“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.”
— Paramahansa Yogananda
“If someone treats you bad, just remember that there is something wrong with them, not you. Normal people don't go around destroying other people.”
— Author unknown
Gaslighting is a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and to ultimately lose one’s own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth. Gaslighting statements and accusations are usually based on blatant lies, or exaggeration of the truth.
Although many forms of gaslighting are overt and obtrusive (i.e. persistent and false verbal attacks, accusations, condescension, judgement, and criticism), there are also passive-aggressive forms of gaslighting that are more subtle and difficult to detect at the outset, and can carry the same negative contagion and toxic manipulativeness as overt gaslighting.
Here are seven signs of a passive-aggressive gaslighter, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters and How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People. Although some people may occasionally be guilty of the following traits, a chronic passive-aggressive gaslighter will regularly engage in one or more of the following machinations, without awareness of (or concern for) the destructive impact of gaslighting on relationships.
1. Persistent Lies About or Deceptions Against the Gaslightee
“If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth.”
— Famous quotation, attributed to various sources
Chronic lying and deception is one of the most common types of passive-aggressive gaslighting, whereby the gaslighter creates a false narrative about or against the gaslightee that has little proof or validity. Since the purpose of gaslighting is to falsify and misdirect the truth to dominate, exploit, and control relationships, lies and deceptions often serve to shift focus away from the real issues (i.e. the gaslighter’s own wrongdoings and responsibility) while accusing the gaslightee as the source of the problem.
“When I caught my boyfriend sexting with someone, he flatly said it didn’t happen—that I imagined the whole thing. He called me a crazy b----."
2. Many Subtle Digs and Subversive Judgements
“My father’s favorite responses to my views were: ‘but…,’ ‘actually…,’ and ‘there’s more to it than this…’ He always has to feel like he knows better.”
Repeating subtle condescending remarks regarding the gaslightee’s thoughts, personality, ability, appearance, and/or background. Marginalizes and invalidates the gaslightee to feel inadequate.
“You’ll make more money when you have a REAL job.”
— Girlfriend to partner about his work as a salesperson
3. Persistent Negative Humor and Sarcasm
"Behind the smile, a hidden knife!"
— Ancient Chinese proverb describing passive-aggressive behavior
Disguised with a smile, negative humor can systematically tear down the gaslightee by repeatedly making fun of and embarrassing someone in private and public situations, thereby gaining twisted power over the victim. Sarcasm can be utilized to put-down an individual based on their physical appearance, personal characteristics, individual ability, socioeconomic and cultural background, gender and gender-orientation, etc. Persistent negative humor and sarcasm are passive-aggressive forms of psychological bullying.
4. Regular Negative Gossip
"Only insecure people need to speak badly about others as an underhanded way of praising themselves.”
― Source unknown
Negative gossip behind the gaslightee’s back is a subversive form of personal attack that undermines the victim’s reputation and credibility. Negative gossip often smears or grossly exaggerates the truth. The insidious and gaslighting nature of negative gossip is that, after being repeated many times, people in gossip circles may accept unsubstantiated rumors as the truth, and reject fact-finding even when hard evidence is presented to the contrary. The gaslightee is treated with unjustified bias, discrimination, or even contempt. Regular negative gossip is a cancer in relationships.
"A lot of the trouble in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other.”
― Ronald Reagan
5. Regular Negative Social Comparison
Pitting an individual unfavorably against their peers, and using negative comparisons to justify criticism and mistreatment. Negative social comparison is often disguised as “advice” that’s “good” for the gaslightee, when such ridicule actually tears down the victim. Over time, negative social comparison can be pathologized and becomes part of a dysfunctional narrative, stigmatizing the gaslightee.
- “Why can’t you act more like your sibling?” (parent pitting children against one another)
- “You used to look so much better, why don’t you shape up like your friend?” (spouse shaming partner)
- “You should perform as well as your peer!” (teacher/coach criticizing student)
- “If you can only be more like…” (relationship ridicule)
A common theme through these examples is that acceptance is only given conditionally (even in close relationships). On the other hand, unspoken rejection is used as threat, coercion, and/or punishment.
6. Persistent Social Exclusion
Often under false pretense, the gaslighter may overtly or covertly exclude the gaslightee from friends, family, peers, community, pertinent information, and/or other reasonable contact. The victim is thus deprived of positive connections, healthy support, and empowering resources.
“Soon after our marriage, my husband wanted to limit my contacts with friends and family. He told me he was the only one I could trust, and everyone else was lying.”
7. Persistent Blaming
Since the purpose of gaslighting is to misdirect for the purpose of domination and exploitation, persistent blaming without verification or validity serves as an underhanded, passive-aggressive machination to keep the gaslighter on the offensive, and the gaslightee defensive. The negativity, based largely on falsehoods or exaggerations rather than evidence and proof, damages the victim’s credibility and reputation (individually or as a group). The gaslighter can then avoid drawing attention to their own weaknesses.
“The work your department does is a waste of time and resources. How do you even justify your employment?”
— Anonymous manager
“My wife is a pathetic loser, and she needs to know the truth.”
— Anonymous husband
In conclusion, what these seven types of passive-aggressive gaslighting have in common is the subversive attempt to distort, deceive, and manipulate, keeping the gaslightee off balance and inducing insecurity and inadequacy in the victim. The gaslighter can thereby get away with his or her own character flaws and personal wrongdoings, and exercise control and domination over the relationship. Passive-aggressive gaslighting is a form of covert brainwashing and, at its worst, mental and emotional abuse.
For tips on how to handle gaslighters, see references below.
© 2020 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Psychological Bullying. PNCC. (2017)
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People. PNCC. (2014)
Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People — 2nd Edition. PNCC. (2006)
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Narcissists. PNCC. (2014)
Calef, Victor; Weinshel, Edward M. Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting. Psychoanal Q. (1981)
Dorpat, Theodore L. Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Jason Aronson. (1996)
Gass, G.Z.; Nichols, W.C. Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome. Journal of Contemporary Family Therapy. (1988)
Portnow, Kathryn. Dialogues of Doubt: The Psychology of Self-Doubt and Emotional Gaslighting in Adult Women and Men. Harvard Graduate School of Education. (1996)
Simson, George K. Gaslighting As A Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, And Why. Counselling Resource. (2011)
See How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters and How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People