The dangers of “gaslighting”

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 

2 Timothy 4:1-4

What is “gaslighting” you ask? The term itself comes from the title of a 1938 play that was turned into a 1944 movie entitled Gaslight. In the movie a husband psychologically manipulates his wife to try to get her to think she’s insane. His goal was to have her committed to a mental institution and steal her inheritance.

Taken from that movie, the term “gaslighting” was originally used in clinical psychology to help those who have suffered from mental manipulation in an abusive relationship. And in this context the term is useful. It can help an abuse victim understand how she has been psychologically manipulated.

The problem with this term now is that it has been taken out of the context of abuse. This term is now used in a colloquial sense to describe every day interactions, and this is where it has become dangerous. Instead of it being understood as an intentional psychological abuse used in an abusive relationship over time, it is now thrown out there as an accusation in the middle of a conversation that involves simple disagreement.

Here’s how gaslighting is being defined today: “Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories.” Can you see how this definition is problematic if it is taken out of original context of an abusive relationship? Here’s how the term “gaslighting” is now being misused: if you make me question my perception of reality or my memories then you are psychologically abusing me.

Can you see how destructive that claim is? Can you see how the term can be used to prevent your listener from disagreeing with you for fear of being accused of psychological manipulation? Can you see how this term is now used to silence people into compliance?

For example, I can perceive that everyone is against me. But, if you try to convince me that my perception of reality is off, that maybe people are just misunderstanding me, then you are gaslighting me. You are psychologically abusing me. How dare you make me question my perception of reality!

Or if, because of my insecurities, my memories are filtered through a lens of self-hatred, and I “remember” that my friends were always mean to me growing up, you aren’t allowed to disagree with me. If you, as my friend who was also there, try to help me understand that wasn’t the case, you are gaslighting me. You are making me question my memories.

Do you see how accusing someone of gaslighting forces them to stop disagreeing with my “perception of reality?” If you disagree with me at any point and cause me to question my perception of reality, you are guilty of gaslighting, which is psychological abuse. So, you disagreeing with me is abusive. I get to weaponize my victimhood whenever someone disagrees with me.

The truth is that people often have skewed perceptions of reality. What they think happened, didn’t actually happen. But they are convinced it did because it comes through the filter and lens of their own life experiences, hurts, and wounds. What they think was said wasn’t actually said. Their own insecurities caused them to read subtext into the comment that actually was said. This happens ALL. THE. TIME. It is the most human thing in the world to do.

The thing about deception is that you don’t know you’re being deceived. We need help from others. We need people in our life who we trust who will cause us to “question our perception of reality.” This is what healthy relationships do. When I have a filter, or a bias, or a lens that is causing me to skew reality and skew what really happened, I NEED a good friend (and most often my wife) to cause me to question how I remember an event. This is not abuse. This is love. This is community. This is accountability.

Gaslighting, which is a useful term in a clinical setting, has become a dangerous accusation in a general setting with chilling consequences. It is a weapon used to eliminate disagreement and demand thought-compliance. It makes me an abuse victim every time someone tries to show me where my perception of reality is off. It makes me an abuse victim every time someone tries to show me where I might be wrongly filtering a memory through my own wounds. It’s too often used as a manipulative accusation intended to suppress disagreement.

If a person doesn’t feel heard in the middle of a conversation, disagreement, or argument, they should just state that they don’t feel heard instead of launching the accusation of “gaslighting.” The use of this term needs to stay in its original, useful context of counseling abuse victims. Outside of that, it becomes a thinly-veiled compliance tactic that silences disagreement.

Hearts At Rest

This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 

1 John 3:19-20

As a pastor, I have recommended counseling for a countless number of people. I am a strong believer that getting to a place of emotional health often requires the help of others, and sometimes professionals, to help us see our blind sides and the deeper wounds in our hearts.

When counseling is done well, especially when done by someone with a Christian worldview, it can be a good first step toward emotional healing and emotional health. However, I’ve also seen the darker, more damaging side of counseling.

Do you know people who have gone to counseling for years, even decades, and are not much better than they were before? They are no more free and no more like Christ than when they started counseling? Sometimes they are worse? Me too. Unfortunately, as a pastor, I have had front row seats to see how very common this is. It is so common it is embarrassing.

John reminds us in this passage from 1 John 3 that what truly sets our hearts at rest in God’s presence is not an endless cycle of morbid introspection. The key to emotional health and healing in our hearts, he tells us, is having confidence that God is greater than our hurts, our emotions, our past and that He knows everything. Which means instead of spending years in an introspective search for all that is wrong with us, we can simply seek God and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the things deep in us that need healing.

The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians about the “search engine” capabilities of the Holy Spirit:

…these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

1 Corinthians 2:10-13

In a subsequent letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them that it is the Spirit that does the work of transformation in us. He said:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3:17-18

The Holy Spirit is a master at searching the deep things in our heart and in the heart of God and bringing them to the surface so that our heart can be healed. So often we struggle to see ourselves the way God sees us, so we either end up blind to our own sin or we end up with a lot of self-condemnation.

The beauty of allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal things to us–rather than endlessly, introspectively searching for what is wrong with us–is that He is able to masterfully avoid the traps of justification and condemnation. He reveals to us what needs to be healed, what needs to be surrendered, what needs to be faced, what needs to be forgiven, what needs to be confessed, but does it without an ounce of fear, avoidance, shame or condemnation. He also knows when to reveal it and when to wait until we can handle seeing it. As John said, “If our hearts condemn us, we know God is greater than our hearts…

Counseling, without also engaging in the inner healing ministry of the Holy Spirit, can become just a self-absorbed exercise in endlessly talking about oneself. And we all know people that love to endlessly talk about themselves. It is a sign of the very opposite of emotional health.

Morbid introspection assumes: 1) I will have the ability to see what the problem is, 2) I will want to do something about it, and 3) I will be able to do something about it. But we need the Holy Spirit to enable us to do all of these things. Without the Spirit we are blind and powerless to enact real, deep and lasting change in our lives. Christian counselors know this better than most.

What we need to cultivate is 1) the willingness to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal areas that need addressed in our life and 2) the ability to listen to the Spirit’s direction. So much of Christianity has lost the ability to hear the intimate voice of the Shepherd. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me“(John 10:27). But rather than cultivate the ability to hear the Spirit speak to us, direct us, and reveal things to us (1 Kings 19:12-18), we’ve substituted that kind of intimacy with other people telling us what’s wrong with us.

I will always be an advocate of counseling, especially by those who do therapy from a Christian worldview. But I do not think it is the ultimate solution to our problems nor should it be done in a vacuum. I believe it should be used as an aid, a helpful addition, to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit speaking to us and revealing to us what He wants us to see when He wants us to see it. This allows us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2) rather than turning our attention to self-absorbed introspection.