After the posting on my article Gaslighting: Know It to Identify It and Protect Yourself, I’ve received emails asking whether people who are gaslighting know that they are doing it. As I mentioned in the article, gaslighting is a pattern of manipulation tactics used by abusers, narcissists, dictators, and cult leaders in order to gain control over a person or people. The goal of gaslighting is to make the victim or victims question their own reality and subsequently depend more on the gaslighter.
Do gaslights know they’re doing it? It depends on the gaslighter.
Some people or entities that gaslight do, in fact, realize they are doing it – it is a strategy they have studied up on. The materials gaslighters get ideas from would surprise you. For example, cult leader Charles Manson read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (2010) in order to learn how to manipulate followers (Guinn, 2014). Guinn writes that Manson particularly focused on Chapter 7, “Let the other fellow feel that the idea is his”. And herein lies the difference between people who pathologically gaslight and the general population – the vast majority of people who have read Carnegie’s book have not lead lives of violence, abuse, and destruction.
One of the ways to protect yourself from being gaslighted is to know what these behaviors entail by educating yourself about them. The book 48 Laws of Power (Greene, 2000) details what characteristics and tactics some of history’s figures have practiced – including steps they have taken to manipulate others. Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006) explains through research how easily people can be manipulated.
Some gaslighters may have learned it from others – one of the primary places we learn behavior is from our parents. If a parent has addiction or other mental health issues, gaslighting may have been used to manipulate the child into keeping quiet about abuse and/or addiction. Gaslighting may be used by a parent in order to alienate the child from the other parent. For example, in parental alienation, one parent may depict the other as a “deadbeat” and tell the child the parent’s “transgressions” in order for the child to align with the “reporting” parent and see him or her as the hero. In order to look like the hero, the gaslighter must create a distinct enemy.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that people who are children of gaslighters will adopt gaslighting behaviors – for many, it teaches them exactly what not to do when raising their own children.
In the case of a person that has a personality disorder like antisocial personality disorder, some people are born with an insatiable need to control others and a deep-seated anxiety.
Others gaslight in order to feel some sense of control in their own lives by making others depend on them. Gaslighting can also be part of an authoritarian personality – a person who has an authoritarian personality tends to think in absolutes – things are 100% right or 100% wrong. When a gaslighter thinks that they are not the problem and everyone else is, this is called having an ego-syntonic personality. It can be very difficult to get ego-syntonic gaslighters into treatment – they believe nothing is wrong with them. A gaslighting spouse or partner may either refuse to go to therapy, or if they do attend with you, they tell the therapist that you are the problem. If the therapist recommends that the gaslighter changes a behavior, the gaslighter labels the therapist as incompetent. Even in therapy, the gaslighter may not truly be aware or refuses to acknowledge that their behavior is the problem.
If a person is practicing gaslighting behavior without being consciously aware of it, they may get a “payoff” when their victim becomes more dependent on them. Then the cycle continues.
The gaslighter also gets a “boost” when there are no checks and balances in place – no one is holding them accountable for their behavior. For example, a cult leader may exile or kill anyone who tells others that the leader is not treating followers fairly. Subsequently, other followers will not speak out for fear of exile or being killed. Keep in mind that dependency is one of the goals of gaslighters.
If a gaslighter is not aware of their manipulative behavior, that does not make it acceptable – it is still pathological, and it is still their responsibility. For gaslighters that have read up on this behavior or were taught it, the same rule applies.
If you think you might be in a relationship with a narcissist (they tend to practice gaslighting) and are unsure what to do, see my Psychology Today articles 10 Signs You Are in a Relationship with a Narcissist, 8 More Signs You’re With a Narcissist, and So You’re in a Relationship with a Narcissist, Now What?
Carnegie, D. (2010). How to win friends and influence people. Simon and Schuster.
Cialdini, R. (2006, rev.) Influence: The psychology of persuasion. Harper Business.
Guinn, J. (2014). Manson: The life and times of Charles Manson. Simon and Schuster.
Copyright 2017 Sarkis Media – www.stephaniesarkis.com