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Feeling like you've been subtly tricked? It might be 'ambient gaslighting'

Chances are you've heard of the term "gaslighting." But what about "ambient gaslighting?"

Most people now know gaslighting, put simply, is when someone tries to make someone else question their reality. "Ambient gaslighting" refers to the subtle undercurrents of mistreatment or disrespect that we experience in small doses and may not realize are a form of gaslighting. 

It could be as simple as a passive-aggressive communication style you encounter frequently from someone in your life, or it could look like a boss who employs a leadership style that makes your team fearful to speak up. It could even refer to imbalanced news or deceiving advertising we encounter when we scroll on our phones. 

Physician psychiatrist is trying to coin the term. Think of it like background noise. 

"There's just this background feeling that maybe I'm being tricked in some way," Brenner says. "And so I think that just makes people have a general sense of unease. And then what do you do with that? Are you aware of it? Do you kind of ignore it? If you ignore it, you might be afraid that you're going to be susceptible."

We know gaslighting is when someone tries to make someone else question their reality. "Ambient gaslighting" refers to the subtle undercurrents of gaslighting we may experience without really thinking about it.

Examples of ambient gaslighting 

Ambient gaslighting is just that: it's around you, percolating in the air. Here are some more examples of where you might sense it's subtle presence:

  • In targeted marketing. "People may be confused as to whether the ad they got is something they really wanted, or whether that desire has been planted in that," Brenner says.
  • In political news. Polarized politics have led to seemingly alternate realities that have only accelerated during the pandemic. Convincing opinion-like news programs or unverified viral social media posts may make you question your beliefs.
  • In the workplace. Executives may espouse transparency, but employees may experience behavior contrary to to that.

Depending on where you get your information from – TikTok, partisan cable news programs, news websites – your version of "the truth" is arguably distorted in some way. It's difficult to navigate, and sometimes it's easier to agree with the version of the truth you want to hear.

"We're just constantly in an information environment, which is ambiguous at best," Brenner says. "Truth is hard to define. And then at worst, we don't know when we're being deceived and when we're not being deceived. Learning how to navigate that environment is a relatively kind of new skill."

What to do about ambient gaslighting

If you feel as if you're experiencing ambient gaslighting, take a beat and look inward. "People need to have a solid relationship with themselves," Brenner says. "And really, it's through self-awareness and self-understanding that we do best dealing with ambiguity from other people and in the environment."

This means educating yourself as a consumer to reach a proper conclusion on a given subject – such as reading different versions of a news story, or asking for more time with executives at work to ask clarifying questions.

If what your experiencing is more pervasive and less subtle, it might be plain old gaslighting, which is often more intentional. 

Are you being gaslit?

Here are signs you're being gaslit, according to ӣƵ columnist Sara Kuburic:

  • You are often confused. 
  • You are struggling to trust your memories or feelings. 
  • You find yourself constantly apologizing. 
  • You feel like you can’t do anything right. 
  • You are often nervous, worried or anxious.
  • You don’t feel confident.
  • You struggle to trust yourself.
  • You constantly blame yourself when something goes wrong (even if it’s not your fault).

If you want it to stop, Kuburic suggests:

  • Collect proof.
  • Get support.
  • Set clear boundaries.
  • Get professional help.

"Gaslighting is a difficult thing to navigate," Kuburic writes. "An outside and trained perspective can allow you to explore your reality, set boundaries and rebuild a sense of self-trust and worth."

More on gaslighting

Good tips:How to know if your partner might be gaslighting you. Phrases and words to pay attention to

Key explainer:What is gaslighting? Here's what it is and how to respond to the behavior.

Narcissist, gaslighting, love bombing:A guide to all the buzzwords around narcissism

And more on the workplace:Is your boss gaslighting you? Know the signs.

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