Do Gaslighters Know What They're Doing? Psychologists Share the Truth

Gaslighter moving blocks that say 'FACT' to spell out 'FAKE'

It’s a given in life: sometimes, relationships can be tough. Really tough. Whether you’re dealing with a partner, best friend or close family member, there are moments when things can just get messy, and you might realize that this person perhaps isn’t treating you the best. That’s when your awareness of your self-worth kicks in and you understand that you may have to face this person and their behavior, or enlist someone else’s help to confront them.

Gaslighting is something that can cause relationships to go south in a hurry, and ahead, we’ll explore whether or not gaslighters actually know what they’re doing.

Related: 13 Red Flags of Gaslighting at Work and How to Respond, According to Psychologists

What Is a Gaslighter?

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Erika Bach says that gaslighting refers to an interpersonal dynamic where one individual causes the other to question their perception of reality.

She explains, “For example, after an argument, a partner might raise something that was said in an argument that hurt their feelings, and the other denies that it was said, or states that it was a joke. Knowingly or not, the person who denied the others' experience then may cause that person to falter in their conviction, and to question what actually happened and if they have reason to feel hurt.”

Jolie Silva, PhD, Chief Operating Officer of New York Behavioral Health, says that a gaslighter is someone who has a motive of using manipulation to make another person think they are wrong, mentally unstable or confused, and is often successful at doing just that.

Related: What Is 'Gaslighting'? Examples and How to Deal With It, According to Psychologists

Do Gaslighters Know What They're Doing?

Dr. Bach believes that someone has the ability to gaslight another without knowingly doing so. “Furthermore, I believe that on the whole, individuals who are doing so knowingly and with malicious intent are in the minority of people who engage in this behavior,” she adds. “Even if there is some awareness, they are likely to explain it away or justify their perspective so as to diminish the discomfort of consciously doing something to harm another.”

Dr. Silva thinks that it depends on the specific person.

“There are times when gaslighters have very little insight into the problems with their behaviors and deny using manipulation tactics on others,” she explains.

The bottom line? The gaslighter you’re dealing with may or may not be aware of their gaslighting, since it depends on each individual person and their motives. This is why it’s important to talk things through with the gaslighter, or turn to a meditator to help if you feel the situation isn’t safe for your wellbeing.

Related: 7 Tiny Ways Being Gaslit Changes You, According to a Psychologist

Can Someone Unknowingly Gaslight?

As mentioned, yes, people can unknowingly gaslight, “especially if they lack self-awareness,” as Dr. Bach says, adding that someone is more likely to unknowingly gaslight if they have never faced consequences for this behavior.

What Causes Someone to Become a Gaslighter?

“While humans are sophisticated, we are still animals,” Dr. Bach points out. “Ultimately, animals behave in ways that are reinforced and help them to meet their needs. Most often, behaviors are learned by modeling; thus, if an individual grew up in an environment where gaslighting commonly occurred, they may be more likely to repeat these behaviors.”

She says that other contributors to the likelihood of becoming a gaslighter include fragile self-esteem, narcissism, the need for control and unresolved trauma.

Dr. Silva explains that a personality disorder can also be the root cause.

Related: Here's What 'Medical Gaslighting' Means—and How to Know If You're a Victim Of It

How Should You Deal with a Gaslighter?

“Your greatest ally in dealing with a gaslighter is by setting boundaries,” Dr. Bach says. “People may be unknowingly invalidating someone's experience and are not aware of the impact they are having. In the case of trusted relationships, you can make your feelings and experience known, and hope that the individual will alter their behavior. If they don't, you may benefit from setting boundaries regarding your willingness to speak to this person, what you make them aware of or if you spend any time around them.”

Dr. Silva says that it’s also key to realize that you’re a victim of gaslighting.

She says, “If people think they may be a victim of regular gaslighting, they should speak to a mental health professional about how to respond and engage with the gaslighter.”

Next up, learn the 35 common gaslighting phrases in relationships.