Do gaslighters know they're manipulative, or do they do it without realizing it?

Since posting my article Gaslighting: Know It to Identify It and Protect Yourself, I’ve received emails asking whether people who gaslight actually know that they are doing it. To review: Gaslighting is a pattern of manipulation tactics used by abusers, narcissists, dictators, and cult leaders to gain control over a person or people. The goal is to make the victim or victims question their own reality and depend on the gaslighter. So, do gaslighters know they're doing it?

It depends on the gaslighter. 

Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., N.C.C., L.M.H.C.,Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., N.C.C., L.M.H.C., is the author of five books on adult ADHD: Natural Relief for Adult ADHD: Complementary Strategies for Increasing Focus, Attention, and Motivation With and Without Medication (2015) 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD: How to Overcome Chronic Distraction & Accomplish Your Goals (2nd edition 2011); Making the Grade with ADD: A Student's Guide to Succeeding in College with Attention Deficit Disorder (2008); and ADD and Your Money: A Guide to Personal Finance for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (2009); and Adult ADD: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed (2011).

Editor: Saad Shaheed

Some people or entities that gaslight do, in fact, realize they are doing it: It is a strategy they have studied—and their sources may surprise you. Cult leader Charles Manson read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (2010) to learn how to manipulate his followers (Guinn, 2014). Guinn writes that Manson particularly focused on Chapter 7, which included this advice: “Let the other fellow feel that the idea is his." And herein lies one difference between people who pathologically gaslight and the general population—the vast majority of the thousands who have read Carnegie's book have not led lives of violence, abuse, and destruction. 

One way to protect yourself from being gaslighted, therefore, is to educate yourself about gaslighters' behaviors. The book 48 Laws of Power (Greene, 2000) details the characteristics and tactics some historical figures have practiced, including steps they have taken to manipulate others. And 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—in many cases, their own parents. If a parent lives with addiction or other mental health issues, gaslighting may be used to manipulate a 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 a child about the other parent’s “transgressions” in order for the child to align with the “reporting” parent and see him or her as the hero. But in order to look like the hero, the gaslighter must create a distinct enemy. This doesn’t mean that people who are children of gaslighters will adopt gaslighting behavior—for many, in fact, such an upbringing teaches them exactly what not to do when raising their own children. 

In the case of a person who has a personality disorder such as antisocial personality disorder, they 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 with an authoritarian personality tends to think in absolutes: Things are 100 percent right or 100 percent 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 may tell the therapist that you are the problem. If the therapist recommends that the gaslighter changes a behavior, the gaslighter will label the therapist as incompetent. Even in therapy, a gaslighter may not truly be aware of, or may refuse to acknowledge that their behavior is the problem.

Even 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. And then the cycle continues. The gaslighter also gets a “boost” when there are no checks and balances in place—no one 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, further followers may not speak out for fear of their lives. 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 who have read up on this behavior or were taught it, of course, the same rule applies.