they were doing. If they respond by denying, dismissing you, or trying to shift the blame, it’s likely the behavior is intentional.

Is Unintentional Gaslighting Abuse?

Gaslighting is psychological abuse when it is intentional. It is not abusive as long as the gaslighting is neither deliberate nor a common occurrence.

The American Psychological Association defines psychological/ emotional abuse as “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 may not be purposefully abusive but the consequences of gaslighting can still be harmful to the victim. It can cause the victim to question their feelings, thoughts, and opinions, and affect their self-esteem.

Can You Gaslight And Not Be A Narcissist? 

Not all gaslighters are narcissists and not all narcissists gaslight. Nevertheless, gaslighting is a strategy commonly used by people with high levels of narcissism as a means to exert control.

A high level of narcissism is associated with a sense of grandiosity and superiority, and a lack of empathy. They believe they are entitled to control and exploit other people for their gain. Their tactics are often manipulative and abusive, such as their use of gaslighting.

Most people engage in some form of gaslighting. It can be the result of wanting to avoid taking responsibility and being in trouble, and/ or a way to gain the approval of others and preserve their sense of self. Narcissists use gaslighting as a form of control and manipulation. 

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.simplypsychology.org/attachmentstyles.html#:~:text=Avoidant%20attachment%20is%20a%20type,They%20show%20little%20stranger%20anxiety.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Professional

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer specializing in mental health and psychology.