Gaslighting is used by people to make other people question their version of reality. It’s an effective way of convincing someone else that you’re right and they’re wrong. By doing so, you can manipulate people into acting in ways which meet your needs and place them in a weak position within the relationship.
We often think of gaslighters as having a well-defined endgame, and many people do use it as a form of intentional emotional abuse. But it’s equally possible that you act in a way which forces people to question their version of reality, impacts their self-esteem, and disempowers them without intentionally meaning to. And, without consciously realising it, you get a benefit from disempowering people in this way.
Here are some signs you may be an unintentional gaslighter:
1. You tell people they’re wrong—because they express opinions which differ from yours.
We all have different ways of thinking and acting. Some actions are so cruel and unacceptable that, as a decent human being, you are doing the right thing by calling the person out.
But do you have a general inability to accept that other people have a right to do or think things which are different to the way you think or act—and then do you feel obliged to tell them they’re wrong? Do you read something on a blog or social media post and feel the need to leave a nasty comment because this person is expressing a view or working in a way which doesn’t match your standards? Is it difficult for you to avoid expressing an opinion which could be very hurtful to someone else—just because you think you know better?
When you criticise someone’s opinions and ways of being—especially when you make people too scared to disagree with you or place them in a position where it is difficult for them to respond to you—you are using emotional abuse tactics. Believing that you’re right and everyone else is wrong, and feeling the need to express this without any consideration for another person’s feeling, is a form of severely distorted thinking.
2. You don’t see the harm in lying.
We probably all tell the odd little lie to get ourselves out of a sticky situation or get the job we really want. However, if you find yourself consistently lying, you need to ask yourself what impact it's likely having on the person who is on the receiving end of the lie.
Let’s say that you have been helping yourself to your flatmate’s makeup. When they’ve noticed the tub going down quicker than usual, they call you out. You lie—perhaps becoming emotional and very defensive in the process. Of course, you didn’t touch it!
Scared off by your emotional outburst, your flatmate backs off and questions whether they’re right in the first place. You won! But you won through cheating and dishonesty, and by forcing someone else to doubt themselves. If you keep doing this to someone—and perhaps with far more serious issues such as lying about meeting work deadlines, drinking alone, or having an affair—not only are you creating a web of deceit which is uncomfortable for you, but you are constantly forcing the person on the receiving end to doubt themselves and what they believe to be real.
You might be lying in this way because you feel like it’s the only way you can get out of a difficult situation—rather than to be cruel—but the impact it has can be extremely damaging on the recipient.
3. You gloss over the fights.
Imagine that you and someone close to you have had a fight which has not come to a resolution—for instance, you fought over whether you should move house or not, and the argument ended in slamming doors without taking you any further forwards in the decision.
Afterward, do you find yourself refusing to discuss the fight or follow through? Do you just carry on as if nothing has happened, instead of offering an apology or taking the time to address the issues which led to the fight? If your partner, friend, or colleague expresses a desire to talk about what happened, do you brush them off or redefine the fight as “a little tiff,” refusing to acknowledge that, to the other person at least, it was a significant event which needs to be dealt with?
Disregarding someone else’s emotional and processing needs in this way, over time, has the effect of silencing them. What point is there in discussing things with you if you deny the significance of what happened before? It is also an effective way of getting away with bad behaviour—you can shout, be aggressive, and behave badly—and then act normally so it seems like the bad behaviour never happened.
You might be acting in this way because, to you, the fight is over with or it just seems easier to avoid revisiting it. But once again, if you keep acting in this way, you’re forcing the recipient to become silenced in the relationship and to question the validity of their own feelings.
You may have adopted these behaviours by learning from the way in which things were done in your own house while you were growing up and witnessing your mum or dad acting in this way towards each other. Perhaps one of your parents or siblings gaslighted you. You may simply be unaware of the devastating impact your actions are having on other people. Awareness is the first step in changing. If you need help in developing new ways of thinking and acting, please seek the support of a suitably qualified therapist.
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