There’s a term that has emerged into my awareness in recent years called “gaslighting.” I have used it lately and had people look at me with questioning eyes, so it seems worth a discussion of the definition!
The definition of gaslighting is: to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. “‘Gaslighting’ is used to describe abusive behavior, specifically when an abuser manipulates information in such a way as to make a victim question his or her own sanity. Gaslighting intentionally makes someone doubt their memories or perception of reality.” (PRI)
Gaslighting is a tricky concept, and it absolutely takes advantage of the one who is trying to be a people pleaser. It can be a tool used to silence discussion, to rebuild a shared history into a more favorable final outcome, and to assert superiority of one person over another.
An example of gaslighting from my experience:
CC has never expected folks to travel more than 100 miles to practicums or community visits, etc. I know this because I’ve served in a huge geographical territory and this is a staple of what we talk about to leaders. However, when I pushed back on current leadership about requiring tutors to attend a practicum after the location was moved to 100+ miles away from their home, I was told that rule never existed.
It took me texting folks who have been serving in large territories and asking them, “This is a thing, right? I didn’t make it up?” and much research to discover that the 100 mile expectation is clearly stated in the Family Covenant that each family signs. Triumphant, I said – “This is a thing! I promise, I’m not crazy!” at which point the team leadership told me that the stricture only applied to families, whereas tutors were called to a higher standard. That I was still crazy for not recognizing this.
But… tutors who are independent contractors are held to a lesser standard by law in our state and should not be expected to attend any training whatsoever – they should be contracted because they already possess the skill set needed to fulfill the job!
I was led to believe that I was making up a common practice and a little insane – or contrary – or causing confusion – so the leadership could put all of the responsibility for all of the conflict onto my own shoulders. But I never initiated the conflict; I only got involved when the appropriate boundaries were overstepped and it threatened the lawful operation of my community… and yet I walked away from the conversations questioning if I was the problem.
When an organization changes its practices regularly, it lends itself to situations where gaslighting can occur easily. When an organization preaches humility to it’s leadership – which is a good thing – it lends itself to difficulty thinking a differing opinion is allowed to exist. When leaders speak down to you, or tell you that you just don’t understand from the correct perspective – without giving you the tools to see it from “the right perspective” – it sets up an unhealthy, abusive relationship.
Goodness gracious – I sat for years on situations that made me uncomfortable because I refused to say anything just in case it was a preference issue instead of a sin issue! There is so much gray in this world and I don’t want to be a destroyer – I want to build things up!
Repeatedly, almost as a mantra, I have spent this spring saying, “I have common sense. I use good judgement, I am a leader with integrity, I am not overreacting,” because the folks above me were telling me that by speaking up, by going to bat for my tutors and community, I was subversive, unsubmissive, acting like a spoiled child who wasn’t getting their way, and divisive. (And don’t let me get started on what my husband thinks about the manipulative assault he saw taking place on my character and self-perception over this!)
THIS IS GASLIGHTING.
“Gaslighting is an insidious act that makes the victim doubt and mistrust what they think, experience, or feel. In short, it’s a brilliantly brutal way of messing with someone’s mind.” (The Date Mix)
Here are some suggestions to help you if you’ve been gaslighted:
If you’ve made a decision, stand by it. Yes, you could be wrong – so what are the consequences if you’ve messed up? Can you live with them? Yes? Then stand by your decision. Test your decision with writing a list. Research your decision. Then, even if it’s a gray area, STAND.
Keep a Record.
May I just say that it might be wise to figure out how to record your conflict conversations? (Obviously, don’t break your state law here. But, in all but 11 states, federal law allows for one-party consent, enabling you to record a conversation in person or over the phone, if you are a participant in the conversation.)
Recording your calls allows you to go back later and actually know what was said. It has been a wonderful antidote to “I never said that,” when I can say, “Actually, you did say that – it’s a direct quote from this conversation right here.” Since gaslighting techniques prey on making you believe you’re misunderstanding, actually knowing what was said has a liberating affect on the whole resolution process.
(And yes, I do realize how messed up it is that I’m saying you should record conversations within a Christian organization in order to ensure truthful statements….)
Confide in a Trusted Support System.
You need to have someone who can help you see reason and logic. This is not gossip, this is survival. You don’t necessarily need a dozen people to help you see truth, but you do need one or maybe two folks who can help you walk through these issues. They don’t even have to be a part of the organization! Try a parent, a friend, a spouse, a sibling, or even a therapist. Have someone who is willing to listen to you sort stuff the tangled issues – isolation is a key technique to making sure you stay confused and doubtful of your own convictions.
The time might come for you to give up. I know the fighter in you recoils when you read that! But you can honor the call for unity within the body of Christ without being in constant, daily relationship with another. Sometimes the best choice is to make a clean break and walk.
How do you know when enough is enough? “If your partner genuinely wants to change, then they’ll acknowledge their part, apologize for any wrongdoing, and want to work on the relationship, which will be evident to you… [but] the sad truth is that your abuser may never realize or admit what they were doing – mostly because they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.” (Brianne Hogan)
Your healthiest choice might very well be to walk away and let them just simmer in their wrongy-wrongness, especially if there is no acknowledgement that they can see anything from your perspective.
Don’t Blame Yourself.
“Logic and reasoning don’t work with a gaslighter. While things might never make sense to you, that doesn’t mean you should shoulder the blame.” (Brianne Hogan) For those who are genuinely wanting to come at conflict from a consensus based approach, who are trying to avoid pridefulness, it can be really hard to not look around and take the blame for things going wrong on your own shoulders.
Yes, there are likely things you could have done better – but that’s the human experience and it’s part of learning! If things go badly for the other party (or if the organization fails), there needs to be reckoning on their part for the role they played through subterfuge, tricky wording, and guilted expectations. Their failure is not your fault for saying, “No, I refuse to be used anymore.” Your stand for logic and reasoning is actually a sign of health, strength, and beauty.
Recognizing gaslighting is hard, but it’s also really hard to acknowledge that you’ve been the victim of the techniques. I’m so sorry if you have experienced this! I know that I’m continuing to work through my own experiences with gaslighting – calling a spade a spade is part of my healing process.
Do you have experiences you realize were ultimately gaslighting techniques? I’d love to hear in the comments, as well as how you’ve found healing!