Are You Dealing With Ambient Gaslighting? Here's How To Know

This article contains discussion of psychological abuse.

Do you ever confront someone about something they said or did, and they respond with, "That's not how I remember it," or they nonchalantly twist your words into something else? Maybe it's a conversation about the holiday plans you came up with or the cohabiting rules you discussed and agreed upon. The more you try to explain or remind them of what they did, the more they challenge your messages and question your sanity. They make you look like you're the one in the wrong and that you're letting a distorted sense of reality cloud your judgment.


Although you know you're remembering things correctly and you're certainly not making things up, you're unable to flip out on them because they're always the picture of innocence, and they keep denying having done what you said. They don't call you "crazy" or "stupid," but they have a way of making you feel like you are when you're in their presence.

If this happens to you often, chances are, you're dealing with an ambient gaslighter. Now, it's normal for people to have different perspectives and recollections of things. But if this scene plays out repeatedly just because the other person enjoys sprinkling seeds of doubt in your mind and crippling your sense of self — to the end of creating a power imbalance in the relationship in their favor — that's ambient gaslighting, and it's a serious form of psychological abuse.


Ambient gaslighting subtly makes you doubt yourself

HealthyPlace defines ambient gaslighting as "the stealth, subtle, underground currents of maltreatment that sometimes go unnoticed even by the victims themselves, until it is too late." The mere mention of the word "ambient" suffices as an explanation of the insidious effect of this form of psychological abuse, which is harder to recognize than blatant gaslighting.


An ambient gaslighter does not often engage in irritable behavior or portray themselves as a villain. They are skilled at making their acts of covert abuse appear to be done out of sheer goodwill to throw the victim off guard and gain their trust, making them easier to control. For instance, an ambient abuser won't tell the target, "You're the worst driver ever." Instead, they'll make things up or drop a more subtle hint: "Are you sure you want to be in the driver's seat? You've been showing early symptoms of highway phobia, and I don't want you to get into trouble for that."

The abuser can disorient the victim to the point where they blame themselves for everything that goes wrong; the abuser may even go as far as playing the victim and guilt-tripping the real victim for questioning the abuser's motives. The result is the target living in a constant state of self-doubt and anxiety. With the buildup of subtle actions over time, the abuser wrenches the victim's sense of reality and makes them feel as if they would perish if left to their own devices.


Types of ambient abuse

Ambient gaslighting is a form of ambient abuse. According to Carla Corelli, who runs a site dedicated to surviving narcissistic abuse, ambient abuse manifests in five main forms: disorientation, incapacitation, shared psychosis, abuse of information, and control by proxy; any of these may be present with ambient gaslighting. 


Disorientation involves the questioning of the victim's perceptions and memories to make them look stupid or unreliable. Incapacitation also involves the abuser making the victim feel powerless, which encourages them to voluntarily give up more power to the abuser. They make you feel that you're not capable or not ready to do something — often by assuming a condescending tone and superior attitude when discussing your abilities and shrugging their shoulders or stonewalling when you disagree.

They may make you think that only the two of you share a particular belief, so all you have is each other. This method, aka shared psychotic disorder, is often seen among cult members (per WebMD) and is designed to brainwash you and alienate you from the outside world.


Other attempts at abusive control may include abuse of information — a form of emotional blackmail in which the abuser will leverage secrets or damaging information to create feelings of constant anxiety — and control by proxy. The abuser may use a third party, such as the victim's family and friends, to tighten their grip on them; for example, the abuser may persuade the victim's friends that they are unwell and require more time alone.

Are you being ambient-gaslit?

Because of its subtle nature, ambient gaslighting can be tricky to detect — you know something is off, but it's hard to pin down. But looking for the signs of ambient abuse is key. If you're always feeling challenged and oppressed when you're around someone, it's possible you're being ambient-gaslit. Perhaps the most obvious indicator is if they repeatedly question your memory of events, dismiss your opinions, and make you doubt your own intuition and competence. Some common ambient gaslighting phrases include things like "I don't see why you're so sensitive about this," "That's just the stress talking," or "Your concern is more imagined than real." 


An ambient gaslighter is also adept at fabricating a constantly confusing environment to debilitate the victim's faculties and force them to give up independent thinking. For instance, an abuser might regularly hide your phone, car keys, or purse and blame it on your forgetfulness (proving why you "need" the abuser's "help"). In a workplace environment, an ambient abuser may withhold key information to set you up to fail, make passive-aggressive comments seemingly too subtle to confront, or ignore your explanations or requests for help.

Remember, if you're dating or working with an ambient gaslighter, you're not likely to experience searing incidents of abuse that drive you to reach out urgently to an SOS helpline or other support — that could potentially disrupt the abuser's control. Rather, you'll feel more covertly belittled, unsure of what you're doing, and always on edge.


How to overcome ambient gaslighting

There's no easy way to deal with an ambient gaslighter. Some victims might develop trauma bonding and don't want to exit the relationship, per Psych Central. But if you find yourself getting increasingly reactive to someone's behavior, the least you can do is seek professional counseling.  


If you are unable to disconnect with an abuser immediately, make a point of recording crucial conversations with them (preferably with their knowledge), screenshotting exchanges of information, or keeping a journal detailing the exact date and time of conversations so that you may turn up to any subsequent discussion with evidence, certified life coach Kamini Wood advises. This will help protect your integrity from the abuser's attacks and provide self-reminders that your recollections can be trusted. A gaslighter may not stop, but if they know you're coming prepared, they may be less inclined to deny what they've said and done. 

When you start to hear gaslighting language, insist on your emotional integrity and own what you said with phrases like "I know what I'm talking about, so don't try to dismiss my opinions," "I take pride in my sensitivity, but I don't appreciate your condescending tone," or "You cannot tell me how to react. My feelings are valid."


You can also use daily self-affirmations — even if they may not solve gaslighting, a mindful approach to self-care can nevertheless reinforce your sense of self. Nurture your self-worth by focusing on yourself and surrounding yourself with more affirming people.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.